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7 Tips to Challenge Perfectionism: Enjoy More and Worry Less

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.” ~Anne Lamott

I originally planned to write this post a month ago. The topic was interesting, and it was one that I was sure most people could relate to. I mean, who hasn’t wrestled with the issue of perfectionism at some point?

One after another, notions and examples of perfectionism flowed steadily from my mind onto my notepad. And when I ran those ideas by a few friends, each of them shared their own stories about how the need to be perfect at something had negatively affected their lives.

Simply put, there was no shortage of material, and this post, I just knew, would be a breeze to write. A slam-dunk. A no brainer.

Until I sat down at the keyboard. When I tried to weave my thoughts into a coherent post, the flow slowed to a trickle. Then, it just stopped. I was frozen, scattered, and unsure of how or where to begin.

“You’re such a perfectionist!”

I had fallen victim, yet again, to my own brand of perfectionism—the kind where I scrutinize every thought/phrase/sentence/punctuation mark circling through my head. The kind where everything has to be perfect, even before it’s typed onto the screen.

If I was going to write this post, it had to be witty, intelligent, and insightful. But in my attempts to get there, I became frustrated, anxious, and creatively blocked. In my effort to be perfect, I nearly missed my deadline.

Deep down, I’ve always felt proud to be known as a perfectionist. Working diligently to deliver excellence, being highly organized and detail oriented has served me well. All the while, however, I’ve often felt plagued, rendered semi-paralyzed, rooted in fear—petrified to take that leap for fear of making a mistake, for fear of failure.

Am I, perhaps, more rigid, obsessive, and controlling than I’ve realized?

Bottom line: The dividing line between admirably high standards and the painful distress of perfectionism is exceedingly thin. Alas, I’ve officially arrived at paradox junction.

It’s time to determine when perfectionism pays off and when it becomes the villain, the saboteur.

So wait: Perfectionism isn’t a good thing?

It depends on who you ask. Webster’s defines perfectionism as a personal standard, attitude, or philosophy that demands perfection and rejects anything less. But I (and perhaps many of those who, like me, wrestle with some unhealthy perfectionism) just call it torture, a kind of self-induced personal hell.

It’s no surprise that this unrelenting compulsion becomes so bewildering.

Perfectionism is made not born, typically at an early age.

As a child, I was pushed to deliver excellence; and in general, the same was expected of my peers. One may argue that there are merits to instilling high performance principles in children, particularly as we live in a society where people who operate with excellence may be considered the exception.

Forms of parental control can also exemplify and instill perfectionist tendencies in young people only to manifest in extreme forms as adults. The pressure to perform, if delivered in extreme fashion, is often perceived by children as criticism for mistakes or failing to achieve. It’s safe to say, there is a delicate balance.

The good news is that perfectionism can be addressed. You just have to make a decision, do a little introspection, and create a strategy to bring about change with determination.

If you’re ready to reign in your need to be perfect, consider these steps to get on your road to recovery.

1. Conduct a risk-benefit analysis.

Is your desire for perfection an occasional quirk, or is it monopolizing parts of your life, causing anxiety, stress, guilt, or depression? Do you enjoy hearing people comment about how meticulous you are? Overall, how is it serving you and those around you?

2. Focus on your “pain points.”

Most of us are not perfectionists in every area; rather, we have certain “pockets” where our perfectionism is concentrated. It may take its toll in relationships, meeting deadlines, deeming minor mistakes as catastrophic, organization of your home, your appearance, etc. Pinpoint the areas where perfectionism is causing you the most turmoil, and where your triggers fuel that fire.

3. Identify the payoff.

Let your instincts lead you to define the true cost of your need to be perfect. Then set a plan to transform your perfectionism from a liability to an asset. The American engineer, Charles F. Kettering once said: “A problem well-stated is a problem half-solved.” Identify the issue, define the payoff, and get to it.

4. Embrace mistakes.

Do your excessive concerns over making mistakes undermine your outcomes? When you make a mistake do you self-criticize, adding on heaps of shame and guilt to crown the misery?

In truth, flaws are valued. The Japanese call this Wabi-sabi: the notion or aesthetic (derived from Buddhist teaching) that nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.

So, beware of something appearing too polished; it can come across as being uncreative or superficial. Allow yourself to make mistakes; you’ll quickly learn, your world won’t end, and it can actually improve your outcomes.

5. Question your beliefs and challenge your thinking.

Is it really so important for every item in your living room to be placed “just so”? What would happen if the pillows on your sofa weren’t so perfectly arranged? What are the costs and benefits of spending excessive time making everything “ultra perfect”?

6. Create more balance in your life.

Redesign your day, initiate activities with others, enjoy relaxation, and initiate personal improvement. Even subtle changes like intentionally incorporating breaks in your workday will enhance creativity and refuel yourself, making a positive impact.

7. Find ways to redistribute your time and resources.

Seek support and interact with others more effectively as a way of improving performance for the tasks that trigger your perfectionism. Do a kindness to others; taking the focus off of yourself will tip the scales toward gratitude instead of focusing on what you painfully perceive as being flawed. Socialize—go have some fun!

Remember, perfectionism itself isn’t the offender; allowing it to run rampant in its extreme form to the point that it jeopardizes your well-being is.

Eliminating the thorns of perfectionism will enhance productivity without compromising the pursuit of excellence. Just leeeaan into it, like a yogi’s crow pose…

I’d say that’s a pretty perfect scenario. Wouldn’t you?

Photo by lui_lui

About Nancy Sherr

Nancy Sherr is a mother, a fitness-lover, and creator of A Zestful Life, coaching bravehearted women through Big. Life. Change. She is informed by 25 years of corporate finance and start-up consulting, coach trained under Martha Beck, Ph.D., and is an enthused student of positive psychology. Nancy’s programs include 1:1 private coaching and her signature group program, Society of Zestful Living.

