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Stop Trying to Be Better: How Perfectionism Can Increase Stress and Cripple Your Productivity

Updated on September 7, 2017

A good mental attitude is a firm base to build upon. Regardless of what we are looking for, be it success, love or happiness, a bad mental attitude will always lead to great trouble and suffering. The funny thing is, no matter where you go, you can't escape your own mind.

In the 1950s, an intellectual movement began, people started being passionately curious about the way the mind is perceiving and processing information and that was the origin of the so-called Cognitive Revolution and the initial development of Cognitive Science. Scientists are often studying the behavior of subjects in order to find more about the way the mind works, you don't have to be a scientist to do that for yourself. The mind has different modes of functioning that are suitable for different situations. Probably most of us think that we always use the same mind, always thinking in the same way, but this is not the case.

Let's take a moment and look at some different modes of thinking

  • Reactive Thinking (reaction)
  • Reflective thinking (reviewing)
  • Logical thinking (determining relationships and impacts)
  • Strategic thinking (setting direction)
  • Lateral thinking (opportunity spotting)
  • Imagination or creative thinking (innovation and ideas)
  • Critical thinking (problem-solving)
  • Judgmental thinking (quality appraisal)
  • Holistic thinking (environment scanning)
  • Systems thinking (design and relationships)
  • Chaos thinking (handling ambiguity)
  • Decision thinking (action)

The mind has to be able to handle all these challenges so that we can survive and have a healthy happy life. The problem is that some kinds of thinking can become very dominant, and a belief can start to develop that this is the normal and only way of functioning of the mind.

Understanding the cause of perfectionism

If we take a step back and look at survival at broader sense, we'll notice that we have a lot of competitive spirit in our human nature. Lots of animals are born as predators, and even some peaceful species often have to compete with each other over food or social status. Humanity has come a long way from the primitive societies that history has studied, but a great dose of competition is still present today. Sports are as popular as ever, and there the point is to win by being better than other. The business world also is based on competition. Denying this side of our human nature will not do us any good either, since it's hardcoded deeply within us, and makes us who we are.

To avoid all these pitfalls, and keep a clear head, It's enough to know that excessive competitiveness and fear of failure is the most common motive to pursue perfection. Isn't it so? So, accept your competitive side, and recognize it when it wants to go in action, but remember that you are making the final decision. You don't have to be engaged, sometimes you can just watch. Rather, whenever that is possible engage in a creative approach, starting with what you have and where you currently are and build upon that. It is better to think about it as self-discovery instead of self-improvement because improvement needs a defined goal, and discovery comes from wandering and not knowing.

Dealing with lenses of perception

It is soo easy to forget that the map is not the territory. The way we think about the world is very often misleading. Yet, we learn less and less as we progress in life. We come to a point where we think that we know everything, and that stops us from learning. People that wear glasses after a while forget that they are wearing glasses, they get used to it. In a similar fashion, it's easy to forget that we filter reality trough the concepts we have about our self and the world. You may think that plastic surgery will make you more beautiful, by making your nose smaller, but maybe you are overlooking the true purpose and design of your nose in service to the body. Very often our concepts of "better" are just a much less sophisticated solution to problems that nature has solved in brilliant ways, thousands of times better, why not learn from the master architect?

A very good thing you can do to clean yourself from false misconceptions is to pay attention to your identity, or as it is famously known in psychology, the Ego. Study your ego especially in situations or problems that are causing you trouble. Try to find out, who you are when you feel negative emotions. Who is feeling, or thinking like that? Describe that person that is having your problem. If you can describe it, it means you can watch it, who is watching? You'll have to reframe the definition for yourself and your identity. Reframing is such a powerful technique. When you change your point of view, your feelings and even actions will change automatically. Eventually, if you continue with a deeper inquiry, you'll come the insight that, there is nothing to improve, no need. Just find out who you really are, and enjoy. Go deeper into your true self, and you will come to a much more natural state which in a way is much better already.

Feeling bad about yourself, or holding on to a bad opinion about yourself can be very harmful and it does manifest even physically. When you stop yourself, when you hold yourself back with the fear of being wrong or making a mistake, the body is producing much less feel-good hormones which in turn affects your whole organism on many levels. Your immune system, your thoughts, your social connections are all enduring damage when you don't supply a healthy dose of hormones that are produced naturally in your bod by doing, by being active, by being creative, by smiling. Some research about "ego depletion" says that people are more prone to low willpower, and tend to have lower self-discipline if they are frustrated by their self-image.

The general rule of thumb is "try less", the less artificial effort you put into being someone you imagine, just drop all concepts and look at who you really are. Continue to inquire from a perspective of not knowing instead of your fixed concepts from the past. Function as your true natural self may not be as you expect it to be, but it will certainly result with better feelings, less stress and more productivity, the only thing you can really lose is your ego. Isn't that great?!


  • Gratitude and Acceptance are a quick fix and a great start at feeling better about yourself. Feeling better will give you a base for thinking more clearly about the things you perceive, and the way you set and work towards goals.
  • Don't forget "reframing" and the power that comes from changing your viewpoint and being more honest with yourself, accepting feelings and thoughts but not identifying with them, you don't have to engage. Doing is often better than thinking
  • Doing is often better than thinking. Feel-good hormones that come from simply acting in a non-stressful way are a great benefit for the mind and body by themselves.
  • If you are a person who aims for high-quality performance, try aiming for quantity instead, it's easier to start if you allow more space for errors, and the practice will grow by itself and take you to higher quality automatically.


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