If you’ve found your way to this article, I’m guessing you consider yourself a perfectionist. And if you’re reading about how to stop being a perfectionist, you also know your drive for perfection can be as much a curse as it is a blessing.
Like any natural force of nature (e.g., wind, fire, or water), too much of anything can lead to chaos. When the rain waters the earth, for instance, think about how it revives and brings new life to everything it touches. But excessive rain can cause flooding and leave a trail of devastation in its wake.
The same principle is true with perfectionism. You already know the benefits of being meticulous, detail-oriented, conscientious, and successful. The challenge comes when pursuing these things does not lead to a sense of well-being and fulfillment.
Continually striving to get everything right and be the best can come at a high cost and affect your personal relationships, health, and well-being adversely.
I’ve worked with many people who are quick to identify themselves as perfectionists. They have been all for the perfect life, the perfect relationship, the perfect body, the perfect email, the perfect athlete, the perfect image, the perfect student, the perfect wife, the perfect employee… You get the point.
They are talented people whose relentless drive has helped them achieve many great things. Although others may be in awe of their achievements, they talk about feeling stressed and anything but perfect.
Listening to clients’ experiences, I’ve seen very clearly that striving for perfection is destined to bring pain, exhaustion, and a sense of failure because it is unattainable. There’s no finish line, checkbox, or wrap party. (Even if it were attainable, and there was a party, would there be anyone left to celebrate with?)
What Is Perfectionism?
The dictionary defines perfectionism as “the refusal to accept any standard short of perfection.” One study describes it as “an irrational desire to achieve along with being overly critical of oneself and others.” Perfectionism is an unrelenting need to meet your or others’ expectations of yourself.
Refusal. Irrational. Unrelenting. These words represent difficult feelings for anyone to live with daily. These feelings can be attributed to the underlying fear and belief that they will never be good enough.
As author and speaker, Brené Brown shares on Oprah’s Lifeclass:
“When perfectionism is driving, shame is always riding shotgun and fear is the annoying backseat driver….[perfectionism] is “a way of thinking…if I look perfect, live perfect, work perfect, do it perfect, I can avoid or minimize shame, criticism, blame, judgement or ridicule…perfectionism is a 20-ton shield that we carry around hoping it will keep us from being hurt. When in truth, it keeps us from being seen.”
So, how do you harness your perfectionist powers for good? How do you honor your drive, ambition, and motivation without causing undue stress, frustration, and pain?
9 Steps on How to Stop Being a Perfectionist
As you read the following steps, remember that it isn’t about throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Instead, it’s about thinking deeper and wider about how you can keep those high standards without experiencing negative consequences.
A mentor once told me that awareness is 90% of the solution.
When you are aware, and you acknowledge something in your life, it loses its power over you. When you bring it from an unconscious pattern to a conscious choice, you are now back in the driver’s seat.
Seek to understand what fuels your perfectionist nature. What’s your core driver?
There’s a reason why you are striving for perfection. Perhaps you learned that you needed to achieve that somewhere along the way or someone praised you at some point, and such comments made you feel worthy, validated, and recognized.
Many strive to be perfect to fill a need for love, or a lack of self-esteem. I learned that much of my own perfectionist behavior came from my fear of getting rejected, even though it was ironically causing the rejection I was trying to avoid.
Consider what drives your perfectionism. Being a perfectionist – no matter how painful or problematic it becomes – is likely serving you in some way, so try to understand the reasons behind it.
3. Identify Consequences
Based on an article, perfectionism can cause low productivity, troubled relationships, lack of confidence, anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. This drive you pride yourself on can come at a cost. When you identify and acknowledge the consequences of your perfectionism, it compels your mind to want to do something about it.
How is perfectionism impacting your health and wellness? Have you missed opportunities to do something new out of fear that you wouldn’t do it perfectly? Is your pursuit of perfection causing friction in your relationships with your partner, kids, or friends? How is this trait sitting with your co-workers?
As a leader and team consultant, I’m highly aware of how those perfectionist tendencies can be career-limiting if not recognized and managed.
Identify three negative consequences of perfectionism on your life, career, health, or relationships.
4. Know You Are Enough
Many people beat themselves up for not being ‘enough’ of something; for example pretty, fit, rich, successful, at home, etc. This is the inner critic’s voice. But guess what? That little voice that tells you that you’re not enough is wrong!
You are enough. You are more than enough. You were born enough and will always be enough. You are deserving of love, happiness, and success, regardless of the things you do or how perfect you are. It might not be believable right now, but deep down, some part of you knows this to be true.
I know it’s not easy. As a perfectionist, you tend to see what’s wrong before you see what’s right, including the one wrong question on the test, the single typo in your winning presentation to the team, or the three pounds you didn’t lose versus the seven you did.
But instead of focusing on what went wrong, why don’t you acknowledge all the things you’re doing right? At least do that before you try to figure out how to make future improvements!
Your new mantra: progress over perfection
Acknowledge your successes, talents, and strengths. Every day for 30 days, write down three things you are good at and what you like about yourself. These can be personality traits (kind, loving, hard-working); strengths (writing, speaking, your job); or wins from the day or lifetime achievements.
5. Do Your Best Every Day
Over the years, Dad has shared countless words of wisdom with me. However, “do your best every day” is the piece of advice I rely on the most. I’ve called my dad many times, worried about something that happened, beating myself up or second-guessing a decision. Here’s how our conversation goes every time:
Dad: Did you do your best?
Dad: That’s all you can do. You can’t control what happens from here.
That’s it. Simple, right? But if you really stop to think about this, it’s a powerful way to stop being a perfectionist.
