Book Review: How to be an Imperfectionist

As I searched for books on overcoming perfectionism, I found that there were a surprisingly small number. I read some reviews, and selected How to Be an Imperfectionist: The New Way to Self-Acceptance, Fearless Living, and Freedom from Perfectionism by Stephen Guise.

I can sometimes be a bit resistant to traditional “self-help” books. This book is definitely in that category, however, if you can look past the at-times cringy writing, you can find a lot of great nuggets of advice and strategies.

I loved how the book drew on academic research, but only included a brief review of studies, and pulled out the most relevant information. After reviewing the psychology behind perfectionism, why it is bad, and his framework of “imperfectionism,” he spends the majority of the book on solutions for the five key subsets of perfectionism:

  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Rumination
  • Need for approval
  • Concern over mistakes
  • Doubts about action

Here were three of my favorite solutions from the book:

  1. To combat unrealistic expectations, adjust them. It’s as simple as it sounds. While it’s good to be optimistic about life in general, Guise recommends lowering your expectations for specific situations. He gives the example of someone who has high expectations for social interactions. They expect everything to go smoothly. So when they have any kind of slip up—saying the wrong thing, sweating, awkward silence—their expectations are shattered. Instead, keep your general expectations high, expect to have a pretty good time. But lower your specific expectation that each interaction will go perfectly.
  2. To stop ruminating, change your self-talk. If you are someone who constantly is thinking “I should have said that differently” or “I should have done that better,” a really simple fix to stop the rumination cycle is to say, I could have said or done something differently. Instead of shaming yourself for your “mistake,” it changes to a simple recognition that you could have done things differently. It is more open-ended and less judgmental.
  3. Lastly, a great strategy to counter excessive concern over making mistakes is what Guise calls the binary mindset. We think of most performance based tasks as analog, or having a spectrum of infinite possibilities. For example, if you have to give a speech, you typically think of it as going from absolutely awful to, well “perfect,” with no stutters, and getting a laugh for every joke. This creates an impossible standard for perfectionists, and you would be crushed no matter how well the speech goes. Instead, Guise suggests transitioning to a binary mindset. For this example, it means seeing the speech as a success if you get up on stage and talk. That’s it. As a perfectionist, I can see this being a really helpful tool to stop overanalyzing every little detail of a task.

One major realization I had as I read this book is how much perfectionism fuels social anxiety. I started the month focusing on perfectionism mainly as it manifests in my work. I was mainly thinking about writing assignments and sending emails. While I knew that perfectionism fueled my anxiety to perform in meetings, I had no idea how much perfectionism was creating anxiety for me almost all social situations (both at work and outside of work).

As Guise explains, people who have social anxiety care deeply about social situations going smoothly. They often “can’t act naturally because they’re so concerned about how they’re coming across, how smoothly and pleasantly the exchange is going, and how something might go wrong.” This hit home for me. I dread any kind of awkwardness in conversations, but it is such an unrealistic standard, especially now that we are working and socializing mainly on virtual meetings!

My one critique of this book is related to my last post, Why “perfectionism kills productivity” is a toxic mindset. Essentially, this blog is all about challenging achievement and productivity culture. This book, along with most other self-help or perfectionist advice, uses the framework that perfectionism gets in the way of being productive. I believe, however, that perfectionism fuels an unhealthy obsession with productivity. Especially for perfectionists, we should focus on different outcomes—meaning, happiness, or less anxiety and stress! Not being more productive… but I will get off my soap box.

I think this is a really helpful book. Despite being in the self-help section, I was pleasantly surprised that it did not fall into the trap of motivational talk. It had a ton of helpful tips and strategies. No matter what subset of perfectionism you suffer from, I am sure that you will find something to take away from this book.

I have spent the month of February learning and challenging my perfectionism. It has been quite eye-opening and more difficult than I expected. Really, I am only scratching the surface of this topic and it will be a lifelong project to be an “imperfectionist”. Keep an eye our for my next article, which will sum up my experience this month.

-M

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