Perfectionism, Excellence and Proving Your Worth

Kira Leskew

In my early 40s, I went from being out of shape due to an illness to being in the best shape of my life in 9 months. This was due to 2 things: 

1. Only say positive things to myself about working out no matter how poor my performance was compared to what I did in the past 2. Show up no matter how I felt and do the best workout for that day.  

Number 1 was relatively easy, since I only had to stay positive for about 45 minutes per day. Every time that I started to think something negative, and there was plenty to put myself down about, I would stop myself mid-thought, and say at least 1 good thing about getting in shape. For the first few months, my go-to was, “Today I went. Today I showed up.” That was all I had to be positive about.  

In the past, my thoughts about being and shape and exercise was very perfectionist. I would compare every thing that I did in each workout to the best that I had ever done in the past. This was a very difficult standard to keep, and it was depressing at times. If I wasn’t the best that I had ever been, I thought that I wasn’t enough, that I wasn’t good enough, and I stopped enjoying exercise, and racing (I was a competitive swimmer at the time). I was a good swimmer, but my perfectionism prevented me from being a great swimmer. Every time that I put myself down, I equated my self-worth with my achievements, and it is very hard to win if your self-worth is on the line every day.  

The times that I swam the best was when I was focused on the process, on loving what I was doing every day, and having fun. I definitely had high standards, but they weren’t perfectionist. I was curious about how to do more, and loving and appreciating all the small things that were going right in the pool and more importantly, in my life. Excellence is when you do the best that you can on any given day, and think positively about that, even when you have to redefine the terms. For example, using the swimming example. I might be able to do a certain time during practice, and I might do 10 repeats. On a certain day, I might have a headache. The perfectionist attitude would be to force myself to do those times or faster anyway, and to beat myself up mentally if I can’t do it. The excellence attitude is to make a wise decision as to whether doing a practice that is focused on technique, taking a rest or attempting the times is the best decision. The decision will have no impact on the value that I have for myself. Regardless of the decision taken, I would find ways to use positive mental self-talk about the action taken. 

Perfectionism is when your self-worth or your self-identity is contingent on performing in a certain way, or having certain conditions met. Excellence is doing the things that you say that you are going to do (and feel passionate about) in a way that is self-loving and self-affirming. Excellence assumes intrinsic self-worth. You do certain things in certain ways because you value yourself and love doing them. Perfectionism is when you need to prove your worth to yourself or to others. 

Our society values perfectionism more than excellence. Social media, pop culture and even many business cultures promote perfectionism, many people think that outside standards are a valuable and useful tool. They don’t lead to feelings of well-being. Because the standards of others are constantly changing, it is impossible to meet these standards, and when your self-worth is tied to a particular standard, it is difficult to feel fulfilled reliably.  

 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kira Leskew is the founder of The Eagle Institute Ltd. When she isn't teaching meditation, or public speaking, Kira can be found out in nature or dancing.