I can’t deny I’m a perfectionist. But that word fails to evoke the painful lived experience: a nagging feeling that I should have known better, done better, done more.

Whatever you call that mindset, it has a key symptom: a chronic sense of dissatisfaction with yourself.

When I’m in that “should/shouldn’t” frame of mind, I compare my every action and decision to an ideal. And my reality never measures up. I even judge my own thoughts, and scarily, this feels normal and natural: “Well of course I’m not happy with this! I should have done better!”

The high cost of “shoulding” yourself

The fact that we HSP’s are so conscientious puts us at risk for perfectionism. We think we can control the outcome of a decision or a plan or a goal by thinking through every permutation and possibility. Our thoroughness is further fueled by our our dread of criticism.

It’s so easy to “should” on yourself. But is futile. My grandfather, a prudent banker, used to say, “Life is full of constantly occurring non-recurrings.” He was talking about expenses like refrigerators or hot water heaters or new timing belts, but he could have been talking about life in general. In reality, anything can happen. (And it often does.)

Besides being futile, “shoulding” yourself crushes your self-trust and kills your creativity. If I believe I “should have known better” back when I made a particular decision, that implies I “should know better” today as I plan things for next month or next year. When I put that impossible expectation on myself, I end up in a state of “paralysis by analysis.” I’m scared to make decisions because I’m trying to control things I can’t control.

Is there another way?

I know about this from the inside out, having spent five decades in an attempt to control all sorts of outcomes in my life. Eventually I gave up and began to ask a wonder question instead:

“Hmmm…I wonder…is there some way I could set goals or make plans—modest daily ones, elaborate long-term ones, or anything in between—without setting myself up to feel like a failure if things don’t go as expected?”

I was astonished to discover how much my goal-setting process and mind state affects my happiness and sense of accomplishment. I learned there are three questions I need to ask if I want to make plans without succumbing to my old perfectionist habits. Here they are:

1. Who is making this goal?

Is it the bigger “me” I call Presence? or is it a part of me?

I have to start here, because if I try to set goals from a part of me, I’ll surely be in “control mode.” Parts always try to control the outcome. They absorb external standards of “perfection” and impose those standards on me to try to help me be good enough and therefore worthy, lovable, and safe from dreaded criticism.

My parts mean well, but their plans never go well, because parts are just that: partial selves. By definition, they can’t have the whole picture.  If I’m planning from a part, I typically feel stressed, pressed, urgent, worried.

But if I plan from Presence, I can access my own inner sense of “perfect.” I can sense what feels right, to me. When I do this, I feel spacious: even if I’m under pressure, there’s a sense of room around my decision making process.

2. What is my content-level goal?

Once I’m clear I’m making my goal from Presence, I set a content-level goal by asking  a second question: “What am I trying to accomplish here?”

Content-level goals are just what they sound like. They contain content-specific information, actions, or outcomes. We make content-level goals and plans constantly:

  • I will bake that cake this evening after dinner.
  • This weekend, I will put away my winter clothes and get out my summer clothes.
  • I will finish editing my article this afternoon.

With simple, time-defined tasks like these, you can gloss over the risk of setting only content-level goals. The simplicity, the familiarity, and the short time-frame reduce the number of “constantly occurring non-recurrings” that can get in the way of your plans.

But what about bigger-scale plans? or really complex projects? Or things you’ve never done before, or don’t even know for sure you can do? Here, the pitfalls of content-level-only goals become obvious:

  • I will create a new website in the next two months.
  • I will move back to California next July.
  • I will climb Mount Everest.

If I approach this kind of complex, challenging, or long-term project with only content-level goals in place, I end up chronically  stressed and unhappy with myself. I tend to focus on what I didn’t accomplish, and I struggle to appreciate the progress I do make. I see unexpected developments as setbacks.

For this kind of goal—and truly, for all my goals—I also need to have process-level goals in place.

3. What is my process-level goal?

Like content-level goals, process-level goals are just what they sound like: they focus on how I engage with the process of completing my content-level goal. Unlike content-level goals, process-level goals are 100% under your control.

Process-level goals focus on observation and learning. They generate “wonder questions”—the kind of question only you can answer:

I wonder…how would I like to feel as I move towards this content-level goal? How do I want to treat myself?
I wonder…what needs to happen, hour to hour, day to day, week to week, for me to make progress on this goal?
I wonder….what mindset, systems, and support do I need to find, develop, or create to do this in a way that is fun for me?
I wonder…why is this feeling stressful? How could I approach it so it feels fun and absorbing?

You can’t ask these questions AND be in a perfectionist mindset at the same time. And you can’t not succeed, when your goal is to observe and learn.

My rule: cling hard to process, but lightly to content

If you do both, you can set highly ambitious content-level goals and hold a vision of the possible, without setting yourself up for self-reproach, recrimination, or shame when things don’t turn out as expected. And you open up a new world of creative flexibility, where the inevitable rocks in the path turn out to be stepping stones to something you hadn’t even imagined.

For sensitive people, this is particularly important. Content-level goals can motivate you powerfully. But they can also stress you unless you decide clearly how you want to treat yourself as you go about attempting them. By nature  you are environmentally susceptible, and your mindset is your inner environment. It affects everything you do.

​​​​​​​Want messy real-life examples?

In my next Listening Post video later this month, I’ll take a closer look at the way process-level and content-level goals affected my sense of satisfaction, progress, and happiness in two very different endeavors: my epic twenty-year quest to win a principal oboe job in big orchestra, and the making of my first quilt—the one in the picture.