Menu

The One Thing You Need to Know to Overcome Perfectionism

Surrender

 “You’re imperfect and you’re wired for struggle but you are worthy of love and belonging.” ~Brene Brown

There’s nothing perfect about me, and I’m okay with that…now. This wasn’t the case for most of my life, though. In fact, I’ve been a perfectionist for almost thirty years. I’m not counting the first five years of my life when I was free to be as messy and magical as I wanted.

In third grade I asked my mom to buy me a stack of lined notebooks and colored pens. I spent hours neatly labeling each notebook by class, date, and assignment deadlines. If I made one mistake, like a jagged cursive letter or a misspelling, I’d rip out the page and begin again on a fresh sheet.

This was tiring but it was also a compulsion. Everything had to be neat and ordered or else—or else I’d be out of control, scared, and overwhelmed.

Before the divorce, my parents rarely fought, but my father’s frequent absences and his coolness toward my sister and me sparked a firestorm in me.

Expressing anger wasn’t a thing in our family, especially for women. That simply wasn’t Christian enough or loving enough or good enough.

So I denied my anger and my sadness and, most of all, my fear that my family was breaking apart and I couldn’t do anything to stop it.

Inside I burned like coals after a long night’s fire. I never let it get too hot. I played the good child, the loving daughter and sister, but my life was out of control. Thus began my long dance with perfectionism.

In my twenties I tried to be a perfect girlfriend, perfect student, and perfect employee, all the while denying the expression of my full self, imperfections and all. Even when I dressed the part of the disaffected adolescent, I was perfect at it all the way down to my spiked hair and scuffed Doc Martins.

At parties, I perfected the art of banter and hosted like no one else. All was accounted for, each detail a way for me to control life.

I never realized that perfectionism was an attempt to avoid all rejection, all criticism, and all failure. It was a matter of life or death.

Perfectionism saved me from drowning, but it didn’t help me to swim. I was treading water, staying safe, and desperately trying to control my reality, which is never truly possible. What I realized later was at the heart of perfectionism is the desire for love and acceptance.

Life is a practice and when we practice we make mistakes. The desire for love and acceptance are universal. There is no shame in mistakes, just an opportunity to learn and to grow.

No matter the root causes of your perfectionism or your desire for it, know that it is a desire for love and acceptance and there is another path to get there. Maybe your family only showed you love and attention when you did everything right. Or your boss only notices your work when you slave over every detail.

Maybe you feel the need to challenge yourself to be bigger and do better in your work and your relationships. This is not a bad thing. But there’s a difference between excellence and perfection.

The One Thing You Need to Know to Overcome Perfectionism

Surrender.

When we surrender to the moment, to change, to messiness or imperfection, we allow the seeds of excellence to grow. Excellence is that drive toward raising ourselves up to our own highest good thereby allowing our unique gifts, talents, and personalities to benefit the highest good of all.

Excellence, unlike perfectionism, is about lovingly pushing ourselves to act, think, relate, and create from the highest part of ourselves.

Perfection is about controlling the outcome in order to receive love and acceptance. It’s all about fear. Surrender is about accepting where we are at in any moment, knowing that we are a work in progress.

Love and surrender gently tug us toward our own centers and ultimately to the center of the universe, which only knows love. Surrender also invites self-forgiveness, an act all perfectionists need to practice daily.

3 Tips to Manage Perfectionism

1. Laugh.

About anything. Do it often. Having a sense of humor about ourselves and our actions, especially embarrassing or disappointing experiences, doesn’t have to be a shield or form of protection. Humor can heal or at least create enough dopamine and endorphins to get us through the tough moments.

2. Forgive, forgive, forgive. Most of all, yourself.

Forgiveness is actually a selfish act. This is not a bad thing. Forgiveness releases us from fear-based thoughts and emotions. It is the gateway to surrendering our perception of control over our lives and over the actions of others.

3. Surround yourself by free spirits.

If you can’t find anyone like that in your circle of friends, then read about them or watch movies about dreamers and risk-takers—people who’ve failed or made huge mistakes only to overcome them and create an even better life than they could have imagined.

This is why mythology was used to help people transition from one phase of life to another in many cultures. There is power in story and identifying with a character who has gone through many trials and adventures only to re-emerge as the hero.

After thirty years of perfecting perfectionism, I’ve finally learned to let go of controlling every detail of my life. It’s scary sometimes and there are days when I want to organize and reorganize my desk instead of facing what’s really bothering me.

But those difficult, uncomfortable, and challenging moments pass much quicker when I simply exhale and surrender to whatever is in my heart and in my mind. A softening occurs, and my body finally relaxes instead of being constantly braced for struggle.

I may still compare myself to that social media dynamo who effortlessly attracts a huge following on Facebook or avoid looking at myself as I pass a store window for fear of being disappointed by my reflection, but now I just smile and keep going, knowing that this too shall pass.

Surrender image via Shutterstock

Profile photo of Erin Dougherty

About Erin Dougherty

Join Erin Dougherty’s mailing list at www.birdsongreadings.com and get a free copy of “Finding Your Personal Mythology.” Or join her Facebook group“The Mythic Life,” all about the everyday hero's journey.

