“I should succeed at this job despite the fact that we're severely under-resourced and my boss is chronically disorganized. If I don't, I’m a loser.”
“If I don’t sacrifice everything to my kids, I'm a terrible parent.”
"If I don’t get my hour of exercise in every single day, I'm just a lazy slob.”
“If my book doesn't sell well, I must be a crappy writer.”
You've probably experienced the above or similar thoughts at different times. No matter what the project, or how well we've done, it seems like we can always do a better job.
And yet, guilt and shame won't help you be more productive—in fact, they are far more likely to rob you of confidence and motivation. People who continually berate themselves for not having done “more and better” need to consider whether that behavior is actually productive. The truth is that we all have limits on our time, money, energy, and other resources; also, that we all need to devote a big chunk of them to our own needs.
Another truth is that life is pretty hard. Humans struggle against scarcity and for love, respect, and understanding, and sometimes emotional or physical survival. Whether your viewpoint mirrors that of the Psalmist who called life a “vale of tears,” or Philo of Alexandria, who supposedly claimed that, “everyone you meet is fighting a great battle,” or the late writer Harvey Pekar, who wisely noted that, “Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff,” there is no doubt that one thing that unites the entire human race is what the Buddhists refer to as dukkha: our pervasive and ongoing stress, disappointment, and suffering.
So, why are you judging yourself so harshly? Why do you beat yourself up for every little mistake or transgression, every lost opportunity, every lapse?
Perfectionism = Trying to Have it Both Ways
You can’t have it both ways: meaning, you can’t fight two giant battles—one, for your survival and happiness, and another against the hugely powerful and pervasive infrastructures of society—and expect to do everything easily and perfectly. That’s a form of grandiosity, the belief that things that are difficult or even impossible for other people should be easy for you. Grandiosity is merely one component of perfectionism, which is many people’s biggest barrier to productivity, happiness, and success.
Others include unreasonable standards of success, harsh self-talk, dichotomized (black-or-white, all-or-nothing) thinking, invidious comparisons, and shortsightedness (so that every task or project is “do or die”). (Here’s a more complete description.) A perfectionist who made it to the final interview round for a competitive job but did not get the offer, for example, might think she's a failure when she mostly succeeded.
The quotes at the very top of this article are not necessarily examples of perfectionism; however, if thoughts like these are frequent, and especially if they’re accompanied by strong feelings of guilt or shame, then they clearly are.
Some fields seem to foster perfectionism. As noted above, no matter what we do, or how much we sacrifice, it can seem like an incredibly trivial effort when set against the vastness of what we’re trying to accomplish. We always feel like we should be doing more, and better. But perfectionism is always a dead end. You might guilt or shame yourself into higher productivity for a while, but eventually you will likely become demotivated and demoralized, at which point you’re likely to give up entirely.
The alternative to perfectionism doesn't have to be burnout, however. Fortunately, as I discuss in my book The 7 Secrets of the Prolific, there’s a middle ground that preserves accountability while dispensing with self-abuse. It’s called compassionate objectivity.
Compassionate Objectivity: The Antidote
As the name implies, compassionate objectivity is a mindset combining:
• Compassion, meaning you view yourself and your work with abundant empathy and understanding, with
• Objectivity, meaning you see things accurately, with all their nuance and complexity. In place of perfectionism’s reductive, rigid, and punishing worldview, compassionate objectivity offers nuance, flexibility, empathy, and true love and respect.
Compassionately objective people are non-grandiose, so they don’t expect to perform perfectly all the time (or ever!), and know that all they can aim for is to do their best given the situation and available resources. They also define success realistically, and refrain from harsh self-talk, dichotomized thinking, and useless, self-punishing comparisons. They also take the long view, so that all tasks and projects are simply “way stations” in a campaign or career, with no one being do-or-die.
The above job seeker, schooled in compassionate objectivity, might respond to her not getting an offer like this:
"Well, I'm sorry I didn't get an offer--I really wanted that job. But I came really close--was one of the top three out of twenty applicants. That's something to be proud of, especially since I didn't have as much directly applicable experience as some of the other candidates. More importantly, this encourages me to keep applying for similar jobs.
"Meanwhile, I'll send a note thanking my contact for the interviewing experience and indicating my interest in future positions at his company. Also, I will ask him if we could speak for five minutes on what I could do better as an applicant. I felt that there were a few questions I could have answered more concisely. Next time, I'll spend a full day prepping and rehearsing, instead of just a few hours.
"Now, time to move on."
As this example illustrates, compassionate objectivity is not about giving yourself a pass: compassionately objective people take full responsibility. They are more objective than perfectionists because they acknowledge the negative and positive aspects of the event. And by foregoing unproductive shame and blame, they're in a better position to problem-solve and learn, and also to approach their next project enthusiastically.
So work to develop the habit of compassionate objectivity. You do this by interrupting any perfectionist thoughts you have and replacing them with compassionate objectivity. The first few times you do this, it might feel weird and artificial, but keep at it. Eventually it will become automatic–and you’ll see that it’s also self-reinforcing, since compassionate objectivity doesn't just lead to better outcomes than harsh perfectionism: it feels way better.
Compassionate objectivity will also come much more easily if you hang around people who live and practice it. There are plenty of compassionately objective people out there: look for them. (Successful people are almost always compassionately objective, even if they themselves are not familiar with the term. That's because they tend to be very good at embracing productive behaviors and rejecting unproductive ones.)
Finally, you get better at compassionate objectivity by teaching it to others.
I live and work for the day that all people are as happy and productive and prosperous as possible, and believe that compassionate objectivity is an important tool that will get us there.