The journey of unlearning perfectionism is a strange and counterintuitive journey to take. Our modern world teaches us to try our hardest, on time is late, and wasting time is basically one of the seven deadly sins. We must be intentional with every single decision we make, or our life will ultimately end in bitter regret.
The great difficulty is, there are truths within these messages. Who can really argue with trying one’s hardest and living intentionally? And to be honest, these messages are for some people.
But they are not for me. They may not be for you either.
IT IS NOT INUITIVE
Unlearning perfectionism is counterintuitive because who in their right mind is going to on purpose attempt to not try their hardest?
What if I told my boss that? What if they asked what my current professional goals were and I responded with:
Oh, I have been working on implementing my strategic plan of not giving my very best to everything I do!
Since it does feel so counterintuitive, I do not believe I would have learned to let go of trying so hard if I was not forced into doing so. A couple years ago my position at work became completely chaotic. I had tasks that would pile up and had limited time to complete everything. I spoke with my superiors and was told that there were no changes in sight to accommodate my situation.
What did that mean? It meant I submitted paperwork that was not perfect and that was past suggested deadlines. It was official in my mind – I was a terrible employee.
But guess what my employee evaluation said?
Well Organized. Meets deadlines. Pays attention to detail.
A NEW UNDERSTANDING
Here’s the thing. Our employers do desire for us to give our best effort. However, they also recognize that human beings are not literally perfect. The problem is, what perfectionists think of as “my best” is very different from what non-perfectionists think of as “my best.”
As perfectionists, we are trying to do our paperwork, schoolwork, life work etc. to literal perfect standards. But since we are not perfect human beings that is not actually possible, so we end up just having a whole lot of stress and negative emotions in our lives. It’s not that non-perfectionists aren’t trying hard, they just recognize they are flawed human beings that will not be able to produce something absolutely perfect. They also end up getting a whole lot more done. If you get everything to a 80-90% standard, you’ll give yourself a whole lot more time and mental energy to get other important things done.
For instance, when I spend hours and hours on a project trying to get it to 100% I end up neglecting other areas of my life. For me, I ended up neglecting the very people that my organization serves. I was too concerned about the paperwork being absolutely perfect. Maybe for you it’s something else? Maybe it’s neglecting friends, family, spouses, or your own self care?
I mean, if we are such perfectionists – even if we do meet deadlines perfectly, or write a perfect book, or reach some other perfect goal, but have neglected people close to us or even ourselves in the process – are we really going to look at our life and feel like it is “perfect?”
The difficult truth for those hard wired for perfectionism is that there is no perfect life. It simply isn’t to be found. So the best thing we can do in this life is strive for a balanced life. Will it be perfectly balanced? Of course not. But balance is a much better goal to strive for.
HOW TO CHANGE
So how can you start moving in this direction and begin to let go of your perfectionism?
Notice little moments where you are being a perfectionist. You don’t have to conquer the big things yet. Just notice the tiny moments in which it happens. Moments you wouldn’t even realize it was perfectionism if you weren’t consciously thinking about it.
My example is that a few nights ago I went out with a couple friends. Sometimes I can be a perfectionist about social situations.
Is this going well? Is everyone having good time? Did we go to the right place for dinner? Am I talking enough tonight? Are people having fun with me? Did people not like their food? Are they glad they are hanging out with me? Is there something I could have done to make it better?
Okay, so I am a little obsessive. But you probably are too. It’s packaged deal usually – if you are a perfectionist you are also a little obsessive at times.
Anyway, I noticed myself being this way at dinner. And although my obsessive perfectionism thoughts didn’t go away when I started noticing them, I did feel like I could combat them somewhat with more positive and realistic thoughts.
Is this going well? Is everyone having a good time? Yes it is. People are smiling.
Did we go to the right place for dinner? There is no “right place” but this place has a good environment and good food.
Am I talking enough tonight? Are people having fun with me? Again, yes, they are smiling and laughing!
Do people like their food? Yes! They are eating it! You have no evidence of them not liking their food!
Is there something I could have done better? No!!!!!!!!
