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Are You a Perfectionist or an Optimalist?

Perfectionist or an Optimalist

BEING happy or being perfect. You can have one, but you can’t have the other. The happy life is attainable, but the perfect life isn’t. In fact, trying to be perfect gets in the way of being happy (and productive). Imperfection is a by-product of being human.

Perfectionism – the maladaptive and neurotic belief that you and/or your environment must be perfect and that work or output that is anything less than perfect is unacceptable – is not something that you are born with. It is developed. Contrary to the goal they seek, perfectionists are focused on failure.

The Pursuit of Perfect
There’s a difference between setting high standards that spur us on and seeking perfection that demoralizes us. In The Pursuit of Perfect, author Tal Ben-Shahar refers to the two approaches as perfectionism and optimalism. Most of us are a little of both. “We may be Optimalists in some areas of our lives and Perfectionists in others. For example, we may be quite forgiving of mistakes we or others make on the job but be thrown into despair when our expectations are not fully met in our relationships.” Consider these statements:

The key difference between the Perfectionist and the Optimalist is that the former essentially rejects reality while the latter accepts it.

While the Perfectionist rejects failure, the Optimalist accepts it as a natural part of life and as an experience that is inextricably linked to success.

The Perfectionist believes that a happy life comprises an uninterrupted stream of positive emotions. And because he, of course, aspires to be happy, he rejects painful emotions…. The Optimalist, on the other hand, accepts that painful emotions are an inevitable part of being alive.

The perfectionist is never satisfied. She consistently sets goals and standards that are for all intents and purposes impossible to meet, thereby from the outset rejecting the possibility of success…. The Optimalist also sets extremely high standards, but her standards are attainable because they are grounded in reality. When she meets her goals, she appreciates her successes and takes time to experience gratitude for her accomplishments.

Perfectionist reject reality and replace it with a fantasy world – a world in which there is no failure and no painful emotions and in which their standards for success, no matter how unrealistic, can actually be met. Optimalists accept reality – they accept that in the real world some failure and sorrow is inevitable and that success has to be measured against standards that are actually attainable.


Ben-Shahar discusses these ideas in detail and then shows how they apply to and play out in education, the workplace, and in relationships. He offers exercise and meditation to help you reorient your thinking and move from perfectionist thinking to optimalist thinking.

It’s easy to see from his approach and the advice given in this book, why his Harvard course in “Positive Psychology,” is the most popular class in the university’s history. Read it. I’m certain you’ll benefit.

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  How do you know if you're a perfectionist? Psychology Today offers a self-test on their web site.

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Posted by Michael McKinney at 09:33 AM
| Comments (0) | This post is about Personal Development , Positive Leadership



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