Permission to be an Optimalist

Think about your workplace:

  • Is there a climate of psychological safety in which workers are allowed to learn from mistakes, and there is an acceptance of human fallibility?
  • Is there a suffocating climate of fear of failure?
  • Is there micromanagement to eliminate possibility of mistakes being made?

“The perfectionist manager loses out, as do his employees and the organization: the best people leave, and those who remain fail to learn.” (p140)

The Pursuit of Perfect

Perfectionism at work is just one of the many areas Tal Ben-Shahar addresses in his latest book “The Pursuit of Perfect”.  Whether you’re a perfectionist or not, this book is highly recommended. Tal interweaves his wealth of knowledge of well-researched concepts with compelling personal experiences. The result is a very readable analysis of the dangers of perfectionism and an outline of a healthier alternative that he calls “optimalism.” In Part 2, he applies the ideas to specific areas of life that are dear to his heart: education, parenting, relationships and the workplace. Throughout Tal interjects practical suggestions and advice for how to reduce perfectionist tendencies. In Part 3, he offers ten meditations on specific topics.

The central idea is that being an optimalist, in the state of positive perfection, is adaptive and healthy, while negative perfectionism is a maladaptive and neurotic state. Tal draws a link between healthy optimalism and the goal of Positive Psychology, the scientific study of optimal human functioning.

Continuum between Extreme Perfectionism and Optimalism

At one end of the continuum, extreme perfectionists reject reality, failure (and success) and painful emotions, and are rarely satisfied. At the other end of the continuum are the optimalists. They accept the realities of being human and the inevitable, mixed results that come with purposeful action. They’ve learned to appreciate “good enough.”

There are shades of grey between these extremes on the continuum. People can experience varying degrees of perfectionism and optimalism in different parts of their lives.

Reality for Extreme Perfectionists

  • Perfectionists reject the reality, constraints and experiences of the human condition.
  • They believe it is possible and desirable to be perfect, and constantly strive and expect to get there.
  • They set impossible goals and standards.
  • Unwilling to accept themselves, they are destined never to feel good enough.
  • In effect, they rarely give themselves permission to be human.

Failure/Success for Extreme Perfectionists

  • To the perfectionist, a good life is completely without failure.
  • Hurdles are unwelcome, mistakes are catastrophic, and criticisms are devastating.
  • So focused are they on the destination, they are unable to enjoy the journey.
  • Even though they might succeed, they never feel successful.
  • Since accomplishment is never perfect, they even reject success when it comes.

Emotions of Extreme Perfectionists

  • Because feelings can be so volatile and unpredictable, perfectionists do not permit a range of human emotions. They seek a constant and perfect tone, whether it’s positive or negative. There is no pleasure in accomplishment, and no pain allowed in failure.
  • Because perfectionists want to look good, they fear exposing their mistakes
  • They can be beset by procrastination and paralysis (“if I don’t try, I won’t fail”).
  • With high expectations they are hard on themselves and can be as hard on others.
  • They tend to be fault finders and pessimists.

Reality for Optimalists

  • They set high standards and ambitious goals that are attainable and grounded in reality.
  • Their goals are flexible and adaptable. They are willing to experiment, take risks, seek feedback, and see the benefits in criticism.
  • They are curious with a genuine desire to learn.
  • Optimalists value the journey, expect detours, and seek to learn from (not fear) failure: “learn to fail or fail to learn”.

Emotions of Optimalists

  • They permit a full range of emotions, accepting both the pleasant and unpleasant experiences.
  • Optimalists appreciate and savor success, and can find satisfaction in a less then perfect performance.
  • The “good enough” mindset results in more energy. Coping and learning increases self-confidence, encouraging optimalists to take on more challenges.
  • A rich emotional life of high self-esteem and self acceptance is the reward for being an optimalist.

Psychological health

In a recent email Tal explained to us, “Where we are on the continuum between optimalism and perfectionism is one of the better predictors of mental health. It doesn’t explain everything, but it explains a lot.” On curiosity and intrinsic motivation, Tal offered, “Optimalists tend to be more intrinsically motivated, and curiosity is a form of intrinsic motivation. Perfectionists are usually driven by their need to prove themselves, not by their desire to learn.”

Acceptance and mindfulness

Amongst the many practical ways to become an optimalist, Tal advocates active acceptance and reminds us of the importance of mindfulness:

“Active acceptance is about recognizing things as they are and then choosing the course of action we deem appropriate and worthy of ourselves.” (pp. 51-57)

“Accepting myself, sensitivity and all, is more likely to help me become more resilient. When I accept the emotion – when I accept myself – that’s when I am in the best mindset and heart-set to change.” (pp. 51-57)

“Permission to feel, to experience the experience rather than to ruminate on it; it’s about accepting emotions as they are, being with them rather than trying to understand and ‘fix’ them” (p. 68)

Finding peace

Tal’s practical “Time In” exercises, reflections, and meditations help the reader lessen the grip of perfectionism. However, Tal does not set up unrealistic expectations. No quick fix, no silver bullets. It takes time, hard work and regular practice.

This book reminds us to allow ourselves to have a good enough life and to give ourselves permission to be human. So begins the journey of moving towards optimalism, and to a place of peace, satisfaction, and happiness.

Acknowledgments:

Many thanks to Tom Weirich, colleague, friend and fellow member of Positive Workplace International (PWI). Tom is an Advisor with Wells Fargo Advisors, and helps people thrive and prosper by working at the intersection of money and happiness.

After recently reading and reviewing Tal’s book for our PWI team, Tom and I co-wrote this article for Positive Psychology News Daily (PPND): [Book Review] Permission to be an Optimalist .

A big thank you to Kathryn Britton, PPND Associate Editor, Consultant and Coach.  Kathryn refined and improved the final version of the PPND article.  More about Kathryn >>

Finally, thank you Tal for the great book, and for also conversing with Tom and me over email and answering our questions.

Reference:

Ben-Shahar, T. (2009) The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life. New York: McGraw Hill.

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