ADMITTING THERE IS A PROBLEM
If you are not a perfectionist you are probably asking yourself what in the world is wrong with me that I am having these conversations with myself in my head at dinner with friends. If you ARE a perfectionist, you totally get it.
As you can see from the above example, there was no evidence that merited any of those questions or concerns. But that is how the perfectionist brains are wired. Our brains naturally want to ask Are things going well? Could they be going better? Are there any problems? And because we get so focused on those questions, we start creating evidence where there isn’t any. You start to think Well she didn’t eat her entire piece of chicken, it must have tasted bad. Or they looked at their phone a couple times, that must mean they were bored.
This is where it is incredibly important to recognize that you are a perfectionist. Once you accept this, it then gives you the permission to dismiss the thoughts when they start happening. I just simply remind myself: You are a perfectionist so your mind is gong to naturally start thinking this way, but you have no evidence to support this idea. And doing just this, actually really helps quite a bit! You don’t get quite as sucked into the lies that the perfectionist brain wants to tell you.
APPRECIATING YOUR AMAZING ABILITIES
Before I end this blog entry, there is one other point I want to make very clear. There are many many MANY benefits and advantages to having the kind of brain that you do! My goal in this article is NOT to convey how unlucky you are in being a perfectionist or how you have all these issues to overcome because you are one. My goal of the article is to provide a few tools and ways to change thinking patterns so that you can be your best self. However, I do not want to neglect to mention that being a perfectionist has likely brought you very far in life.
You have likely thought very carefully about the decisions you have made, been intentional about the life you are choosing to live, and eliminated a lot of negative things in your life through you critical thinking skills.
Like all traits, there are always positives/negatives and advantages/disadvantages. So let’s hone in on the super strength that your brain wiring brings you, and learn some tricks to deal with a few little kinks in the system.
With all this being said, there might be someone thinking “Wait! But how do I know when I should trust my perfectionism and use it as a strength and how will I realize if it’s causing me more damage than good?”
The good news is, perfectionists are wise souls full of self reflection. YOU WILL KNOW. Don’t over analyze, trust that you will know.
I know that I have gained a lot from reading blog entries and I also know if I took the time and journaled about them for a few minutes they would affect me in an even deeper way and bring me to some truths I may have not come to otherwise.
So if you have a few extra minutes and your journal handy…here you go!
- What is the biggest barrier that you see your perfectionism causing you? Has it caused you stress? Has it caused you to neglect other important things in your life? If so, what are these things?
- When most recently do you remember having perfectionist thoughts? What were those thoughts? Was there evidence for the thoughts you were having? What could you have said to yourself to combat the thoughts you were having?
- What will you commit to do in the upcoming week to challenge negative perfectionist thoughts? If you enjoy journaling, keep track in a daily log of the thoughts you are having and how you address them. This will help to keep you conscious of the thoughts and make it easier to continually address them throughout your weeks.
I WOULD LOVE TO HEAR YOUR COMMENTS!
Let me know if this entry helped you in any way, if you have any further questions, or if there is anything else you would be interested in learning related to this topic!
Also, I would love to hear what“Unlearning Perfectionism” has looked like for you!
Thanks for reading!
2 thoughts on “Unlearning Perfectionism”
Thank you so much for this article Nicole! Perfectionism has been at the same time my greatest asset and my biggest problem (in the sense of taking time). I also have the thoughts you describe, the over-analyzing everything. I guess that belongs together, because I’m OCD about a lot of things. When you were describing your job, I was right away imagining it – that would be my worst nightmare! I have to choose my battles wisely though. Sometimes not being allowed to finish a project makes me so miserable that I rather just give in. Other times I try to realize from the outset that I will probably do the job more thoroughly than most people, so I try to give it a little less and make a strategy for that. But yes, I have definitely found myself going the extra mile but not charging for it, because I know I did it just to satisfy my own obsessive mind. Once I get involved in a project it is hard to step back from it, so I pick and choose them when I can.
Thank you for reading and sharing your comments Roze! It is always nice to know I am not the only one that struggles with these sort of things! I also can definitely relate to what you said about having to pick your battles wisely! Thanks again for reading – stay in touch!