There's something better than perfection.
It’s amazing how many smart, forward-thinking people subscribe to ideas and worldviews that subvert their happiness—and the well-being of their friends and families. If you cling to any of the following ideas, you might be surprised to know they may secretly be major obstacles in the path of your happiness:
1. "It’s healthy to blow off steam.”
Just as suppressing feelings is unhealthy, so is expressing them with excessive aggression or hostility. In fact, because of simple reinforcement contingencies, screaming, yelling, pounding pillows, or slamming things only intensifies anger in the long run. The antidote for this toxic belief is understanding that “blowing off steam” is self-defeating, can damage relationships, and usually leads to more eruptive anger. (It’s a vicious circle.) Alternately, expressing anger assertively is healthy and usually leads to win-win outcomes in relationships.
2. "Total honesty is always the best policy."
The fault in this idea is the “total,” not the “honesty.” Of course honesty is a virtue that can cement trust in relationships. Yet like anything, it can go too far. Few relationships can tolerate a degree of sharing in which one partner (or both) expresses every truth and withholds virtually nothing. What’s more, blunt honesty that hurts people needlessly is certainly not virtuous. Most relationships benefit from displays of tact and diplomacy that require some things to remain unsaid and some truths to be downplayed. While in some cases telling the blunt or naked truth might be appropriate, in most cases it will have a corrosive effect on relationships.
For example, imagine you’re visiting a terminally ill friend who looks like hell, and he or she remarks “I look awful, don’t I?" Is stating the unvarnished truth necessary, or is understating his or her haggard appearance a better choice?
Obviously, the antidote for this toxic belief is not indiscriminate dishonesty. Rather, it’s understanding that it's not total honesty that is the best policy—it's love and kindness.
3. "Perfection should be your goal."
Few things—and no people—are perfect. Expecting perfection—measuring yourself against an impossible standard—usually results in a downward spiral of negative thinking, self-criticism, resentment, and emotional distress. This, in turn, can foster a "why bother" attitude and massive procrastination—or, worse, obsessive-compulsive behavior. (I am not stating that perfectionism causes OCD, per se—but, interestingly, most people with OCD do score very high on measures of perfectionism.) Other perils of perfectionism include unhealthy competition, severe stress, burnout, and unethical behavior—cheating on exams, taking credit for others' work, falsely claiming job qualifications, etc.
The antidote to perfectionism is to first acknowledge and accept your human imperfections, fallibility, and limitations. Then "lower the bar" of your expectations, for yourself and all others in your life who are also imperfect human beings. Finally, strive to be competent, gradually improve your performance, and then aim for excellence. Free from the pressure to be perfect, you'll likely enjoy your work more, and the result will be good and maybe even excellent. The bottom line: Strive for excellence (which is attainable), not perfection (which is impossible).