In the podcast Happier, the hosts Gretchen Rubin and Elizabeth Craft often refer to two types of people: ‘satisficers’ and ‘maximisers’.
Let’s say a pair of women are shopping for a party dress. The ‘satisficer’ would visit one or two shops, come across a pretty black sweater dress, put it on, think it looks good, and buy it. The ‘maximiser’, on the other hand, would visit shop after shop after shop, hunting for the ‘perfect’ dress. Even if she comes across one that she likes, she would think: “What if there’s a better dress in the shop next door?” And of course there could be. At the end of their shopping spree, the maximiser is likely to come home empty-handed and frustrated.
I think the satisficer and maximiser type also provides us with a good framework to understand how we evaluate ourselves and our performance. Some of us are satisficers – we are okay and completely happy with being ‘good enough’. Some of us though are maximisers – we seek perfection in ourselves, what we do, and what we can achieve. Of course there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But maximisers are in danger of being harsh, frustrated, and unsatisfied with themselves. Perfection is an ideal that simply cannot be achieved. At some point, we have to let go, and accept that we have done what we can at that moment, and that is more than enough.
You don’t need to be perfect
Ultimately, letting go of perfectionism is about letting go of our ego. Wanting to be perfect is a manifestation of your attachment to yourself and your ego. When you want perfect grades for example, it’s about satisfying the self within you that wants to show others that you are perfect: your parents, your peers, your friends, your aunts and uncles. The thought of being anything but perfect is painful because it hurts the ego. It’s embarrassing, shameful, or even humiliating.
But there are some heavy costs to chasing perfectionism. We fear failure but in the process we fail to try new things. We procrastinate on projects we’re passionate about. We fail to acknowledge that things are temporary and that they change and decay over time. And because perfection is a state that can never be achieved or sustained, we experience the very thing we fear of: failure.
You are worthy just as you are
A beautiful thing happens when we let go of the idea and desire of ‘perfect’ and perfectionism: we replace harsh self-criticism with self-compassion. I suppose it’s a clichéd thing to say ‘we’re only human’ but I think it’s good to remind ourselves of this from time to time. Give yourself a break! Sometimes – if no one does it for you – it’s up to us to give ourselves a pat on the back.
I think the best way to think about self-compassion is about treating yourself as a parent would treat their child. It’s about being kind and considerate to your own needs, reminding yourself of your strengths, and helping yourself look at the bright side. It’s equally about being reasonable with your wants and desires – just like how a parent would buy their children an ice-cream if they really want it, but won’t let them watch TV if they have homework due the next day. In other words: treating yourself with respect and love, and encouraging yourself to act in your best interests.
When you replace perfectionism with self-compassion, you progress. Perfectionism might result in good performance – and that’s why some people actually think it’s a good thing and might pride themselves on it. But that good performance doesn’t make you happy – and you might actually end up feeling empty even when you do succeed. When you act from a point of self-compassion, though, you progress. It’s just like how a parent nurtures their child – little by little, with love, care, and devoted attention – and you witness this beautiful, steady journey of growth.
I would call myself a self-satisficer in some areas of my life and a self-maximiser in others. In these latter domains, when I catch myself telling myself that I’m not good enough, or what I did wasn’t good enough, self-compassion teaches me that I did my best, or that I’m doing my best given the circumstances, and that I should find fulfillment in that rather than engaging in fantasies of who I should be or what I could have done.
Would you call yourself a self-satisficer or a self-maximiser?