“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.