Many of us teachers struggle with perfectionism. Turns out – it’s more pervasive than we could ever imagine! Every. single. person. deals with perfectionism on some level. None of us are immune to it. Instead of thinking about perfectionism as “you have it” or “you don’t” – try thinking about it on a continuum.
That’s what Tal Ben-Shahar, Harvard University lecturer has been teaching in his “Happiness” courses. His book, The Pursuit of Perfect, is a must-read for any and every teacher!! I am hosting an online, FREE, book club on this book this summer if you’d like to join in!! It’s a no-pressure, fun, atmosphere to read this book alongside other teachers!
I’ll be posing questions about that book that relates it to our lives in a broad sense as well as our teacher lives. It should be a LOT of fun and a sure-fire way to take time for yourself and do some high-quality PD (personal development) this summer!! Click here to join!
So – I wanted to share with you some takeaways and coaching questions from the first chapter just to proverbially “wet your whistle” on this topic:
One of Ben-Shahar’s first assertions (in the introduction to the book) is that perfectionism can be either negative or positive. The Negative Perfectionism (or what he refers to as just plain Perfectionism) is unhealthy, neurotic, and measures worth solely on productivity and accomplishments. While Positive Perfectionism (or what he refers to as Optimalism) is adaptive, healthy, and can drive people to work hard while still acknowledging that failure is part of the learning process.
So I ask you again to think of perfectionism on a continuum – with perfectionism (the negative kind) on one end, and optimalism on the other.
If you had to place a dot on this line to represent yourself, where would you place it?
You probably need some more context to the words perfectionism and optimalism. So here goes…
The first chapter of Ben-Shahar’s book is about accepting failure – the cornerstone problem of perfectionists. He highlights the differences between perfectionism and optimalism in the way they handle failure.
Perfectionists and optimalists can have the same exact goals (for example “being an excellent teacher”). However, their approach to attaining their goals is very different.
Perfectionists expect that the road to their goal (being an excellent teacher) will be direct – a straight path. Even the slightest deviation – through a failed lesson, a conflict with a student, a content concept they don’t understand etc. – is unwelcome and is seen as either an annoying obstacle or an abject failure in worthiness.
Optimalists expect that the road to their goal (again, let’s say it’s “being an excellent teacher”) will take many twists and turns and will include several deviations while still progressing in the direction of the goal. Deviations, failures, and obstacles are seen as learning experiences and a necessary (albeit still uncomfortable) part of the process. Those setbacks are expected and therefore don’t carry as much weight or severity.
Perfectionists focus on the destination – where they are going – and see the journey as a nuisance.
Optimalists focus on the journey and enjoy the scenic view. They are excited about the destination, but embrace the journey too.
Perfectionists have an all-or-nothing world view. Things are right or wrong, good or bad, best or worst, success or failure. This means that the moment a bump in the road happens, they think the entire journey is awry.
Optimalists acknowledge that those categories exist (lost vs. won, succeeded vs. failed) but see all of the points in between those places too and can be proud of what they accomplished. They can see nuance and shades of gray.
Perfectionists are very defensive because they abhor criticism as either an assault on who they are, or as someone seeing their “cracks”.
Optimalists can take criticism and decide if it’s true/untrue helpful/unhelpful and then either accept it and grow or reject it without feeling torn down.
Perfectionists find fault.
Optimalists find the good in the situation.
Perfectionists are harsh – any error is avoidable in their minds, so they take all mistakes personally and are harsh with themselves (and others).
Optimalists are forgiving of self and others.
Perfectionists are rigid and seek to control every aspect of his/her life.
Optimalists are still ambitious, but are not ruled by “shoulds” and “musts”.
…the Optimalist does not chart his direction according to a rigid map but rather based on a more fluid compass. The compass gives him the confidence to meander, to take the circuitous path. While he has a clear sense of direction, he is also dynamic and adaptable, open to different alternatives, able to cope with surprises and unpredictable twists and turns. Accepting that different paths may lead to his destination, he is flexible, not spineless, open to possibilities without being purposeless. -Ben-Shahar, The Pursuit of Perfect
So – you can probably relate to both sides of this coin – perfectionism and optimalism – in various places in your life.
For example, when it comes to events, party planning, etc. I’m a total optimalist. I believe it will all work out – and can go with the flow, take suggestions, enjoy the planning process, and forgive myself easily if a pinterest project goes wrong. I’m the first one with a drink in my hand before the party begins and I’m able to enjoy myself.
But I know folks who go into panic-mode during party planning and hostessing.
And I have my moments too. For example, conducting teacher trainings. I used to get borderline obsessed, overly anxious, rehearsing my main talking points, triple and quadruple checking my AV equipment. And then the minute something would go wrong during the training, I would get flustered, upset, and thrown off. I let that go long ago – now I’m still ambitious and detail-oriented but flexible and able to go with the flow in the moment.
But I had to work on it.
So – what is one area of your life where you feel some unhealthy perfectionist tendencies?
What is one thing you could do to shift closer toward optimalism in that area of your life?
Want to dig into this more?? Come read with us!!! Grab a copy of the book and join our GoodReads.com bookclub by clicking on the buttons below.
I can’t wait to see what this book brings up for everyone!
All my best,