The Antidote to Perfectionism-Based Excellence

When it comes to our professional lives, we all want to be taken seriously and be viewed as competent, efficient, and valuable to our team, colleagues, or company. This is a basic, universal human need.

But problems arise when you begin attaching our self-worth to your levels of competency and productivity. Sometimes it takes years before this is clear to you and those around you. 

For me? It took about 26 years and almost 3 degrees.

My self-worth was based on the quality of what I created, a strong work ethic, and “big” career goals. Specifically, these goals involved climbing the ladder of academic achievement by getting a Master’s degree and then pursuing a Ph.D. in psychology. 

There were plenty of respectable motivations for doing this; I wanted to teach at a university, mentor college students, and inform people through research. But for all the honorable motivations, there were plenty of inadequate ones to which I was consciously unaware.

I wanted to be viewed as highly intelligent and important, to be commended and rewarded for the quality of my work, and to feel that rush of pride when I told people what I did for a living. Mostly, I was afraid ofinadequacy and incompetence. 

 It was only after I left the doctoral program that I began to see how much these hidden, misguided motives were driving me. In fact, they drive many of us more than we know. 

The Negative Impacts of Perfectionism

Perfectionism shows up differently for different people. Perfectionists are often mistaken for just high-achievers, but there are critical distinctions. 

First, it leads to all-or-nothing thinking in which phrases like “never good enough” or “always procrastinating” are constantly echoing as self-criticisms in your head.

Perfectionists tend to be driven primarily by fear. Rather than a desire to achieve, you operate from a place of fear of failure. This fear is what propels you to achieve and obtain more and often leads to burn-out.

Perfectionism pushes you toward certain ambitions so that you can maintain a sense of worthiness. It leads you to believe you need more education or more expertise before you are credible enough.

As humans, we like to attach our identity to things we believe we can control. There is nothing fear loves more than convincing you that control is the key to life satisfaction. The irony is, of course, that we can never control outcomes.

There is wisdom in former NBA star Michael Jordan’s question, “Why would I think about missing a shot I haven’t taken yet?” In other words, what is the point of worrying about failing at something you haven’t even tried yet?

But when you succumb to fear-based perfectionism, you stop paying attention to how you feel, what you want, and what makes you happy. When self-image takes precedence over creativity and joy, you allow perfectionism to triumph.

“You can’t stop here,” anxiety whispers.

“You must achieve more,” perfectionism adds.

And before you know it, some of your dreams no longer belong to you.

Another danger of perfectionism its sneaky, covert nature. It evolves into almost indiscernible forms; it is merely a form of anxiety dressed in fancy clothes, clipboard in hand, reprimanding you for not trying hard enough or producing enough.

Perfectionism disguises itself in big ambitions and pretends to be the superpower not the villain, like an unhealthy, codependent relationship with an addict whose drug of choice is constant approval.

It also tricks you into believing it’s valued in society. Unfortunately, in many ways, it is valued. At least on the surface. But the value of what you produce can be at the cost of your well-being, mental health, and relationships. In fact, research suggests that those higher in perfectionistic tendencies experience more anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation.

Some of the harmful beliefs we acquire over time are “I am worthy of respect only if I am smart” and “I am worthy of being taken seriously only if I consistently work hard”. These are dangerous lessons. They are lessons I am still unlearning.

The Antidote to Perfectionism

I’m sure you have a laundry list of reasons why you worry about failing or not meeting expectations (even the ones you set for yourself). I do too, most days.

But trust me when I say from experience: only in releasing the illusion of control do we find the freedom to be the most authentic version of ourselves.

You might be too busy asking “how do I want to be seen?” to stop and consider “how am I already best equipped to serve people?” It wasn’t until I withdrew from the Ph.D. program that I began to acknowledge the credentials and experience I already had.

When you are too focused on all the things you think you “should” do or “should” become, you miss out on finding what truly fulfills you.

Instead of frantically searching for purpose, what if you can find purpose in where you currently are? What skills do you already possess that you’re passionate about? What are you already qualified for? What would you do with your life if you believed that who you are right now is already enough?

