Purge Perfectionism and Be Happier

Perfectionism is sometimes justified as having high standards. No one brags about low standards. You go too far when you become consumed with “getting everything right” and lose your sense of priorities. Think about your most challenging current project, and what it would take for you to be happy with your work on it. Are your standards realistic? Are you disappointed in yourself because you don’t feel like you’re achieving all you had hoped? Are you fearful that what you can deliver isn’t good enough? Are other areas of your life suffering as a result?

If so, you may have crossed the line from having high standards to perfectionism. Possessing perfectionist tendencies puts you at risk for developing mental health issues ranging from eating disorders, substance abuse, and chronic stress, to workaholism and depression.

In their book Just Enough, Harvard professors Laura Nash and Howard Stevenson researched high-achieving professionals, including attendees of Harvard executive programs and members of the Young Presidents Organization. Although they did not focus on perfectionism specifically, their findings offer important takeaways for anyone who demands a lot from themselves. High achievers can cross the line into perfectionism which robs them of true happiness. They become so focused on one big professional goal that friendships, family, and health suffer. The antidote that the authors offer is to look at success and identify what it means to you in relation to four components: happiness, achievement, significance, and legacy. Instead of trying to excel in all of these areas, or only in the achievement arena, identify what is “just enough” for you in each category. Balance is the key.

Set a plan that energizes you, not one that deflates you. Stop comparing yourself to others; force yourself to be adequate in some areas so you have time to excel in the important stuff. For example, you may have a big goal in the achievement area such as being the successor to the CEO. If that’s your top priority you may not be able to learn Mandarin…and be on the board of a charity…and do triathlons on the weekends. Instead of setting such high expectations in all areas of your life, find what’s comfortable. Decide to run 5 miles 3 times a week instead of also setting the goal of competing in a triathlon. As the authors point out, high achievers who find a balance in the goals they set report being happier.