Moving Beyond Perfectionism

Pathway in Sunflower cultivationPerfectionism is a cognitive/emotional process held in place by habit and strong emotions. It is based on faulty beliefs like “perfect will give me what I want.” Habits, feelings and beliefs are difficult to change. Therefore, though the costs of perfectionism are high, self-esteem challenges, physical challenges, lowered productivity and performance, no time for yourself to enjoy life, and relationship difficulties, you cannot just make a decision not be a perfectionist and change overnight.

But, with awareness of how your perfectionism shows up for you, you can take steps that will help you ease up on yourself and learn to accept less than perfect.

  1. View your imperfections/mistakes and the imperfections of others from a detached perspective. Notice them. Don’t judge them. Perfectionism and making mistakes are not character flaws. Your perfectionism is with you because you think it is important to your well-being and perhaps your survival.
  2. Befriend your perfectionism. Be curious about it and identify the ways that perfectionism shows up for you. Notice when you’re stuck, being unproductive or taking too long with a task for the value of the task. Notice when you are thinking that something just isn’t right and you’re internally twitching about it. Also, notice when you are beating yourself up for a mistake or job that was less than perfectly done. Being critical of others is another sign that your perfectionism is running the show.
  3. Be curious about how perfectionism has served you. Bringing to light how you have benefitted from aiming for perfect and understanding the origin of your perfectionism and what it made possible could make it easier to shift away from the rigidity of perfectionism. Aiming for perfect could have been a useful method for managing anxiety because you were shy or insecure. Presenting perfect may have been a way that you stayed out of hot water at home. We tend to cling to strategies that have worked for us. Perfectionism can work up to a point — pushing you to excel, to manage the impressions of others about your worth. It can give you the illusion of control. For example, if you and what you do are perfect, then you will be above reproach.
  4. Re-aim for good, excellent or complete, not perfect. Shooting for perfect results in you shooting down your own self-worth or that of another. Excellent is possible. Perfect is an illusion. Those who strive for excellence can take mistakes (imperfections) as incentive to work harder. Unhealthy perfectionists consider their mistakes a sign of personal defects. Making excellent the new perfect will allow you ease up, take action, complete actions and be gentler with yourself.
  5. Adopt a new goal. Perfect is a goal, that unattainable result that never happens. Holding out for perfect can have a profound impact on productivity. For example, you don’t complete tasks because you are afraid of not measuring up, because you don’t have the time to do them perfectly, or you want them done just so.  Make completion your new goal. Done is better than perfect!
  6. Adopt a new thought. Since perfectionism is a cognitive/emotional process, using a cognitive strategy can be very effective in challenging perfectionism. You have no direct control over the strong emotions that may have created and now sustain your perfectionism. But, you do have control over your thoughts and actions. Changing thoughts can change feelings. So, adding a new thought not only will address the cognitive challenges of perfectionism, but can help you manage uncomfortable emotions like anxiety and fear that keep perfectionism in place. Make sure it’s a thought that resonates with you. Following are some possibilities: progress not perfection; done is better than perfect; mistakes are learning opportunities; perfect is impossible, excellence is the new perfect; human is better than perfect. 
  7. Notice and silence negative self-talk. What are those things you automatically say to yourself when you don’t measure up to your idea of what is acceptable in any arena? Your intention may be good, perhaps to motivate yourself to work harder. But, negative self-talk always hurts self-esteem and your sense of your own value and worth. You couldn’t stop criticism from well-meaning or perhaps not so well-meaning parents, teachers, and other family members when you were young, however, you can silence your own negative thoughts about yourself. First notice them showing up. Then silence them by saying to yourself, “Thanks for sharing, but I don’t need your help.” Or, counter the negative self-talk by making the distinction between who you are and what you do. You could say, “Even if I make mistakes, I am still OK.”
  8. Laugh at your mistakes. You know when you’ve screwed up. You’re probably hypersensitive about that. So, why not use that automatic awareness for good. When you’ve made a mistake, instead of pulling out the bat and beating yourself up or looking for someone else to beat up, notice the mistake and laugh at yourself. Laughing is completely counter to the critical voice that tends to rise up when people perceive imperfection. Once you shift your energy from the intensity of criticism to the lightness of laughter, you then can look for the learning opportunity that is available.
  9. Learn from your mistakes. When you accept mistakes and imperfections from a lighter perspective, it is then possible to view them as information and an opportunity for learning. Sometimes imperfect gives us important information that can be missed if you’re busy berating yourself.  It may signal a change of heart, a lack of commitment, a need not being met, a lack of commitment, an oversight, or a need for change.
  10. Deliberately be imperfect in some areas of your life. Practice being imperfect in a part of your life where you are less likely to experience negative consequences. That way you can experience the benefit of lightening up and adopting a new way of being without a lot of risk. I practice being imperfect in my yard. Part of that is practical because there is no way I can keep up with all the weeding. And, part of it is me letting go and accepting that good really is enough.

Living with the constant striving for perfect is exhausting, a threat to your physical health, your relationships, your sense of self-worth and peace of mind. Releasing perfectionism is possible, but will take time, commitment and mindfulness.

What’s possible if you aim for done instead of perfect?