Believing you are worthy without all the extra stuff like degrees, awards, resume lines, or job titles is the only way to move forward. This is a radical idea in our culture but, more importantly, it is our antidote to perfectionism.

How Technology Uses Our Psychology Against Us

We’ve all been there. You’re sitting at your desk working when a notification pops up on your phone. Maybe Sally liked your Facebook post. Maybe James followed you on Instagram. Maybe it’s an email, a celebrity tweet, or a news alert. You open it mindlessly and before you know it, 20 minutes have disappeared. It will likely happen while you’re reading this article.

You scold yourself for not having enough willpower. You try to set a time limit on scrolling social media. You vow to check your phone less. But the cycle continues. The habit is too hard to break.

Below are 5 questions you’ve probably asked yourself in the last few years. Understanding more about the way technology hacks our neuroscience is critical in taking back control of our lives. The first step to finding a solution is recognizing the problem.

Why is it so hard to not check my phone?

The average person checks their smartphone 150 times every day. It’s not just a notification buzz that sends us tapping or swiping. It’s merely the sight of our phone in our periphery that creates the psychological urge to check for messages or alerts. But why?

This urge is based on behaviorism principles, which posit that human behavior can be predicted by antecedent stimuli (e.g., triggers) or subsequent stimuli (e.g., rewards and punishments). Positive intermittent reinforcement occurs when a subsequent reward is random and unpredictable. Just like a mouse keeps pulling a lever in hopes the next pull will result in food, a gambler keeps playing the slot machines in hopes the next round will result in coins.

Our smartphones are no different. They are designed to exploit a vulnerability in our basic psychology. Every time you subconsciously check your phone, your brain is hoping for a potential reward (e.g., text message, friend request, email, dating app match). This reward results in an immediate dopamine hit to the brain. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter responsible for boosting mood, motivation, and feelings of pleasure.

So, it’s not necessarily that we are failing at willpower. It’s that tech companies are succeeding at keeping our attention with enticing designs, addictive apps, and targeted advertisements. When it comes to our devices, we are the product and our attention is the currency.

To quote Edward Tufte, “There are only 2 industries that call their customers users: illegal drugs and software”.

Why is the country so divided?

Just like we create social networks of like-minded people in the real world, we do the same online. Although we want to believe we’re exposed to a range of differing viewpoints from which we use logic and discretion to form our opinions, this is simply not the case.

According to a 2016 study, the information we receive online is largely based on our own search history, personal preferences, geography, and social network. It is generated through complex algorithms that allow users to receive their own version of reality.

In other words, not all Google searches and newsfeeds are created equal. Yet we wonder: why is the other side so ignorant?

Internet activist Eli Pariser coined the term “filter bubble” to describe this virtual echo chamber in which we continue to receive information that confirms our views. The filter bubble enables a cognitive fallacy known as the confirmation bias to occur more frequently.

Confirmation bias is the human tendency to search for, believe, and recall information that supports previously existing opinions. Simply put, our brains don’t want to read stories that contradict or undermine our worldview. Algorithms on search engines make it easy for us to unknowingly hunker down in this bubble until disputing evidence is no longer effective.

Different political opinions have existed throughout all of history. But with the advent of social media, we can now share things anonymously and behind a screen. There is less of a need to back up claims with facts.

President Donald Trump’s Twitter account is an example of those in power encouraging false accusations, name-calling, and fear-inducing tactics from the comfort of their home. Fear is a strong motivator for human behavior and an effective political tool in persuading the public.

It’s not a coincidence that the current political rhetoric encourages the right to view all liberals as violent anarchists burning down cities and the left to view all conservatives as neo-Nazi white supremacists. Politicians know fear and division can work in their favor, and technology is a way to expedite the process.

Therefore, rising partisanship, tribalism, and even violence is unsurprising. When we keep others who think and look differently than us at a distance — through a screen or in the comments section — it’s easier for fear, hate, and blame to flourish.

It’s up to us to break that cycle. Not just whoever we refer to as them.

Why is it so hard to get the facts and the truth?

