Myth 5: I Have to Perform Perfectly

Hello again!

It took me many decades to accept that I’m a perfectionist. The label didn’t resonate with me; indeed, it doesn’t resonate with a lot of people. At least for me, “perfectionist” always brought to mind the image of a fake-smiling, stressed-out control freak, which I am (hopefully) not. But it turns out perfectionism has many forms, and one of them drives social anxiety.

Indeed, social anxiety thrives on perfectionism. Here's the next myth:

I have to perform perfectly.

In other words, I have to sound smart/be interesting/be witty/look confident/100% carry the conversation. The list goes on.

But perfectionism is a bit of a misnomer because it’s not really about being perfect. Instead, it’s about never being good enough. We hold ourselves to unrealistic standards for success, and when we inevitably fail to meet them, consider ourselves social failures.

There are a zillion ways to strangle ourselves with perfectionistic standards:

  • I can never be boring.
  • If I do anything offensive people will get mad.
  • I have to be cool and funny and confident at all times.
  • I am responsible for carrying the conversation.
  • There can never be an awkward silence.
  • I can’t say anything wrong or I’ll look stupid.
  • I have to speak smoothly and not trip over my words.
  • I have to make everyone laugh.
  • I can’t make any mistakes or they’ll think I’m incompetent.
  • I have to sound interesting so people don’t think I’m boring.
  • I must always sound intelligent.
  • People must always think I am happy and fulfilled.
  • People must always think I have everything together.
  • I should always have something interesting to say.
  • There should never be gaps or silences in conversation.
  • I should always project an air of easy confidence.
  • I am responsible for keeping my conversation partner interested at all times.
  • I have to be entertaining.
  • I have to perform well.
  • I have to make a good impression.
  • I must connect with everyone.
  • People need to like me.
  • If I am not funny or cool, people will not want to be around me.

With standards like these, no wonder we feel paralyzed with pressure. To make things worse, when we inevitably fail to live up to our impossible-to-reach standards,  we take it personally, concluding:

  • I’m a big loser.
  • I don’t know how to be normal.
  • I can’t even have a simple conversation without making a fool of myself.
  • I have no social skills.
  • Something is wrong with me.
  • I’m socially awkward.
  • I suck.

So what do we do about this? How do we interrupt the progression of sky-high standards, the inevitable falling short of those standards (or meeting them, but with the cost of exhausting ourselves), and then kicking ourselves for not achieving the impossible?

Almost 40 years ago, Dr. David Burns of Stanford University published the very first evidence-based self-help book for depression, Feeling Good. In it was an entire chapter on perfectionistic thinking titled Dare to Be Average.

So let’s try that. Here’s the antidote for today's myth:

Aim for average.

If you’re like me, you may think that going easier on yourself will backfire. The reason you’ve been successful in other areas--work, school, keeping things running smoothly or being on top of things--is because of your high standards. If you loosen your grip, where will that leave you?

Surprisingly, it will leave you feeling relieved and less anxious. With that in mind, here is...

Today’s exercise:

Today's exercise is a quick one, but it's important to do it in your mind again and again.

Scroll back up to the giant list of perfectionistic thoughts and assumptions--the one that starts with “I can never be boring.” Read them through and pick which one resonates with you. Or maybe you have another thought that’s not on the list (and if you do, tell me about it!)

Then, think: would you give this advice to a child?

  • “You know, kiddo, make sure you never say anything wrong because you’ll look stupid!”
  • “Okay buddy, you have to be funny and cool or no one will like you. Now have a great day!”
  • “You’re responsible for entertaining people, so think of some funny stories on the bus so you can tell them as soon as you get to class!”

Of course you wouldn’t. You’d never say such things to a kid. Instead you’d say “Be kind,” or “Be yourself,” or “Have fun and learn a lot today!”  By contrast, the perfectionistic instructions would put incredible pressure on a kid and make them anxious, insecure, and exhausted. Plus, even if they somehow managed to stick to the rule, they’d come off as wooden and pretentious.

So do the same for yourself. Give yourself some slack. Any topic is game. It’s okay to have gaps in conversation. It’s okay to stop and collect your thoughts. Speak in whatever words come to mind, rather than editing to make sure they meet an imagined standard. When you feel less pressure, you’ll act more naturally. This, in turn, will get a better response from others.

You’ll also interrupt the cycle of self-criticism. When your social standards are sky-high, not only is it impossible to reach them, but you berate yourself when you don't. You vow to do better next time. You tell yourself you have to do better next time. Which will have the result of making you dread the next time and likely, try to avoid it.

And remember, some conversations are lame, but that doesn’t mean you’re lame. Your character doesn’t hinge on each performance or achievement.

Easing up on yourself might feel wrong or even risky at first. But not only is it more pleasant, it’s more productive. And even better, it’s more authentic.

Give it a shot.

Until then, be kind to others and yourself!