How to Overcome PerfectionismStriving 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.