My self-talk when thinking about writing this post…for months: “As a recovering perfectionist who works in the arenas of mental health and shame resilience, I should write about this. After all, it’s something I’m very familiar with in my life and work. But wait, how can I call myself a recovering perfectionist?! I wasn’t even a ‘good enough’ perfectionist to even own that moniker. If anybody saw my sock drawer they would know that, but wanting to be more perfect does keep me from doing courageous things…actually, you’re also probably not ‘recovered’ enough from protectionism to call yourself a recovering perfectionist. OK, at least I can settle on the idea that I think my writing skills are decent enough for a blog, and I have good ideas. Yes, but none of my ideas will be completely new, they’ve been written about before, and probably better.”
Perfectionism is a problem.
I’d like to think of myself as a lifelong learner. After all, more insight and understanding are gained through learned experience and education over time. The problem is the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know. Fear-based justifications stop me in my tracks. “If I can know more about a topic later, I should wait till then to talk about it, and hopefully have more wisdom to share at that time. Tomorrow never seems to come, I only ever have today, and yet I hesitate, out of fear and worry that whatever I have to offer won’t be good enough. Based on Dr. Brené Brown’s research, shame and fear are at the roots of perfectionism. In Daring Greatly she writes, “When perfectionism is driving, shame is riding shotgun, and fear is that annoying back seat driver.” Here are a few examples of how perfection, shame, and fear come together as the trifecta of doom, to help keep us small, stuck, and caring way too much about what other people think, and then we’ll move into some healthy tips for keeping it at bay.
Shame is the voice telling me that whatever I do, it won’t be good enough. If I can move past the ‘not good enoughs’ I am hit from the other side with the intrusive voice that saying I have a pretty pompous, conceited, arrogant view of myself and I should just go ahead and take a seat in my place. It’s the voice that tells me if I can do something perfect enough, I will be loveable, acceptable, and worthy of belonging. Perfectionism tells me that whatever I’ve done, I didn’t get it quite right, and that I need to get it more perfect next time. It’s about managing what other people think of me. Fear of judgment (of others or myself) will stop me in my tracks and keep me from starting something, finishing something, creating something, or putting myself out there.
How perfectionism keeps us stuck:
- It keeps us avoiding and procrastinating: If I can’t do it perfect (and I know I probably can’t) then why should I waste my time doing it at all?
- It’s attached to shame with a constant feeling of “Not-Good-Enough-ness”
- It keeps us trying, stumbling, self-deprecating, and unfulfilled
- It keeps us hustling to manage the unwanted perceptions of others
- It’s a creativity killer
Perfection results in avoidance, procrastination, poor time management, process addiction, fitting in instead of belonging, conditional self-worth, relentless management of others’ perceptions, and in general, a lack of joy, creativity, courage, compassion, fulfillment and wholehearted living.
How to Help with Healthy Striving:
One thing that actually helped me finally write this post, was getting sick. No really, unfortunately I mean it. Managing the hustle of what other people might think, and adding my own inner critic to the mix, takes a lot of energy. Quite frankly, I don’t have the energy for much right now. I started with giving myself permission to not be at my best. Knowing this, I allow myself to get more comfortable with the fact that I’m not going to be perfect at what I write, or do, and that is just going to have to be okay. If you can’t get to a place where you can allow this to be okay, maybe it might help to add “for now” until you can take that “for now” off. “For now, it’s going to have to be okay to not be perfect.” I don’t mean to recommend illness as a means of dropping perfectionism, but it did help with letting go, and finding acceptance with wherever I am with this process in this moment …right now. I’m working on removing the “right now” from the above statements. Remember you are good enough, right now, just as you are, and that personal worth, is not attached to what you do, but is inherent.
Stepping away from unhealthy perfectionism is about establishing healthy boundaries with myself and others. It allows me to say, “this is what I can offer” and letting go of the rest, even if this occasionally results in disappointment. It’s about managing personal expectations. I can work hard and expect quality work, and if I fall short, I can learn from this process. I remind myself that my value and worth was never on the table to be cut, even if it’s hard to hear criticism that something wasn’t perfect enough. I am enough. This statement leaves me with firm ground on which to continue to grow and learn. I’ll never be able to give someone better than my best, and learning to be comfortable with what I can offer, while continuing to learn and try in earnest, will have to be okay. Know your limits and practice working within those personal and interpersonal boundaries. We can truly only do our best, and that’s the best we can do. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t room to grow, but rather that practicing healthy acceptance of “what is” promotes an environment for healthy striving and excellence.
