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We are approaching the time of the school year when end-of-year activities are starting to occupy our planning and fill our to-do lists. In response, our anxiety may be growing. We might find ourselves wanting to create the perfect experiences, say the perfect things, and be the perfect teacher. However, striving too hard for perfection can work against our goals and take a toll on our emotional and physical well-being.  

Certainly, there are times when we absolutely must get everything right. These are occasions when the consequences of missteps can have significant life consequences. Typically, activities such as these are well-defined and depend on already established high levels of skill and significant practice.  

Fortunately, life does not exact dire consequences for most mistakes. Forgetting a detail, overlooking a task, or even saying the wrong thing is almost always fixable. In fact, in most situations we are the only ones to notice, or even care very much, that something had to be adjusted, redone, or added to a plan or activity.  

There is nothing wrong with wanting to do well, of course. Learning, seeking to improve, and setting high standards can be important contributors to success. However, when our expectations shift to constantly pressing to be perfect, pursuing unrealistic goals, being unwilling to take risks, and seeing mistakes as failure rather than as opportunities to learn and grow, our perfectionism becomes problematic. While seeking to perform at a level of excellence can absolutely be a good thing, preoccupation with avoiding failure can cause significant harm to the quality of our work, our feelings about ourselves, our personal and professional relationships, and even our health.  

Experts note that perfectionism is often a defense against emotional pain. Perfectionism can seem to keep us from feeling negative emotions. Unfortunately, it can also deprive us of experiencing many positive, life-enhancing feelings that should accompany the moments, accomplishments, and celebrations associated with the end of the school year.  

As we approach the busy, pressure-packed weeks that lie ahead, here are eight strategies to push back against the press for perfection: 

  • Set realistic goals. We need to consider the time and energy we have available. Otherwise, we might plan and aspire to accomplish far more than is reasonable or even possible. Our attention needs to be on what matters most and what will make the greatest difference.  
  • Focus on what you can control. We cannot predict much of what will happen in the weeks ahead, much less control it. We may need to modify our plans and adjust our approaches, but our flexibility is not evidence of inadequacy or failure. The most we can ask of ourselves is to attend to what we can control. 
  • Pay attention to your emotions. Pressing for perfection often generates a familiar set of emotions; we can begin to feel anxious, experience dread, or be tempted to put off dealing with tasks and issues where we feel the press to be perfect. When that happens, we may be receiving a signal that it is time to reassess and create space to recalibrate. 
  • Limit and replace negative self-talk. What we say to ourselves influences our attitude, our commitment, and our performance. Constant self-questioning and negative expectations can undermine our confidence while increasing the pressure we feel. We can “flip the script” by replacing negative internal conversations with affirmations, positive images, and optimistic expectations.  
  • Embrace learning mistakes. Allowing ourselves to be in situations where we might make mistakes can be a good step toward countering pressure to be perfect. Making mistakes when trying new things, nudging ourselves beyond our comfort zones, and building new skills are evidence of growth and invitations to learn.  
  • Don’t be distracted by today’s “big deal.” Our emotions can magnify our perceptions. We need to keep our experiences in perspective. We might remind ourselves that what seems like a big issue or significant disruption today is often left behind and forgotten in as little as a few days or a week.  
  • Practice going with the flow. Not everything always has to be fully planned and tightly controlled. Allowing ourselves to be spontaneous, to move forward without a full plan, or to embrace surprise can be difficult at first, but it can also leave us feeling freer and more open to opportunity and growth. 
  • Keep the big picture in view. The pressure we feel to be perfect can lead us to focus on narrow issues and overlook the larger context of our work. Seeking perfection in every detail can distract us from what really matters and result in our missing the pride and enjoyment of a full view of our contributions.  

Wanting to do well is a worthy aspiration, but perfectionism can be a constant source of stress. In the words of Brené Brown: “When perfectionism is driving us, shame is riding shotgun and fear is that annoying backseat driver.” 

Thought for the Week

When we understand another person’s perspective, what they are thinking and feeling, we are better able to relate to them and understand their needs.

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