Casualties of Perfectionism: Insecurity or Just a Habit?

Breaking free from perfectionism.
We get good at what we practice.  Most of the time, a statement of this kind conjures up images of improving some sort of skill, sports skills, motor skills, math skills, and the like.  However, we also “get good” at things we aren’t intentionally trying to practice, but are repeated often enough that unbeknownst to us, we are, in fact, practicing and worse, habituating.

Captain Your Life: 3 Things You’re Doing That Sabotage Happiness

Five steps to living a happier life.

Are you waiting to be in a better mood or to feel less anxious?  Are you waiting to feel more confident and motivated?  Are you waiting till tomorrow to do what you really know should be done today?

I was…. There was a period in my early thirties when I remember thinking to myself “I didn’t used to be this way.  I wasn’t as anxious, irritable, or as pessimistic as I am now.  I would have this thought repeatedly and though I wasn’t necessarily putting it together at the time, I was waiting for something to happen for me.  I was waiting to “magically” return to my less anxious, less irritable, happier, more upbeat self.

The irony is, as a psychologist, I was fully aware of the brain’s ability to change in response to experience (neuroplasticity), I had just neglected to consider that it can also change for the worse.  Our brains sculpt itself around the most attended input and if that input is anxious thoughts, fear, negativity, personal hurts, self-doubt, insecurity, etc. these will all multiply and the networks that host them will become stronger.

Do you ever find yourself giving yourself permission for a reward or to be a little bad?  Be it an extra piece of dessert, another glass of wine, a new purchase, or a day off from exercise, if you’re human, there is a good chance you have experienced something of the sort.  There is a term for this fancy trickery of the mind, it’s called moral licensing, and you’ll want to know about it because it may just be getting in the way of you reaching your goals.

To illustrate how easy it is to slip into this trap, let me share my very own most recent experience of moral licensing.  

You see, last week I wrecked my car.  A complete “at fault” accident caused by my own lapse in attention.

Thankfully, no one was hurt, which actually wasn’t shocking since I was barely moving.  However, given the caved in appearance of the front of my car and the fact that the autobody shop said I should not have driven it to the shop, I might as well have been driving 50 mph into an oversized metal arrow.

As an aside, from the topic at hand, I’m now in a rental car that says “Famous Potatoes” on the license plate.  No offense to anyone from Idaho, but this is not something I would want to be advertising on the back of my car.  Nonetheless, I am grateful that my insurance covers a rental car, especially since it has been a week and I still haven’t even gotten an estimate back.

Back to that eventful day, I had just picked up my son’s homeschooling materials and had also received notice from my nanny that she couldn’t work for us anymore.  Great, I have no childcare, I am now a homeschooling, working parent, and I wrecked my car.

Enter moral licensing and I wasn’t even trying.  Needless to say, I was having a “bad” day, so naturally my mind started looking for ways to create a little joy, i.e “I deserve” a reward.  I found myself crafting what this would be and why I didn’t need to feel at all guilty about it given the events of my day.

At a quick glance this mental manipulation may seem harmless, but it often interferes with goals and values we have.  This is because we make decisions and judgments based more on a gut feeling than pure logic.  If we “feel good” about the decision to break our diet, spend money, etc. it gives us permission and reason to do it even if it flies in the face of our goal to lose weight, save money, and the like.

The next time you find yourself basing a decision on whether you’ve been “good” or had a “bad” day, know that moral licensing is at play and remove it from your decision making process.  This will help keep you more consistent with sticking to your goals and living a life aligned with your values.