When you do your best, you can rest, knowing you did everything you could. You can live with no regrets. Sure, you might want to do things better next time, and there are likely areas of improvement, but it’s just that — next time. You can’t change what has already happened, so using energy to beat yourself up about it achieves absolutely nothing.
Next time you beat yourself up over something you’ve already said or done imperfectly, ask yourself,
“Did I do my best that I could [with what I had, with what I knew]?”
If the answer is a resounding yes, then permit yourself to let go, move on, and use your time and energy to make things better next time.
Replace perfection with something more significant and attainable.
Take a conversation I had with a friend of mine about my daughter, who is a successful and awarded competitive gymnast.
Friend: Is she going to be in the Olympics?
Me: No, she isn’t.
Friend: Then, why does she spend so much time at the gym?
Me: Because she loves it.
Friend: Yes, but if she’s not going to the Olympics, why the waste of time and money?
Me: Well, you run your own company, right?
Me: Will your company be the best and most recognized one in your industry?
Friend: No, of course not. You know we’re a small company.
Me: If you are aware of that, why would you keep the company running at all?
That’s when she got it, but I was still concerned by her logic.
“If my daughter won’t be THE BEST in the ENTIRE WORLD, why would she even do the sport at all?”
Is this what our kids are hearing from us? If they won’t play NFL football, sing on a sold-out stage at Madison Square Garden, or display their work on the Guggenheim, why on earth would they continue pursuing sports, singing, or art, respectively?
If you talk with my daughter, you will quickly learn that she does the sport because she loves the challenge. It pushes her body to the limit, and she finds joy, satisfaction, and purpose by going to the gym. I love that she loves it and know that she is learning life lessons that will serve her future success.
Why not replace your drive for perfection with something much deeper and more significant?
Make the switch and identify what’s really important to you. Perhaps you can replace your drive for perfection with purpose, kindness, joy, fulfillment, contribution, or love. What resonates the most with you?
7. Embrace Failure
You’ve likely heard countless stories of successful people who have used their failures as a stepping stone for success.
Walt Disney was fired from the Kansas City Star because his editor felt he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas.” Oprah Winfrey was told she was “unfit for television.” And, in the words of Michael Jordan:
“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
Most successful leaders, entrepreneurs, and elite athletes will tell you that failure has made them successful. Embracing failure is, of course, easier said than done.
In one of my first jobs out of college, I worked on a project to get more people into a program I helped create. I was convinced it was awesome, and we could easily fill seats. I spent time, money, and energy trying to get it off the ground but to very little effect.
I was embarrassed, defeated, and felt like a complete failure: I had let the company and myself down. One day, wallowing in self-pity, I called my mentor and told him what had happened.
“Tracy, failure is an event, not a person.”
That single sentence has stuck with me throughout my career.
If you are growing and striving (which you likely are), you will fail a lot in your life. You will make mistakes, mess up, and let others down.
When that happens, remember that you have made a mistake, but you are not the mistake.
8. Celebrate Imperfection
What if your greatest weakness was actually your greatest strength? What if your adversity is your advantage?
In the famous 1937 personal development book Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill, Napoleon talks about his son, Blair, who had a birth defect. He had no physical signs of ears and was destined to be deaf and mute.
Napoleon believed, “His affliction was not a liability, but an asset of great value.” He also thought that “every adversity brings with it the seed of an equivalent advantage.”
While he had no idea how his son’s affliction could become an asset, Napoleon had faith that it would. And he was right — Blair went on to lead an incredible, successful life. He attained his hearing and lived life on a mission to bring hope and help to the deaf and hard of hearing, positively affecting millions.
Think of all the people who have overcome imperfections. Think of those who have inspired you many times. Often, our vulnerabilities and ability to overcome struggles and fears can create not only inspiration and hope but also a connection with others.
“We cannot connect through this façade called perfection. Now more than ever, we are craving connection, but it is in the imperfect moments that our hearts speak to each other and the lessons are learned.” — Petra Kolber
9. Step Back
Chances are, sometimes your perfectionism gets a hold of you. Like a runaway train, you don’t even realize you are wasting time, money, or energy on something that doesn’t need to be perfect.
When this happens, here are a few proven ways to get perspective.
- Don’t do an A+ job on a C-level task. Identify what’s needed and decide on what is really important. After that, let the rest go. In economics, this is called the law of diminishing returns. It is the point at which the level of profits or benefits gained is less than the amount of money or energy invested.
- Learn to satisfice (yes, that is a word). In his book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, Barry Schwartz talks about the power of satisficing instead of maximizing. Maximizers want to make the absolute best decision, while satisficers seek to find what is “good enough.” They know there is never a perfect choice, so they seek a decision that meets most of their needs or requirements. When you learn to satisfice instead of maximizing, you can make better, faster decisions with less regret.
- When all else fails, meditate. Meditation has become the cure for all that ails you, and there’s a good reason why. It allows you to calm your thoughts, achieve greater clarity, reduce fear and anxiety, and create a silence that enables you to access your true self. Simply put, meditation will help you quiet your perfectionist tendencies, reduce your worries, and return your mind to a healthy state of balance.
We Are All a Work-in-Progress
You are human. Simply by being a human, you cannot be perfect.
We are not finished “things” — we are ever-evolving beings. There will always be room for improvement, mistakes, and something new to learn. Like Sisyphus rolling his rock up the hill, perfectionism is never-ending.
How to stop being a perfectionist when you are already one?
Instead of focusing on perfection, focus on the learning, the growth, and the journey, and strive to be the best version of yourself every day.
I’ll leave you with this beautiful passage from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life:
“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.”
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Featured photo credit: Kelly Sikkema via unsplash.com