Experts say, when it comes to regulations of software companies, the law is far behind. With limited regulations, fake news and conspiracy theories spread like wildfire through various platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and Reddit.

Have you noticed friends, family members, or acquaintances posting significantly more political news in recent months? Have you questioned their sanity after reading some of the far-fetched conspiracies and blatantly false claims?

It’s not always the result of willful ignorance or malicious intent. In many cases, people are at the mercy of their own psychology being manipulated.

First, there’s a reason fake news is 70% more likely to be shared than true news. Fake stories are more attention-grabbing! They elicit intense reactions like anger, rage, fear, or sadness. With heightened emotions, we are more likely to share an article even if it hasn’t been fact-checked.

Second, there is a psychological phenomenon called the illusory truth effort. A 1977 study found repeated exposure to a statement increases our belief it’s true even when it’s false. Later studies suggest that this effect is maintained even when we know the sources are unreliable or unclear.

The world of social media makes repeated exposure to inaccurate information inevitable. At best, this might lead to some arguments among friends or family. At worst, the illusory truth effort plays out the way it did in 2016 when a conspiracy known as “Pizzagate” led a rifle-toting man into a restaurant to bust a child sex trafficking ring he and others believed was run in the basement by Hillary Clinton and a cabal of powerful Democratic pedophiles.

Conspiracy theories that originate online are dangerous because they don’t require any evidence to be believed. In fact, contradicting evidence can even be used to fuel conspiratorial beliefs.

Why do I feel so anxious and/or depressed?

Even those who don’t consume the news online experience the detrimental impacts of social media usage. We are subject to addictive metrics of attractiveness, popularity, and success via the number of likes, comments, and followers we have. We conflate these metrics with our self-worth and value.

We see others’ carefully curated images, profile pictures, and captions and compare our bad day with another’s highlight reel. Reality is distorted literally with the use of filters that change our faces and editing apps that morph our bodies to match an unattainable beauty standard.

Some research indicates this is especially problematic for younger generations who are learning to communicate online and thus experience more anxiety during face-to-face interactions.

Our nation has seen a 17% increase in anxiety disorders among adolescents between 1998 and 2018. According to the CDC, the suicide rates for males and females have increased by 28% and 55% from 1999 to 2018, respectively.

Additionally, social media usage has been linked to the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO). One study found higher levels of FOMO are associated with more depressive symptoms and negative health outcomes.

Smartphones and the apps on them have become a “digital pacifier” used to soothe or numb us whenever we feel uncomfortable, unhappy, or bored. How often do you reach for your phone in line at the grocery store? In the doctor’s waiting room? On public transport? At the dinner table?

We have lost the ability to be uncomfortable or even sit in solitude with our thoughts. In seeking more online connections, we miss the opportunities that are physically in front of us. Yet we wonder why we feel so alone in the digital age.

What are the solutions?

Technology was not designed with malicious intent nor is it an inherently evil tool. But it has the capacity to draw out the worst in society. In many ways, we already see this taking place.

Tribalism triumphs over empathy, rage radicalizes political parties on both sides, and blame beats out open dialogue and honest discourse. We are in a war not only with each other but against ourselves.

But there is still hope. Real solutions for systemic problems can’t occur only at an individual level. However, understanding the psychological impacts of technology is a solid first step.

  1. When reading or watching the news, consider the source. Is this an Instagram live from a self-proclaimed health expert or independent journalist? Does this story include data to support it?
  2. When sharing a post or article, consider your motivations. Am I fueling division or calling for unity? Am I just blaming the other side and inciting fear or presenting important factual evidence?
  3. When it comes to mental health, there are many steps you can take to decrease smartphone usage. Turn off all notifications and silence alerts. This will minimize distractions. Keep your phone in another room while working. This will help break the intermittent reinforcement cycle of addictive phone checking. Delete social media apps off your device. This will help you be more intentional about posting.

Finally, a seemingly underrated yet powerful solution is basic human compassion. We cannot allow society’s addiction to technology rob us from engaging in open-minded discussions with other people in real life.

We all share the same cognitive fallacies, biases, and basic motivations. Instead of blaming the other side for succumbing to theirs, consider your own.