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How to Overcome Perfectionism

Photo by Jonathan Jacobsen
Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralizing. ~Harriet Braiker

My neighbor came to my door while I was baking my first loaf of gluten-free bread. She said she admired our diets and told me how she was doing more to eat less sugar.

“I’d heard from a lot of people that it makes a lot of sense for them,” I said, “but I just didn’t think I could cut another thing out. I mean, after getting rid of dairy, wheat, caffeine and sugar, what would be left?”

She laughed a little and said, “Well it’s all about just cutting yourself some slack. You don’t have to be perfect or anything.”

Here’s my confession: I have this compulsion to be perfect. Everything I do has to be just so, or I don’t want to do it at all. And I don’t think I’m alone in this.

Perfectionism is the bane of Type-A folks everywhere. Some people may be impressed with it, but only the perfectionist knows the true torture of this trait.

While many people are lucky enough to not battle this on a daily basis, there’s still a lot of emphasis on perfection, particularly in a culture that “photoshops” away freckles and auto-tunes out flawed pitch. It’s hard to avoid the trap of expecting perfection, even if you’re a laidback type.

After struggling with this for years, I’ve come up with a few phrases I say to my inner critic, who gets especially fired-up if I decide to skip a workout, drink an afternoon cup of coffee or procrastinate a little on a deadline, no matter how beautiful it is outside.

They don’t always work (nothing’s perfect after all), but they definitely can help balance the scales a little bit.

1. Perfect is Boring

Another word for perfect is flawless, or unblemished. This is all fine and good when you’re buying a new car, but who wants to describe their vacation as “unblemished?” Or if you’re running around with friends, who wants a night of karaoke to be “flawless?”

When things go wrong, they make the best stories. At dinner the other night, my sister and brother-in-law were fondly recalling their honeymoon — they had purple crabs in their bathtub, rode a bus filled with chickens and rolled their luggage down dirt roads.

They were smiling and laughing as they told us about it. If they’d had a perfect honeymoon, we wouldn’t have been having that conversation. It’s the bumps and lumps that make life memorable. Embrace the chaos, let go of your definition of seamless and tell yourself, perfect is boring.

2. Practice Makes Better

Replace the old adage “Practice makes perfect,” with this one. It may not have been my piano teacher who said this for the first time, but she was the one who drilled it into my head.

You can play the same piece over and over, practicing your whole life and still never play it exactly as it was meant to be performed. I used to view that as a challenge, but as I’ve blossomed into an artist I see that as a fact.

Even the person who wrote the music can’t recreate the same thing over and over; only a machine can do that. No matter what you apply that to, whether it be an athletic event, a day at the office or an afternoon in the garden, it’s true.

You can work hard, practice, your whole life, but perfection isn’t just about you. Circumstances change, weather shifts and people interfere. But if you’re not trying to be perfect, just better than you were before, it is just about you and what you can do.

3. Do Your Best

One day I lamented to a friend that I was worried about an article I’d written not being good enough when I turned it in.

“Did you do your best?” she asked.

“Well, yeah,” I replied. Duh, I thought.

“Then that’s all you can do,” she reasoned. “Let it go.”

It was like a little light went off in my head. This realization has helped me let go of so much anxiety and worry. I’m usually pretty good at knowing when I’m slacking off, but it seems like I’d never recognized when I was doing my best, which was most of the time.

A strength training program I’ve been using recently has helped me add to this little mantra: Do your best and forget the rest. If you’re doing that, the perfection monster loses its teeth.

4. Everybody Makes Mistakes

One of my friends called me to tell me about an email she received. The director of her prestigious school had sent her the grades of everyone in her program, mistaking her name for a colleague’s. Whoops.

We’ve all been there. It doesn’t matter how many years we’ve been on this earth, how long we’ve been doing our jobs or the number of hours we’ve pursued a trade, mistakes are inevitable. It just comes with the territory of life.

