confessions of a recovering perfectionist

I’m a somewhat weird creature. At times, I’m absolutely perfectionistic. Other times, I’m the exact opposite: seemingly careless and inattentive. It’s a very odd combination, paradoxical, but when did human beings ever make sense? But let’s look at the perfectionism first, and why I consider myself a recovering perfectionist.

The thing about perfectionism is that it causes you to have insanely high standards. You feel that if you undervalue yourself, you’re being a doormat. Even constructive criticism stings painfully and makes you feel defensive. If you don’t live up to those high standards, you feel like a worthless failure. A disappointment to yourself and others. Yeah, none of this is good for your mental health.

Different manifestations of perfectionism

It’s helpful to identify where in your life you have the strongest perfectionistic tendencies. This will help you understand yourself better, and see which purpose perfectionism plays in your life, and potentially recognize the root causes of your perfectionism. Here are a couple of examples for different areas of your life:

Perfectionism in relationships

We all want our partner to love us, and our friends to like us. But if you feel that you have to be perfect for your partner to love you and your friends to like you, your relationships will be incredibly taxing in the long run. And you won’t be able to actually be yourself, because you’ll constantly try to live up to some perfect version of yourself—whatever that may be.

Perfectionism in writing

When you write, do you obsess over typos and grammatical mistakes? Do you wonder that the person reading what you wrote will judge you for the quality of your writing? When you write an email, do you wonder if the other person will lose respect for you because you don’t express yourself well in writing?

(It’s helpful to remember that even literary greats like John Steinbeck made some ridiculous spelling mistakes.)

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.”

— Anne Lamott

Perfectionism at work

Do you feel you have to do everything perfectly? Or do you feel you have to work longer hours than anyone else to get the same results? Do you try to do more than is expected of you in order to get noticed? Do you stay late even though it’s unnecessary because you feel the need to prove your worth? Are you too afraid to ask questions or express your opinions in case you make a mistake? Are you always trying to prove that your work is better than everyone else’s?

Ultimately, this is the path that leads to burnout—I’ve seen it many times already, and it’s been the subject of scientific research.

Perfectionism and public speaking

When speaking in front of people, like when delivering a presentation, do you tend to hyper-prepare and commit to memory every single word? Maybe you fear blanking out and embarrassing yourself in front of others. Or maybe you think that if you don’t memorize the words, you’ll sound stupid and be ridiculed by others. Maybe you worry so much about what others think when you speak that you just don’t say anything at all.

Parenting perfectionism

Many parents feel inadequate, both mothers and fathers. They wonder if they’re good enough to be a parent. If they’ll mess up their kids and make them into monsters or criminals or losers later in life. Children raised by this type of parent grow up to be emotionally stunted adults, never daring to fail because they’ll be ashamed of themselves if they fail at something. This type of parenting isn’t good for anyone involved.

The perfect social media life

So many people try to make their life look perfect on IG. And you could argue that social media is maybe the only place where our lives will ever “be” perfect. But don’t mistake likes for love. It’s easy to get caught up in the social game, but it comes at a high price: your sense of self-worth, your peace of mind, your emotional well-being.

Where else are you perfectionistic?

Think about all the different areas in your life where you have perfectionist tendencies. Make a list and write them down, or situations where you’ve struggled with perfectionism. You can turn this into a great self-awareness exercise.

The causes of perfectionism

There are many causes of perfectionism. Speaking generally, there’s the fear of failure, a feeling of not being good enough, of being unworthy. And typically: a lot of internal pressure.

But that’s just scratching the surface. What you really want to get to is those specific moments when you felt that pain and that fear in your own life. The moments that made you who you are.

Are there any perfectionist role models in your past? Important people in your life who had unrealistic expectations of themselves, or of you?

Do you remember any moments in your life when you made a mistake and the consequences were so dire that it caused you a lot of emotional pain?

It’s those moments that you want to find, and make your peace with. They were experiences in the past—leave them there, and realize that your present self can handle things better.