Honestly, when you think about it, how many of the folks you love, do you love because they are absolutely perfect? No one is perfect, but those who seem to be, don’t often come off as all that authentic or inviting. I love my people for their quirks, the things that make them different. Their imperfections are what make them lovable, approachable, fun, and nurturing. When we unite in our imperfections, we connect on a deeper level, with courage and vulnerability. Make gratitude for imperfection a practice, acknowledge how our imperfections make us lovable, and communicate love and acceptance often.
Perfection is an idea that sounds nice, but is completely unattainable, and yet we/I fall into the trappings of the concept on a daily basis. Why do we do this? Our culture highly values perfection and flawlessness. Buying into the concept of perfectionism helps billion-dollar industries continue to grow. Perfection by way of materialism, image, status, beauty, power, sex, love, joy, health, family, career. Perfectionism separates and insulates, and in a time of great discord, this moves us away from courage, compassion and connection. Many companies are selling a false sense of belonging by way of telling consumers how ‘they too can fit in!” Just buy this product, wear these clothes, lose that weight, participate in this routine, join or club. When we can’t compete with these requirements, perfectionism whispers that if we can be perfect, maybe we can gain acceptance, maybe we can be worthy, maybe we will be accepted and have friends and not feel alone. Perfectionism is about putting all of our value in what other people will think, leaving us grasping for an unattainable outcome, possibly on a daily basis. Step away from perfectionist tendencies by striving for reachable outcomes, giving credit where it’s due for a job well done or effort well placed, and practicing self-compassion when the struggle gets real if we missed the mark. Remember, there is no failure, only feedback.
Much additional energy and time goes into that last 10% of any job to make it just, absolutely, ‘perfect’. If it means you are able to move forward and put your work into the world, or your sock drawer, maybe it’s okay to make “good enough” or 7/10 the goal at times, especially if it means dropping the exhausting hustle. Perfectionists might be thinking they are healthily trying to give 150%, but 150% doesn’t exist. How can one give more than they have? If 150% is the standard, maybe 70% of that is actually really great. Avoidance can take hold when we fear that whatever we do, it won’t be good enough, and avoidance provides an immediate reinforcement-reduced stress and anxiety. Avoidance does provide a temporary relief. I tend bump into perfectionism again with my distraction activity, and divert again, without the satisfaction of completing the thing I left behind, unfinished. I’ll admit this very post also comes with a certain avoidance of other necessary tasks, which today include clinical documentation and taxes, things I don’t enjoy, in part because I do care about the potential repercussions of an external audit (Eeek, audit!) and how I will feel about myself if my best isn’t good enough. Save the energy, drop the hustle, put it out there, put in a good effort, and let that be okay. Use that energy for something you enjoy, something that can result in fulfillment, or circle it back around to take care of yourself.
Moving away from perfectionism doesn’t mean moving away from healthy striving. Having an internal desire to do something well, to learn, to grow, and to achieve a level of excellence is healthy. There is a significant difference between perfectionism and healthy dedication to excellence. It becomes unhealthy when we start losing out on our quality of life because we can’t let go of some perception of perfection which—quite frankly—is completely unreachable. It’s unhealthy when it leave us feeling ashamed for not being better, and when we attach it to who we are, our identity. Perfectionism results in shame when we can’t be perfect enough, and therefore feel like a failure, bad, or unworthy of love or belonging. Do strive for excellence, be dedicated to hard work. Know that balance, rest, and self-care are all elements which actually promote excellence, instead of taking away from it.
Perfectionism as a creativity killer. If we get stuck caring what other people think, when in truth we have no way of managing their perceptions, it becomes impossible to create. Creativity is internally motivated and requires the courage to be vulnerable. We have to give ourselves permission to play in order to create. It requires a certain level of comfort to give uncomfortable and fail, trying things that come from our newly formed ideas. Creativity requires showing up and allowing our flawed selves to be on display. Rigid perfectionist tendencies destroy creativity with inflexibility. With perfectionism there is no permission to make mistakes and we must proverbially hold our breath, and make sure to color only inside the lines. There is no enchantment, imagination, or freedom. Cultivate creativity by letting go of worrying about what other people think of our creative endeavors. Step away from comparison, and give yourself permission to get curious. Try not to qualify your creative works with statements like “Well, it didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped” or “I’m not as good as so-and-so could have done it” or “I know you probably won’t like it, but…” Remember that creativity does not require permission, or acceptance, it is a quality inherent in everyone, whether we let it out very often or not.
Self compassion is the antithesis of perfectionism. When perfectionism is a fearful, critical, and comparing voice, compassion moves with with warmth and kindness to offer another way of being with the exact same situation. Mindful self kindness requires paying attention to what is happening in the moment, and re-writing our internal script if need be, from one of critical negativity, to one that provides a gentle reminder that we are good enough, and our worth is not something that can be attached to how perfectly a task is completed.