See a typo, an inaccuracy, or something offensive? Please contact us so we can fix it!
Announcement: Tired of feeling stuck? Learn to let go of the past & create a life you love with the Tiny Buddha course!
  • K

    This article resonates with me – I’ve always known I had perfectionist tendencies but thought I had a handle on it all as they don’t apply to every aspect of my life (Who cares if I can’t find 1 missing sock…?) 🙂
    But I’ve been people-pleasing and trying to ‘get it right’ literally from (I could say) the word go.
    And not in an entirely healthy way, I’m only realising reading this the amount of anger I’ve hidden and denied to myself.. I’ve never thought of myself as an angry person at all..
    Thanks for helping me figure out something new about myself this morning Erin. Will be putting your methods to good use soon I suspect!

  • Tim

    I loved this article! The part about surrounding yourself with free spirits is excellent, and I especially loved how you thought to find spirits in literature or mythology. An excellent idea. hank you for this article. thank you for not turning it into 13 steps, because I can never remember more than two steps anyways. And don’t worry about your reflection. You look great.

  • Namor

    Great read.

  • lavegetaliana

    Brava. Thank you for this heartfelt, honest piece. I, too, used to suffer from perfectionist impulses. I remember making a conscious effort one day to not fix my nail polish when I’d messed up a single finger, forcing myself to deal with it, because, if I couldn’t let that go, how could I learn to cope with bigger, important things? It’s always a work in progress, as we all are, but excellence is something way more worth it. And perfect imperfection is much more attractive as a goal. Cheers and gratitude to you, and best wishes on your journey.

  • reedeeda

    Great article! I would like to share though that I feel my past perfectionism wasn’t only driven by a want of love and acceptance but more so as a way to deal with the anxiety that life is uncertain. I believed that somehow if I did everything the right way and planned everything just so, then nothing bad would happen. Eventually it spiraled into a compulsion to control everything and when that would fail, I would completely lose it, thinking what should I have done differently? My anxiety became worse over the years and finally I wore myself out. No matter how hard you try and control the outcome, things happen – from minor to major. I don’t control the universe and it was a bit egotistical to think I could, but for a period of time, that magical thinking helped me get through the uncertainty of life (especially when I was younger) until eventually I had to let it go for my own health and sanity.

  • KB

    “But those difficult, uncomfortable, and challenging moments pass much
    quicker when I simply exhale and surrender to whatever is in my heart
    and in my mind. A softening occurs, and my body finally relaxes instead
    of being constantly braced for struggle.”

    I’ve been revisiting this struggle dance for a month or so now without even realizing it. Your article came to me at JUST the right time to help me soften again. Thank You!!!

  • Jaweria Maryam

    a good moral inside it..thnx fo being so perfectly imperfect..

  • scilla

    this too shall pass 😀

  • Roger

    Thanks for this Erin, it’s so nice to know I’m not alone and to have some techniques tucked in my back pocket the next time I’m not giving myself enough credit and understanding! -Roger

  • AB

    This article spoke to my very core and soul. THANK YOU.

  • E Hunter

    I NEEDED this today. Thank you.

  • Erin Dougherty

    Thanks to all who wrote comments. I feel blessed that any stories or insights I have about perfectionism and self-acceptance can help others with this problem. I really appreciate everyone’s support and comments, especially those who feel inspired to see their lives from a different perspective. I know I’m a work in progress, and I’m fine with that. Someone told me once that life was like learning a musical instrument live in front of an audience. That takes courage. As a lifelong musician myself, whenever I feel perfectionism holding me back, I remember what another musician told me: if you mess up, just pretend it’s part of the song and keep going.

  • Erin Dougherty

    You’re absolutely welcome Roger. You sure aren’t alone. There s a lot of us recovering perfectionists out there : )

  • Erin Dougherty

    I love divine timing. Glad you got something out of the article. Just know that you can get through the struggle one minute at a time. Keep surrendering. I will too.

  • Erin Dougherty

    I hear you about how perfectionism can be helpful at times. But I think you named it right: magical thinking. Magical thinking can be a wonderful but temporary coping mechanism. But ultimately perfectionism does wear you out as you said. Glad to hear you have your health and sanity now : )

  • Erin Dougherty

    Thank you so much for your comment. Cheers to you too and let s keep surrounding ourselves with inspirational stories and people.

  • Erin Dougherty

    Thank you Tim. I’m getting better at not being so hard on myself as I pass a mirror. Also, I tend to lose track of too many pointers as well. 3 is a nice number. And I’m glad you’re now inspired to look for free spirits in literature and mythology. I know how that’s saved my sanity before.

  • Erin Dougherty

    I’m so happy my article helped you figure something out. Yay!

  • Erin Dougherty

    Thank you too!

