Perfectionism is something I struggle with daily. From choosing the “perfect” item to buy at the store or the perfect shoe rack to order or completing a task perfectly or saying the perfect thing, using the perfect tone, and the perfect body language, I can tell you perfectionism is toxic.
But you probably already know that, especially if you are a perfectionist, too.
So what do we do it with?
First, I believe all our emotions and defense mechanisms are there for a reason and that, ultimately, they do what they do because they think it will help us. If we don’t update these defense mechanisms, the same outdated ones will get triggered again and again, leaving us in a bit of a muddle.
Perfectionism is one way we respond when fear takes hold. It could be fear of rejection, fear of not being good enough, fear of making a wrong decision, etc. It’s what happens when creative energy meets a distorted and overly powerful version of what some call the Protector Self. You have this part of you designed to protect you from those fears. Perfectionism is one tactic it uses to try to keep you safe.
Now, I also believe there is a “good” side to every negative mechanism that we have. Perfectionism is the unhealthy side of the coin. What lies on the other?
Excellence isn’t about getting every detail perfect at the expense of your health. Excellence is pushing yourself to do something to the best of your ability . . . but not to the point where perfectionism takes hold. It also adopts a different attitude about mistakes and sees them as a force that can propel you forward instead of as a negative statement about who you are as a person.
Excellence isn’t about trying to live someone else’s dream, act perfectly for someone else, or even act perfectly for the standards in your own mind. Unlike perfectionism, excellence doesn’t serve fear.
It serves creativity, joy, and growth. Unlike perfectionism, which often feels like trying to live up to outside standards (including your own mental standards), excellence comes from your core self–from the part of you that is confident in and pleased with who you are.
Where perfectionism is something you strive for, excellence comes from within. Yes, it takes work, but the work is often fueled by true motivation, desire, or even discipline stemming from your core self.
Where perfectionism walks through life with the thought “one day I will be worthwhile,” excellence accepts who you are right now and how wonderful you are right now. From that attitude and that core belief, it engages and drives your goals. Excellence says, “I am already worthwhile, and I want to share that with you! I want you to see it!”
Instead of focusing on perfectionism and allowing it to control us, we can shift our focus onto excellence, since it wells up from our core self and has our best health and interests in mind.
Perfectionism isn’t easy to untangle, and while you may mentally agree excellence is better, putting it into practice isn’t as easy. If you allow for the fact change takes time and consistent actions, you can definitely make progress toward trading in perfectionism for excellence. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
1. The next time you feel a perfectionistic tendency, try to pare it back and ask yourself, “How can I do this excellently instead?” Or “What is the excellent equivalent of this?”
2. Commit to a daily practice that connects you to your core self. Mindfulness, meditation, journaling, exercising, dialoging, dancing, stretching, mantras, yoga, thought records, and engaging in a creative project are great ways to reconnect to your core self. The key is to practice these habits daily. Over time, you exercise your mental muscles to better respond to your core self vs. your anxious or overprotective or perfectionist mind.
3. Write down the personal benefits you might experience by switching to a mindset of excellence. Things like self-confidence, gratitude, openness, decreased stress, and more joy. Then write down a list of what thought patterns keep you from dropping perfectionistic ways. For example, for me some of those would be fear that everything will unravel if I let go, fear of the unkown, fear of and discomfort with uncertainty, and fear of failure. Now, what are some small steps you can take to move toward excellence? It won’t happen all at once, but what are some small things you can do this week to move you in a new direction? These could be actions you take, such as challenging perfectionistic thoughts and tendencies, or it could be tackling the thoughts and fears that keep you from shifting to a different mindset.
4. Role-play. If you’ve tried ironing it out in your head and tapping into your subconscious and creative mind (dialoging, meditation, visualization) and it just isn’t working, try role-playing. This lets you test different ways of doing things. It’s fine to feel a little fake doing this. Pretend you are in a movie or on stage in a show and put on the role of someone who does things excellently and doesn’t follow perfectionistic tendencies. This can be something you adopt for an hour or a week, and the goal is to see how you feel when you *do* follow excellence instead of perfection. Like a scientific study, your job here is to gather data and test this new hypothesis of excellence before committing to it fully.
What Do You Think?: What are some perfectionistic tendencies you have, and how can you approach those situations from a mindset of excellence instead?