Whenever I make a major snafu, I try hard not to beat myself up about it. But as a perfectionist, it’s often about the fear of making the mistake, not the one you’ve already made. It can be paralyzing.

So I think of stories like the one above or other slipups I’ve had in the past. Life didn’t end for that director, and I’m still breathing. We all make mistakes, I say, and move on with my day.

5. Be Yourself: Nobody Does It Better

I once read that a big reason people strive to be perfect is that then there’s nothing to criticize. That really resonated with me. Taking criticism is something I’ve always struggled with.

But I realized that if I try to be perfect just to avoid people’s assessments, I’m not only refusing to accept myself, I’m refusing to grow. That’s a heavy price to pay, especially when the reality is that no one can avoid judgment, because no one’s perfect.

When I start to notice I’m evaluating every part of myself and my day with a perfectionist eye, I ask myself: Am I just trying to avoid an imaginary critic? Just be yourself.

It’s tough to hear something negative about yourself, especially when you’re fighting your own critic all day long. Accepting who you are and what you’re doing right now allows you to be more comfortable with yourself and makes a few friendly words of constructive criticism much easier to swallow.

~~~

We’ve all got faults. It’s part of what makes us human.

As we learn to embrace every part of ourselves and let go of our need for control and perfection, we become more whole. It’s a lifelong goal, but it’s well worth pursuing.

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About the author

Rebecca is a fierce optimist who believes in the power of making life happen. After realizing optimism doesn't jive with journalism, she left newspaper to create her own brand of marketing through education and humor. Balance and mindfulness are her latest pursuits, along with learning to knit. Read her blog and follow her on Twitter for her latest enthusiastic (and sometimes witty) remarks.

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18 thoughts on How to Overcome Perfectionism

  1. V

    Whoa, this is a great piece! Yes, being perfect is the world most stressful behavior. I am in this situation right now, especially when you have to make decision, where both sides are happy with it. Tough work. *sweats*

  2. Hi,

    Perfectionism could go back to your childhood, mine does. My father always said, “If it’s not perfect, it’s not right.” Another favorite was, “If you do it right the first time, you won’t have to redo it.” In his defense, he served in the U.S. Army so you kind of have to be perfect in the military, especially if you’re on the front line or in a leadership capacity. However, everyone is capable of making a mistake.

    Sometimes, perfectionism is a mask for fear. We either fear failure or success. If we’re not perfect, we may fail. If we’re perfect, we may succeed. It’s a conundrum.

    I say be who you are, even if you are prone to perfectionism. Love yourself anyway. There’s no reason to beat yourself because you always want to do your best. Just try to lighten up once in a while. :)

  3. Great piece of advice. We have become a culture obsessed with “improvement” and “perfection” before even accepting who we are, what makes us unique and special. The goal of life is not to be a better “person” (whatever that means), but to be a better you.

  4. Thanks for all the compliments :) V, I know how tough it can be to make compromises and still keep your head about you. Good luck with that!

    Yes Amandah, it’s all about accepting yourself even if you are a perfectionist. What a conundrum. Such is life though, right? Lightening up is excellent advice.

    Mark, being a better you is such a great way to look at it rather than a better person. A better person? That’s so vague! Silliness, I say :)

  5. I don’t know how many times I’ve procrastinated on something because it wasn’t going “perfectly.” I’ve even abandoned tasks altogether because of this!

    Luckily I’ve already embraced the “practice makes better” tip and just run with things now.

    I can adjust things as I get better, and this process makes work feel less “work-like.”

  6. So much truth to this article.

    Wish I would have read it yesterday… would have put a bit of a silence to the inner critic this morning.

  7. Great article! For me, the problem doesn’t always lie in doing things perfectly, but about looking perfect. Maybe just being perfect in general. Like you mentioned about the photoshop thing, I’ve grown up in a world being subjected to impossible ideals of beauty in the media -and trying to live up that to ideal is both overwhelming and tiring. It will likely never happen, but it doesn’t stop me trying – but everyday I just try to remind myself that perfection really doesn’t exist. And maybe it’s our imperfections that make us beautiful beings.