  • Great article Erin. Particularly love the “surround yourself with free spirits” tip, 100% agree! I’m a recovered perfectionist with momentary slips back into old habits when I’m not present and conscious! When I read this line you wrote “I never realized that perfectionism was an attempt to avoid all rejection, all criticism and all failure. It was a matter of life or death”… my entire body shivered in resonance with it. That is exactly what most of my life was like, trying to be perfect as an avoidance of all things I considered ‘bad’. It was hilarious to realise perfection is impossible, given we’re all awesomely imperfect beings living in an imperfect world. And a dear friend of mine (also a recovering perfectionist) once said to me that there’s a big difference between having high standards and striving for excellence (which is great) and trying to be perfect (which is soul destroying). That comment was so clarifying and defining for me. Thanks again for a great post Erin!
    Love and best wishes
    Bernadette 🙂

  • Erin Dougherty

    Thanks so much Bernadette. It really is hilarious to finally get that perfection is impossible. It’s like a huge sigh of relief to know that it’s not actually attainable so just keep doing our best is all we can ask of ourselves, even if that best is crappy some days. So glad you resonated with the article.

  • Mariamne

    Ahhh… The essential Truths of Suffering being mastered by one… Beautiful

  • Phil Bolsta

    Very perceptive, insightful article, Erin. Here’s a book that may help your readers. It opened my eyes about the link between perfectionism and procrastination: http://bolstablog.wordpress.com/2010/08/13/procrastination/

  • Rob

    I so disagree! Perfection and desire for love and acceptance do not go together. Like the atlete who wants to be perfect in her sport needs to sacrifice her social life. Like the fashion designer who wants to be at the top of his game will have to reject and offend certain others along the way. Perfection will only come to those who don’t value love and acceptance that much

  • Brand Custodian

    Rob, forgive, forgive, and most important forgive yourself. Listen to you. You’re obsessed. Just relax and let things be. Chill.

  • Erin Dougherty

    Thanks Phil. I’ll check out that book.

  • Erin Dougherty

    Rob, I see your point here with athletes and people who really push themselves to be their best. However, for many people, the root deire to be perfect or do everything perfectly is about wanting to be loved and accepted. Even the fashion designer deep down wants recognition for hard work. I’ve learned over my 38 years that the perfectionistic drive can be damaging overall but striving towards excellence is a positive force.

  • RJ Legarte

    I love the message. And so I quote:

    “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”

  • Andrea

    I’ve never found a piece that hit the mark so “perfectly” about how I feel as this one has. It makes me feel as though I’m not alone in my perfectionistic actions and the motivations behind them. I’m a little bit more sane. Thank you.

  • Sonia

    I just wanted to say thanks Erin! This was such a wonderful article – It really hit home for me 🙂

  • Mia

    I’ve probably read this article 10 times by now. Every time my life starts to feel out of control I turn to this page and I am reminded about what I’m really looking for: love. My family has tried to tell me for years that I have a controlling streak, and I never really understood what that meant. In many cases I thought that perfectionism and control were only good things. I relied on my obsessive work drive to achieve success at things I struggled with. And I did become successful. But it started to take more out of me than I could earn back through any achievements. Your article reminds me to love the process and trust people to help me. The first time I read it, it brought me close to tears as I realized how much time I had spent needlessly chasing perfection. It reminds me to separate perfectionism from excellence, and success from love. Thank you for this inspiration.

  • Erin

    I’m so glad my story helped you in some way. It’s a tough balance to strike, wanting love and acceptance but also wanting to achieve, achieve, acheive. Keep being you.

  • Christina H

    Dear Erin, thank you for sharing your story. I’m 23 and struggling with what seems to be perfectionism. I’ve read several articles on overcoming perfectionism, but yours stands out. It is simple in concept, and it gets to the point. My goal for this week is to focus on laughing and self-forgiveness. Also, thank you for validating the benefits of watching tv/movies about dreamers and risk-takers. I was able to work through a lot of my teenage self-guilt by watching how different characters responded to failure. This kind of thing also helps with forgiving myself for social awkwardness.

  • Neel

    Hey, Your post really helped to change my mindset. However, I must share it with you that the feeling to become a perfectionist can never be dropped completely, which is nothing but another sort of a perfectionist idea! Yeah it’s true that it can dropped to a far extent.

  • I consider myself a recovering perfectionist. Loved your post. Extremely accurate and insightful look at perfectionism – not the humblebrag “I’m a perfectionist” but the harmful, unhealthy stuff that it actually is. Thanks for helping raise awareness about something that is so insidious in our culture. Also, I love Brene Brown – her writing is so good for perfectionists and, really, anyone! Thanks again.

  • Mainonge Mungalu

    It’s 3:30am, I’ve been up for 2 hours now because I can’t forgive myself for 1 simple mistake. I’ve been asking myself ‘why why why am I like this’, hence my stumbling upon this very insightful article. It’s good to know that I’m not alone in this ‘struggle’ as I’ve lost many friends because of my perfectionism.
    Thank you for sharing your post and tips which I will most definitely try out.

  • Soma

    Thank you so much for your sharing. I love this dose

  • Ramanpreet Singh

    “Perfectionism saved me from drowning, but it didn’t help me to swim.”. The pain of all perfectionists captured in one line.