The upside of perfectionism

Take it from a recovering perfectionist: perfectionism isn’t all bad. It’s what kept me working, motivated and driven throughout my career—and it’s part of what’s led me to where I am today. Perfectionism is a widespread problem among high-achievers. Perfectionism wasn’t always a bad thing for me; it was motivating me to apply myself harder, to put in that extra effort that made a difference and enabled me to do things I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to do.

Accept that perfectionism is a coping mechanism and that it has served you well at times in life—albeit at a high cost. You recognize this now, and can yield the power of perfectionism with greater wisdom.

How you can recover from perfectionism

It all starts with self-awareness, and the good news is: you already have that. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading this article.

Self-awareness: Notice your somatic experience, how you feel, which sensations you can sense in your body, and where.

Self-talk: Pay attention to the voice inside your head and what it sounds like when you feel a particularly strong urge to do something perfectly. This inner critic is great at pulling the strings from behind the curtain. Realize that this voice in your head is yours, even if it’s often out of control. You can talk to yourself with greater kindness. In fact, try talking to yourself as if you’d be a good friend or loved one: show yourself the same understanding and patience you extend to others.

Self-compassion: Accept yourself the way you are. This doesn’t mean you can’t change—but it means you don’t have to beat yourself up or feel inferior because you’re not living up to your impossible standards. When you let go of perfectionism, there’s a beautiful space that opens up that you can fill with powerful potential for growth and improvement.

Self-care: Use your body. Breathe deeply and relaxed. Your body is your friend on this journey. Relax your muscles. Let go of any tension you feel.

Try new ways of doing things: If you’re particularly dealing with perfectionism in your relationship with a specific person—next time, try to be a bit less perfect, and show a bit more of your true self, the vulnerable site of yourself, the weak side of yourself, the side of yourself that you think the other person might not like, love, or accept.

Talk about it: Simply talk with someone else about your perfectionism. So many of the issues we have we only have because we never say these things out loud. It’s like we have emotional poison within us, and the way we get it out is by saying these things out loud. But if you never say them out loud, you keep that poison within. Speak your truth. The truth will set you free.

Examine your belief systems: Ask yourself what you believe you need to do to be good enough. Observe how you make all these judgments and what I call “small terrorism” in your mind in moments of stress. Realize that perfectionism and pursuing excellence are not the same thing.

View failure in a different light: When you fail, it doesn’t mean that you’re a failure. It simply means that there’s an opportunity for you to learn something. Instead of shutting down and beating yourself up, open your mind to new possibilities. Approach the situation with a sense of curiosity and ask yourself: How else could I approach this?

Think wabi-sabi: You’ve probably heard about wabi-sabi by now. It’s a way of viewing the world and accepting its imperfections and flaws. One of the ways this world view is manifested is the art of kintsugi, or kintsukuroi. When a cup breaks, rather than throwing it away or trying to fix it in a way where you hide the break, you actually mend the break with gold lacquer. Turning the break into something that stands out and enhances the beauty and uniqueness of the cup.

Oscillating between perfectionism and sloppiness

I hinted at this in the introduction of this article. Sometimes I’m a perfectionist, and sometimes I push out subpar work product. It’s almost as if a part of me is trying to emancipate itself from my inner perfectionist, and is doing it like a teenager: by stubbornly rebelling against it, with little regard for reason.

This is still a balancing act. Let’s just take this blog post as an example: It doesn’t feel ready. It doesn’t feel finished. I feel like I need to spend much more time and effort on making it good enough. But I know that sometimes you just have to draw a line in the sand and say: This is enough. (That’s where self-imposed constraints can be incredibly helpful. Set yourself a deadline, even if it’s an artificial one.)

The most important thing every recovering perfectionist needs to know

If you take only one thing away from all this, then let it be this: embrace yourself the way you are. You’re a gift to humanity. You’re already enough, you’re already worthy of love, you’re already what the world wants you to be in this very moment.

Yes, you can always do better. Yes, there’s always room for self-improvement. But start by letting go of your impossible standards, stop judging yourself so harshly, and practice loving yourself the way you are.

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