Why Perfectionism Stops Us from Creating New Habits

When we decide to create a new habit — exercise, healthy eating, meditation, writing — we can get excited and optimistic, and have an idea of how it will go perfectly.

This is such a hopeful time! Unfortunately, reality has other plans.

Our perfect idea of how our new habit will go is pretty much never how it actually goes. We might do really well for a few days or even a couple of weeks, but inevitably we’ll miss a day or two because of tiredness, busyness, sickness, visitors, forgetting, etc. And then things get derailed, because of our perfect idea of how we hoped the habit would go.

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This is one of the main obstacles to forming habits. Our hopeful idea of how it will go, and then our disappointment and frustration with ourselves when it doesn’t go that way.

The idea that we should be super consistent and perfect in our habit attempts … it derails us.

Here’s what typically happens:

  • We think, “I’m going to start doing X everyday!” Then our minds get excited and we start imagining how it will go, and how it’s going to make our lives better and make us a better person.
  • We start trying to doing X every day.
  • The reality doesn’t match the imagination in some way: doing X is not as fun as we thought it would be, or we miss a couple of days, or we repeatedly miss a couple of days.
  • We get frustrated by the way things are going. We are disappointed in ourselves. We’re discouraged. We eventually quit and our self-image gets hurt.

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You can see from this sequence that the problem isn’t missing a couple of days — it’s the expectation or fantasy that we had about how it will go, and the resulting disappointment, frustration and discouragement that has us quit and feel bad about ourselves.

The problem isn’t the reality, it’s the expectation that things will go a certain way.

How could we find a different way?

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Reality-Based Habit Change

What if we simply said, “Let me try to bring a daily ritual of doing X into my life, and be curious about what it will be like”?

So there doesn’t have to be a fantasy that it will go perfectly or brilliantly. We don’t know how it will be. But we can bring an intention to do it, and a curiosity about what that will be like.

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Then we start doing it. We miss a day, but this is not a cause for discouragement. It’s a cause for curiosity — what got in the way? What would it be like to start again today?

Each day becomes a lovely place of learning.

Then “successful” days and “failure” days are not really binary results of success/failure, but instead a rich place of curiosity and learning.

What would that be like for you?

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How to Get More Committed to Yourself

While it is easy to show up to appointments we make with other people … I’ve noticed that most people struggle with commitments they make with themselves.

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If you say you’re going to exercise, meditate, write, journal, work on a project … but then you don’t stick to that commitment … it can feel like you’re letting yourself down.

We start to form the mental habit of letting ourselves off the hook, so that we don’t trust ourselves to stick to our own commitments, if other people aren’t involved. This creates a belief that we aren’t as important to ourselves as other people are.

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I’m not saying we’re terrible people for doing this, or even wrong. It’s just how it goes for most of us, and it’s good to notice.

So what can we do about this? How can we start to stick to commitments to ourselves?

I’m going to lay out some things I’ve found to be important.

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To Start: Get Curious About What’s Going On

Before we try to shift anything, it’s important to really get curious about what’s there. We try to change things about ourselves from a place of judgment, wanting to get rid of what’s bad, rather than really trying to understand ourselves.

So start by noticing, when you don’t show up for yourself, what’s going on? What are you feeling in that moment? What are your thoughts? Instead of judging and turning away from all of this, can you turn towards it and try to really see yourself?

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Could you start to accept these feelings and thoughts as a part of the amazing human being that you are?

Could you let go of judgment and just be with the feelings and fears, and not need them to go away?

From this place of acceptance and love, we can start to explore other possibilities.

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Some Steps to Start to Get More Committed to Yourself

So what can we try that’s different?

Here are some things I’ve found useful:

  1. Make a date with yourself. I have a Zen sewing teacher, helping me with a sewing project that I often put off, over and over. He tells me to make a date with myself: put it on the calendar. And it works! I encourage you to be serious about this date, and not take it lightly.
  2. Ask yourself if you really want to. Zen teacher Norman Fischer says that the process of committing yourself to morning meditation starts the night before: ask yourself if you really want to do it. If you say Yes, then ask again: “Are you sure?” If you say No, then take it off your calendar and sleep in. But if you really want to do it, then really commit yourself, because it’s important to you.
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  4. Treat it as sacred. As I said, don’t treat it lightly — we often treat our commitments to ourselves as something that don’t matter, that can be pushed back without consequence. But what if this were a sacred appointment? Something elevated beyond the ordinary, that we treat as really important to us? Something that is a way to honor ourselves and our best intentions? Something that we’ll even enjoy!
  5. Honor what shows up, and honor yourself. As you approach your date with yourself, you might feel resistance. Fear or uncertainty. A desire to put it off, or to treat it with less importance. Honor that — really turn towards it and let yourself feel it, like it’s an important feeling. But also honor yourself — can you see that showing up for yourself is also important?
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  7. Bring a sense of curiosity, play, appreciation. This doesn’t have to be a white-knuckle experience, where you force yourself to do something you don’t want to do. It can be a place of curiosity, where you let yourself explore and play and learn. It can be a place of joy, of appreciation for yourself and for the activity. Can you find out what that might be like for yourself?

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I’d love to hear more about what you discover as you practice with all of this, and start to honor how important you are to yourself.

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