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  • Hi, Nancy!

    I know tons and tons of perfectionists in my life and I can see how miserable they are. I never was a fan of perfectionism because I embrace failure as a tool and gauge to growth. We all know nobody’s perfect (it’s cliche to say that), but for some reason most people strive to be 100% perfect and leave little room for error (or try to at least.)

    Like you said, this pursuit of perfection just leads to more worries and less time for contentment. Why worry about something unattainable when you can try your best and be happy with where that gets you?

  • donnaandtora

    Thanks Nancy 🙂
    One of the best things I’ve learnt is to get used to “sloppy success” rather than hanging out for “perfection”. Your point 4 is the one I’m still working on, embrace mistakes. I do it with gritted teeth and it still catches me out at times, but the more I make mistakes (and the more people LIKE me making mistakes!) the more I feel comfortable to make. ~ Tora

  • Hi Nancy,
    Nice article. I find with the clients I work with, perfectionism has a habit of stopping people rather than propelling them forward. Because it is subjective Perfectionism can never be confirmed which makes it this annoying loop!

    I liked your article and hope to read more of your articles soon.

    Aaron Morton

    The Confidence Lounge

  • Sharon

    While I agree with the tips, I respectfully disagree with the idea that perfectionism is made. I think in some situations, perfectionism can be cultivated, yes, but I also believe biology and genetic factors also play a role. My son has struggled with perfectionism from a very, very young age. Block tower not perfect? Meltdown. Letters not written right? Meltdown. Goal not scored in soccer? Meltdown. Despite having two loving, supportive, encouraging parents, my son continues to struggle with that “inner critic” which tells him that he has to do something “just right.” My husband and I are rather laid-back, but we both have extended family members who push themselves to be perfect and who struggle with anxiety related to perfectionism. Taming the “inner critic” and developing coping skills related to managing his anxiety have worked wonders in helping our son enjoy life and all of its imperfections.

  • Nancy

    Thank you, Sharon … point well taken. The mysteries of genetics are ever-present in us all. The perils of perfectionism are powerful, hopefully with sound strategies your son, and all of us who struggle (me included) can make strides to embrace our gifts of imperfection. Many thanks for reading!

  • Nancy

    Hi Aaron…I agree, it’s so annoying! It’s tricky to decipher what parts of someone’s perfectionism serve them well, and which parts don’t….I’m from a long line of perfectionists, so there’s been pretty clear trend over the years…I’ll say it again in unison with you: It’s SO Annoying!!! 🙂 Thanks so much for reading.

  • Nancy

    Hi Tora —
    Yes indeed — it’s a real challenge for some of us to embrace mistakes. I have a bit easier of a time of it with age, but it’s not always so easy. For me, it takes self-coaching and a sincere effort to focus on the upside of mistakes: all the learning that comes from it! And you’re so right — we are only human, and showing those vulnerabilities only make us more lovable!! 🙂
    Thank you for reading and for your comment!

  • Nancy

    That’s the ticket…love that healthy attitude! YAY Vincent…I’m sticking with you! Thanks so much for reading… 🙂

  • Tom Ireland

    <3 ¦]

  • Nancy

    Thanks for the heart there, Tom! 🙂

  • Le Blanc

    Phew…fortunately I am perfect! Just kidding.

    In a way I guess we are perfect energy wrapped in imperfect flesh and mind. I used to dread mistakes so much that it paralysed me into inactivity. Terrible state of being but I’m learning.

    Nice article, thanks Nancy.

  • vj

    couldnt you become a perfectionist in trying not to be perfect? just a paradox.

  • Dasha

    I totally agree with Sharon. I grew up with two loving, supportive parents, who never pushed me to be perfect. Yet, if I came home with anything less than an “A” from school, I was disappointed when I did not get punished for my failure. When I got a “C” on a trigonometry test, I dropped out of the class for fear that I may not be able to get an “A” at the end of the semester. Also, I have a brother who is a year younger than me and grew up under pretty much the same circumstances, yet he is the complete opposite of me. This leads me to believe that I was somehow genetically wired to be a perfectionist. I am 60 years old now and still struggling with the issue.
    Dasha

  • Nancy

    hummmmm…….I always love a good paradox! :)))

  • sunjoy

    Huh. While I appreciate the topic–it’s an esp. important one in our results-driven culture–I didn’t resonate with the business jargon in the suggestions for how to address perfectionism. For me, working on my perfectionist tendencies has looked like accepting myself and loving myself a whole lot more. It’s looked like realizing that everything is already perfect. It’s looked like giving myself permission to PLAY and experiment and explore possibilities. And for anyone who’s like me and wants to explore the intersection of perfectionism and creativity (and spirituality, and where they all meet) I highly recommend The Artist’s Way. It literally changed my life.

  • It seems like some posts talk directly to us. Keeping the house spotless is definitely a duty not always a pleasure. I’d probably take some time just to write a paragraph here. So I’m starting the change with a true and simple “Thank you”, Nancy!!

  • Chrissy

    Dasha, I am the same way. I, too, have dropped out of college courses for fear of ending up with something less than an A. It’s a learning process, for sure, but only when we allow ourselves to be a student.

  • Anonymous

    Perfectionism is about wanting to not be homeless & poor. Staying out of poverty, being self-sufficient, and having health insurance are my primary drives for perfectionism.
    So far, so good.

  • Thiago Villa

    Hello, Nancy. Thank you for this excellent post. I have been trying to mold my classes and I just could not move on anymore. I got stuck, as you said yourself. My creativity sank down and I just thought everything I did was not contributing to my “perfect goal”. Well, I will apply your 7 tips to challenge perfectionism and hopefully will come out refreshed. Thank you.