In a previous post I talked about a broken thinking pattern that is common in depression and anxiety known as “all or nothing” thinking (to learn more on broken thinking patterns found in depression and anxiety check this summary from Wikipedia).
All or nothing thinking is a mindset where someone tends to see things as black and white. Someone can be a wonderful person and do a bunch of great things, but as soon as they do something wrong or make a mistake, that mistake becomes magnified and somehow undoes all the good.
This thinking causes all sorts of problems in relationships, as all people have strengths and weaknesses, good sides and bad sides. In all relationships mistakes will invariably be made. But for someone with all or nothing thinking, any mistakes or flaws by their partner become magnified, and become “proof” that there is something wrong with the relationship or that their partner is not “the one”. A persons own mistakes and flaws also become magnified, leading to issues with self-love (but that’s a story for another day).
An extension of this line of thinking is perfectionism. At first glance perfectionism doesn’t seem like such a bad thing. Doesn’t perfectionism just mean that someone has high standards and that they only want the best for themselves? If they do have high standards, isn’t that a positive?
All the literature you will find on perfectionism will lead to a resounding no. Rather than being a positive, perfectionism is actually very, very destructive to the person who holds these beliefs.
Perfection is an ideal, it doesn’t exist. Even perfectionists will acknowledge that. The difference is, in a perfectionist mindset the value of something is understood to be dependent on its inherent traits. It is a negative viewpoint that focuses and magnifies the bad points while ignoring the good points. Something is either good or it’s not. And any flaws that do exist in something are often magnified.
Interestingly, in a perfectionist mindset there is a concern not only with how much something appears to you, but there is also tendency to be very concerned with how things are perceived by others. Presentation is very important. Even when times are tough, maintaining the illusion of perfection is important.
Not surprisingly, this mindset is commonly found with people who suffer from chronic unhappiness.
One of the issues with perfectionism and all or nothing thinking is that it absolves someone of personal responsibility. After all, your main contribution to your happiness in life becomes finding the right situation, the right job, or the right partner. When things aren’t working out or you find you aren’t as happy as you could be then there is a convenient reason. Sure, maybe you could have put in a bit more effort. But for the most part the problem was the situation. It’s simply not the right job. Or you are not with the right person.
“You” aren’t responsible. And there is no push to improve from within, because in order to find happiness you simply need to find the right situation.
A major problem with this approach is that someone will never be satisfied with what they have. Everything has flaws that will eventually reveal themselves. So the “perfect” match is always just out of reach. In relationships this results in someone either constantly jumping from relationship to relationship, or deciding to settle for their current situation.
A problem with “settling” is that it means they believe something better is always out there, they simply haven’t found it yet. And if you are settling, then your heart is never fully in your relationship. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because if your heart isn’t in your relationship you won’t put in the level of effort needed to sustain it. As a result, you won’t be as happy as you can be. This unhappiness in turn becomes proof that the relationship is not the right one.
Perfection vs. Continuous Improvement
A different, healthier and more realistic approach to the world is one of continuous improvement. I’ve written about continuous improvement before, and I think it’s a very important approach to not only relationships but life in general (it also happens to be one of my least viewed posts, though I think it’s a good one. So follow the link, come on, you know you want to 🙂 ).
One thing differentiating perfectionism from a continuous improvement mindset is the approach to mistakes or flaws. In perfectionism, mistakes and flaws are signs of a problem. They are signs that something isn’t right, or it’s not good enough. Perfectionists may accept that things could potentially be improved, but they often believe it’s “not worth the effort”. After all, you end up with a relationships that is flawed, and not perfect.
In a continuous improvement mindset, mistakes and flaws are almost seen as a positive thing. Identifying problems shows you areas that can be improved, and ways to make something better. Flaws are a natural part of anything, and they provide motivation to do better or work harder.
In the continuous improvement approach to the world, we are not finished products. Everything has good sides and bad sides. All relationships have their strengths and weaknesses. What is important is to focus on what is good. Appreciate the good in what you have, and enjoy those things.
Where perfectionism focuses on and magnifies the bad points while ignoring the good points, continuous improvement does the opposite. In this mindset what you have is “enough”, because you allows the focus to be on the good. It doesn’t mean the bad doesn’t exist, or that you won’t strive to improve. But the bad is simply part of something.
Continuous improvement still sees perfection as an ideal, but it is simply a goal to strive towards. The important part is the process. The journey of taking what you have and making it better. You may never get there and that’s alright, because at every stage of your journey what you have is enough.
The Worst Word in the English Language
One problem with the difference in these mindsets is that people often don’t even realize which mindset they possess. If you find you often think about “perfect” or use the word commonly, there’s a good chance you are operating from a perfectionist mindset.
Likewise, if you find yourself focusing on what is missing from your life instead of what you do have, there is a very good chance that you have a perfectionist mindset.
Personally, I can’t stand the word “perfect”. Perfect is an ideal. It doesn’t exist.
Life provides us with opportunities, and it’s up to us to determine what we want to do with them. In a perfectionist mindset, many opportunities are passed up because they aren’t good enough.
The reality is life takes effort. There is no such thing as a perfect job. There is no perfect partner. What you get out of anything in life is up to what you put into it.
If you feel that your relationship is missing something, take a long look in the mirror and be honest with yourself about what you are putting into it. Are you putting your best into it, or are you imagining that maybe there’s something better out there somewhere?
If you want a great relationship, it takes work. It takes a willingness to communicate and to prioritize each other. It will never be “perfect”, but it can be as good as you let it. Settling does not mean staying in a situation that’s not perfect. Nothing is perfect, but everything can be better. If you have something that’s pretty good but you can make it better, then why wouldn’t you? In a continuous improvement mindset “settling” is when you have something that’s good and you refuse to put in the effort to make it better.
So put in the effort. And make your relationship the best it can possibly be.