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Article: Why Being a Perfectionist is Ruining Your Zen

Why Being a Perfectionist is Ruining Your Zen

Why Being a Perfectionist is Ruining Your Zen

We hear a lot about meditation, mindfulness, and reaching the ultimate state of calm. For those of us who suffer from perfectionism though, that may seem like one more thing to add to our plates - and it can be even more frustrating when you can’t seem to work hard enough to get it. You’re used to crushing your targets, right? Why are having trouble achieving this goal too?

Many of the tools you have grown used to pulling out of your kit will not apply in this area. You could say zen lies on the opposite end of the chill spectrum to perfectionism - and it’s something that can’t be achieved by pushing yourself. Being a perfectionist can be something to be proud of, but when it comes to reaching a calmer state of mind, it may be getting in your way.

You could say zen is about being happy with what you have now and perfectionism is about not being satisfied with what you have - you can always do it better. Let’s take a look at these opposing views and see if any of this rings true for you, or if you can take steps to meet somewhere in the middle!

Are You A Perfectionist?

“If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.” - Lao Tzu defines perfectionism as ‘the need to be or appear to be perfect, or even to believe that it’s possible to achieve perfection.’

5 Signs You Are a Perfectionist:

  • All or nothing thinking - anything short of the exact goal you set will result in failure- there are no gradients
  • Uber-critical - Especially of yourself - only focusing on what’s being done wrong
  • Fear of failure - What will it say about you if you don’t reach your goals?
  • Procrastination - You’re so worried about failing, of course you’d be hesitant to even start
  • Low self-esteem - You might not see this one coming, but many perfectionists suffer from this.

There’s a good reason you’re so concerned about being perfect - and for many of you, it’s simply because you don’t think you’re good enough the way you are. This can make you feel lonely and isolated, and can start up the cycle. You might feel embarrassed about something about yourself, or are trying to make up for a perceived weakness so you set an unrealistic goal, perhaps based on someone you admire.

If you don’t achieve it, you beat yourself up and think you just didn’t try hard enough. If you do achieve it, you might still be left unsatisfied - because the real goal probably lies much deeper.

What Exactly Does Zen Mean?

“Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear?” - Lao Tzu

Reaching a state of zen usually conjures images of calm people restfully going about their day or sitting quietly in nature (at least, that’s what I picture), but for the purposes of this article, let’s take a closer look at this lovely, powerful word that carries many meanings.

According to, ‘What is Zen? It’s both something we are - our true nature expressing itself moment by moment - and something we do - a disciplined practice through which we can realize the joy of being.’

From ‘The practice of Zen meditation or Zazen (za meaning sitting, and Zen meaning meditation in Japanese), is the core of Zen Buddhism: without it, there is no Zen. Zen meditation, is a way of vigilance and self-discovery which is practiced while sitting on a meditation cushion. It is the experience of living from moment to moment, in the here and now.’

Stop what you are doing. Close your eyes. Clear your mind. Be grateful for this moment. Breathe deeply and slowly. What comes into your mind? The idea of zen encourages us to look past all the ‘stuff’ and to find our true selves - to feel open to what the world brings, to feel confident and unhindered. It can help us come face-to-face with what we are struggling with, maybe what we’ve been overcompensating for - because we’re creating a safe place to do so.

Accept That You Can’t Control Everything

“Relax. Nothing is under control.” - Adi Da

Zen is about enjoying the moment, living in the now as it were. You carefully choose to do things because they hold value for you, thus you enjoy them more, put in maximum effort and yield more satisfying results.

  • You have limited time in the day to accomplish things
  • Plan so you don’t rush them
  • Give each one your full attention
  • Focus on one at a time
  • Perform them to your standard
  • Know when you are finished

It’s not about giving up your ambitious goals, it’s about giving yourself the OK to not be perfect. Do your best, have high standards - but know when enough is enough. Do you need to spend 45 minutes on a 2 sentence email response? Did that get in the way of all the other things you needed to accomplish? Why don’t you trust yourself enough to leave it at a first draft?

Be realistic about what you can do - is it more important that you get everything done poorly and have to try again or that you put in your maximum effort once and feel confident in your effort?

Does It Have to Get Done Right Now?

“The noble-minded are calm and steady. Little people are forever fussing and fretting.” - Confucius

Does this sound familiar? You get home from work after a stressful day of trying to get it all done - to come home and do the same thing. Your to-do list never ends and the tasks keep piling up because you are so overwhelmed, but feel the need to do more.

Here’s a new way to look at this: when you feel panicked about all the stuff you have to do, stop and be honest with yourself: What do you ABSOLUTELY have to do? If you don’t do it, what will happen? Will it hurt anyone if you do not complete your task?

One of the most powerful ideas of zen is to only think about what is necessary in your life. We can get so wrapped up in all of the things we ‘have’ to do, but forget that they are so often self-imposed. What happens if you don’t do it? Will anyone else even know you meant to get it done?

If we are tangled up by the little things, we can’t see the bigger picture of what we are doing to ourselves. What are you really trying to achieve? Are you trying to get a promotion? Be a saint? Prove how great a person you are? Guess what - the people who care about you already know that - and they wonder when you will see it too.

“Rest and be kind, you don’t have to prove anything.”- Jack Kerouac


What is important to understand is if your desire to do everything perfectly, or for others to see you as perfect is getting in the way of you having a healthy mental outlook. These two things are on opposite ends of the scale - zen is about simply accepting what is and being joyful in being alive - while perfectionism is often about setting unrealistic goals and sometimes bestowing harsh penalties on oneself or others for not reaching them.

If you are struggling to find a relaxed state of calm and security because of the harsh goals you’ve set for yourself, take a good hard look at why you’re doing this to yourself. Will people stop loving you if you don’t do it all? Will you somehow lose face if you don’t show everyone how busy and important you are? Find the balance that works for you and find more peace in your world!

Related Article: How to Get Past Day 1 of Your Journaling Habit

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