Ooo, perfectionism! Lifelong ally and tormentor! It halts me when I’m about to purchase an item, making me wonder which item is the best, pushing me to research it, pushing me to look for something “better” until I find “the best”. It causes me to stand in agony trying to make a simple decision, it turns me aside when my heart longs to sit down and write, and it silences my voice when I long to speak.
If you, too, are perfectionist, this is something you’ll want to challenge and transform as you approach whatever goals and dreams you are journeying toward. Perfectionism is a huge barrier to change and often stops the process of change before you even start. It tumbles through a series of interlinking thoughts and arrives at the conclusion “You won’t be good enough anyway,” halting you before you get a chance to try.
Perfectionism, like most emotions, is there to protect us. Perhaps you grew up in a perfectionist household or culture. Perhaps you were praised for being perfectionist or you grew up in a turbulent environment where perfectionism was your only way to try to control that environment and ensure nothing went haywire. Perhaps you are very attuned to what is going on around you and perfectionism is your way to try to make sense of the world.
Perfectionism, then, is trying to protect you. It’s a survival mechanism that, while it may not serve you now, may have helped you survive at some point in your life. I say this because I believe it’s important to let go of the anger and shame we harbor against perfectionism and shift to a sense of gratitude (even a small one!).
Yet now it’s time to learn new habits. Just as resistance presents a numbing wall we struggle to sludge through, perfectionism can halt us in our tracks. All we need is a glimmer, a shadow, and we turn aside, feeling helpless, defeated, and discouraged.
This is not the healthy functioning of perfectionism. In its healthy form, perfectionism is about helping us survive, and we could even say the flip side (the healthy outlet) for perfectionism is excellence. We strive to produce great quality work and maybe even take pride in our ability to do so. We structure our lives, we create, and in this sense, excellence can really help us achieve our goals and dreams.
So how do we address the unhealthy manifestation of perfectionism? I think the first step is realizing perfectionism’s role, shifting to an attitude of acceptance and gratitude, and perhaps making a quick note about where the perfectionism stems from.
The second step is understanding that perfectionism doesn’t change overnight. Start with small steps, as with anything, and be patient with yourself.
Third, I’ve found two states of mind that seem, at least for me, to counter the demands of perfectionism, and that is a state of curiosity or learning and a state of play.
Perfectionism vs. learning: When we approach a task not with the mantra of “I must do this perfectly” or “Everything hinges on me getting this right”, but with the mantra “What can I learn?”, we shift the focus from doing the task perfectly to growing through the task. Asking yourself, “Am I learning?” is better than asking, “Am I doing this perfectly?”. As long as we are learning, we are growing. As long as we are learning, our work is growing. As long as we are learning, we are on the journey toward change. See if you can shift your perspective from one of perfectionism to learning. Become a curious student rather than trying to fit immediately into the role of flawless master. The goal isn’t to achieve perfection. The goal is simply to learn and grow.
Perfectionism vs. play: When a child plays (and this won’t apply to all children, mind!), they allow their creativity to fly. Rules don’t matter. They color outside the lines, scream, cry, laugh loudly, use their imagination without fear of being silly, and sometimes foster a disdain or ignorance for others’ opinions that they lose when they grow older and more aware of the people around them and the cultural norms and values. For example, when I was in my mid teens, I wrote so much. I didn’t care if it was perfect, I didn’t question my skills. I just knew I had to write, had to get the ideas out, even if it meant stumbling through scenes and tripping over dialogue. I didn’t care. It just had to be finished, and I believed deep down that I was a master. That my work mattered and that I was doing it perfectly just by writing, dreaming, and releasing it. As I took English classes in college, I learned just how many mistakes there were for someone to make, and how easy it is to critique others’ work. I was told by English professors to “keep your day job” and that “many writers aren’t as good as they think they are”. I balked, and since then, I’ve struggled so much with resistance and perfectionism around writing that I’ve written very little and often with years of almost no writing at all in between. Where I used to churn out 20+ pages on a good day, I now can barely handle a sentence, so petrified am I that my entire future hinges on this book. I see the myriad of ways it could go wrong, and, disheartened, I turn away rather than face the discomfort and the feeling of losing my dream.
But play. Play is another matter. When I write “for fun,” my energy comes back. Why? Because there are no rules, no expectations. I can make a mess, I can have fun. Joy creeps back into my soul as I type for fun, a story just for me—a story no one needs to know about just yet.
The trick, and where I haven’t mastered it myself yet, is to know how to continue that when you do decide you want to share that work. Perhaps you want to market it, sell it, or just be vulnerable and share it. Maybe you want others to critique it. Instantly, at least for me, the sense of play shrivels and dies, replaced by this need for perfection so I won’t get hurt, won’t fail, won’t lose my sense of self-esteem, and won’t become so discouraged, I give up on the dream altogether. Perfectionism is trying to help. It sees a need and steps in in the only way it knows how.
It’s okay to experience perfectionism. If you’ve dealt with it a lot over the course of your life, chances are you will encounter it often in the future. See it as a signpost—a signal to look inside, tend your creative essence, and shift into a mindset of learning or play. Find the beauty. Because, ultimately, I don’t want to write for the people who might judge my work. I don’t want to write for the book reviewers, those who disdain the genre I choose, or those who look for mistakes with a fine-toothed comb.
One last aspect I will throw out for you to consider. I know, for example, that I hate when critics nitpick. They tear everything apart, turn it over, flip it upside-down, find the slightest piece of lint on the freshly-vacuumed rug, and flaunt it as evidence of imperfection. And yet . . . I am the same way. I love finding the flaw, pointing it out, critiquing. And there can be merit to this sometimes. It’s good to have an awareness of what works and what doesn’t. At the same time, I think it’s worth noting that building an awareness of beauty is just as important. I’ve read great stories which contain more grammatical errors than most. I’ve felt joy at a child’s drawing of an ill-shaped heart because she made it just for me. I’ve watched a movie that has had its share of flaws but communicated something I needed. Perhaps, challenge yourself, if you are like me, to catch yourself critiquing or complaining and instead point out all the things that worked. Find the joy. And maybe, as you practice this, you’ll be able to find the joy in your own work.
So think about all that. When perfectionism steps in, who or what is it protecting you from? Who do you envision judging you or your work? Whose judgement really matters to you? Hopefully, you engage in your goal or dream with a deep need to create for yourself. You are the only person, at its core, for whom you create. The bonus is when that creativity spills over and boosts others as well. You must have something before you can give it. You must grow your own harvest before you can share the wealth of your crops.
And when you do, do! Some may scoff at the quality of your apples, but there is always the chance you will stumble upon someone who is starving and who reaches out with gratitude and joy for the imperfect, juicy, wonderful apple you have to offer.
Let me leave you with this quote by Theodore Roosevelt:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood [. . .]”
Challenge!: Note one area in your life where your perfectionism really engages. Ask yourself what the perfectionism is trying to protect you from (maybe meditate on or journal about the answers to that question, as these are deeper issues that will need addressing and tending), and then list some ways you can begin to engage that activity from a perspective of learning or play.
*Full disclosure: I went into perfectionist mode while writing this article. I’m right there with you! Share your journey, your struggles, what’s coming up, and how you work with perfectionism and the underlying causes (I think perfectionism is a signpost to something deeper). I’d love to hear your insight!