“If I don’t get this just right, what’s the point?”
So you give up or run yourself ragged to make everything “perfect” until you have nothing left to give. If this is you, perfectionism may be keeping you from experiencing fulfillment in life. Your expectations of yourself are so intense that there’s no way you could ever reach them. As a result, you’re unhappy and restless.
I understand because I’ve been there. In writing this blog, I have to fight my own inner critic that says, “Well, if you’re not sure that this is perfect and everyone will like it, maybe you should wait…or not publish at all…” That can lead to “You’re a failure and you’ll never get it all right.” That got dark fast, huh? That’s perfectionism for you.
In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown tells us, “Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it's often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.”
The mind of a perfectionist is not kind to its owner. Why do you continue to let these thoughts have such power over you? It’s your mind, after all. Shouldn’t you be in charge of how it treats you?
Here are some questions and reminders for when you’re feeling overwhelmed by perfectionism:
Ask yourself: Are my expectations realistic?
Be honest. There’s nothing wrong with following realistic standards. You have choices and there are many options between perfection and failure. Perfectionism leads you to believe there is only ONE way to do something and that anything less or different is a disaster. Not only does this limit you, but it also sets impossible standards.
Remind yourself - perfection is a lie.
Be harsh to perfection. Tell it to shut up and go away. Perfection is NOT REAL LIFE. It’s IMPOSSIBLE to achieve. There has never been a perfect person or a perfect life. It’s not here. Find a reminder that works for you and repeat it to yourself whenever the lies start to sound true.
Do what works.
Perfection might now be nudging you to think of places where it’s needed. It might be saying, “I’m not a liar. What about math? Math seems pretty essential. You might not need perfect hair, but you need perfect math, right?” According to my sister, a math teacher, math is more about overall concepts than perfect sums. This sounds a lot like life to me.
Even if there are moments when accuracy is required, you must ask yourself if the way you are thinking about it is helpful and functional to you in that moment. If you’re having a hard time believing that perfection is not necessary, then ask yourself, “Is this helping me to live the life I want? Is this motivating me to move forward or keeping me paralyzed by fear?” Put the unhelpful thoughts on the shelf for now and focus on something more helpful.
Decide what is really important.
When you push the perfectionism monster out of the way, you can identify what is truly important. For example, without perfectionism, I can honestly say my only goal with this blog article is to remind you to be kind to yourself (and if no one reads it, it’s still a good reminder for me). My goal is attainable even if there’s a grammar mistake or every sentence isn’t full of eloquence. It’s somewhere in between perfectionism and utter failure, and I’m ok with that. Deciding what is most important to you can become your mantra, the helpful thoughts you tell yourself to keep perfectionism on the shelf.
Just do the thing.
As the brilliant Amy Poehler says, “You do it because the doing of it is the thing. The doing is the thing. The talking and the worrying and the thinking is not the thing. That is what I know.” Perfectionism paralyzes you from the doing. But the doing is enough. That is what I know. This may be a good mantra for you to use if you don’t already have one.
Not sure what “the thing” is? As Glennon Melton wrote, “Just do the next right thing.” Small steps make all the difference. They don’t have to be perfect so long as your steps are in the general direction you want to go, or you turn them around when you realize they aren’t.
Most of all: Be kind to yourself.
If you accept that perfectionism isn’t realistic, then you are free to be honest about what is realistic. Your perspective will immediately shift. Choose to be kind to yourself instead of letting perfectionism rule your thoughts. Refuse to allow it to beat you up and tell say you’re not good enough. Stand up for yourself.
Therapy Can Help
If you’re a chronic perfectionist, you’re wondering what else you can do. You want more pointers so you can be the perfect, overachieving non-perfectionist. I get you because I am you. For now, I invite you into the mess of life. I implore you to stop beating yourself up when you can’t force it all to line up.
If calling life messy makes your skin crawl and doing this on your own sounds too hard, therapy can help. As a licensed therapist, I find that self-compassion starts with admitting you can’t always do it on your own. Perfectionism may tell you that seeking therapy makes you “less than.” But that’s another lie that can hold you back.
Therapy can help you find your own voice outside of perfectionism. It can help you live a full life by sorting out what’s really important to you and distinguishing that from the lies perfectionism tells. If this is something you’re ready for, you can learn more about my services here or “just do the thing” by scheduling an appointment online now.