  8. As a recovering perfectionist, this post hit home. One thing I’m learning is to be imperfectly Alex – and that’ s enough!

    Alex

  9. I love this article so much and it’s so true. We have become a society based in what everyone else thinks! Especially with the hunger generation, my heart goes out for them. Thank you for posting this, I’m going to share it on my Facebook! :)

  10. I agree all the points mentioned by you and its lovely too. Again its all about how we act and how we react and how we work and how we do our best. Don’t care about the outcome. Lets enhance the outcome to your next level and everything will be alright :)

  11. Dear Rebecca, thank you for this article. Being part of the perfectionist “gang”, I can mostly relate to point 4 & 5 you mentioned. For the first point, I personally believe to differentiate between the different areas where I want to be perfect. In my private life, hickups can be fun and are part of the story. At work however, there is such a strong tendency to be average, simply because people do not care that I make a specific effort to care and be motivated to deliver good stuff. No question whether things are boring or not. What do you think?

  12. I agree with your post. No one can be perfect, and striving to do so will just cause more stress on oneself.

    I know some people who plan out every single step of their lives, and when things don’t go their way, they get so stressed out.

    One quote I really enjoy is:

    “I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next.” – Gilda Radner

    What I like to say is: no one is perfect, and that’s perfectly okay.

  13. Hey Rebecca, we develop ‘driver’ behavior as we grow. The ‘drivers’ in Transactional Analysis terms are: ‘be perfect’, ‘hurry up’, ‘try hard’, ‘please people’ & ‘be strong’. Most of the names are descriptive in how we follow their message, however it makes life easier once we begin to understand why we developed these drivers. That is when life gets easier. Once we grow our awareness life becomes simple.

  14. V

    You wrote, “I once read that a big reason people strive to be perfect is that then there’s nothing to criticize. That really resonated with me. Taking criticism is something I’ve always struggled with.” On my journey to self discovery, I have realized that I care too much about what people think of me. So much so, that I tend to obsess over conversations I had days before while meeting new people in hopes I didn’t offend them or embarrass myself. I am doing my best to learn self-acceptance and be ok with my true self, but it is HARD! Thank you for writing this piece.

  15. Wow, I am so glad this article resonated with so many people! It seems that the perfectionist “gang” has recruited a lot of us.

    Emily, I totally agree that imperfection makes us beautiful humans! Rifaq, detaching from the outcome is a really good idea too. I definitely could stand to do more of that.

    Jantje, hickups do make for the greatest stories don’t they? But yes, When it comes to work it’s best to do things the way people ask, even if that means average work. Of course, we should always speak up if we have an idea, but even when you’re working for yourself, the point is to do the work people ask you to do.

    Elle, I’m totally stealing that last line of your comment! It’s brilliant! Joan, the idea of those behaviours as drivers makes a lot of sense to me. Now it’s about increasing self-awareness on my part. Every day it’s part of the journey!

  16. nice post and great information. Thanks for sharing! I often remind myself that “excellence is not perfection”. There will always be a few mistakes, and there will always be more you can do to make your life better.

  17. This article is AMAZING! I, too, feel that perfectionism is something that often prevents us from progressing. The desire to hold back until we can view something without fault is something that many people can relate to. Luckily, these tips can make it easier to transcend this.

    Here is an article I wrote on this subject:

    http://www.freedomlieswithin.com/2/post/2013/01/progress-before-perfection.html

  18. Bob

    I’ve been struggling with perfectionism for some time, and one thing that worked for me was to say chose a deadline and then focus my perfectionism on getting it done PERFECTLY ON TIME. (Not the task being perfect, but to perfectly hit the deadline no matter what). :-)

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