As a recovering perfectionist and an aspiring good-enoughist, I’ve found these 12 pieces of information very helpful in the lifelong journey from "What will people think?" to "I am enough." Some are specific tips, but most are snippets of what I’ve learned in my work. If we want to overcome perfectionism, we have to understand what it is and how it operates in our lives.
Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. It’s a shield. Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from taking flight.
Perfectionism is all about perception—we want to be perceived as perfect. Ironically, there is no way to control perception. No matter how much time and energy we spend trying, it’s out of our hands. I once heard someone say, “What people think of me or say about me is none of my business.” It’s hard, but I try to practice this.
Think about an area where you struggle with perfectionism. This simple question can help us start to understand the fear that fuels the perfection anxiety: When it comes to my ________________ (house, body, work, mothering, etc.), I don’t want to be perceived as ____________________. Where did those messages come from and how much of your life are you willing to turn over to them?
Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance. Research shows that most perfectionists were raised being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule-following, people-pleasing, appearance, sports). Somewhere along the way, we adopt this dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect. Healthy striving is self-focused— How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused — What will they think?
What will people think? Is the rally cry of perfectionism. The next time you find yourself worrying about this, STOP and ask these questions: What do I think? How do I feel? Writing down these answers is very powerful.
Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life-paralysis. Life-paralysis refers to all of the opportunities we miss because we’re too afraid to put anything out in the world that could be imperfect. It’s also all of the dreams that we don’t follow because of our deep fear of failing, making mistakes, and disappointing others. It’s terrifying to risk when you’re a perfectionist; your self-worth is on the line.
Get clear on the costs of perfectionism. What dreams have you walked away from? What creativity are you holding back? There’s a popular quote that asks, “What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?” For those of us struggling with perfectionism, the rest of that quote should be “Then go out and do it because, in the end, failing is less painful than never trying.”
One of the best ways to overcome perfectionism is to create. Draw, paint, write, cook, color, take photos – whatever inspires you. Make a mess. Make it imperfect. Perfectionists are often quick to say, “I’m not creative.” I’ve learned that there’s no such thing. There are only people who use their creativity and those who squander it. I’ve started painting and drawing in my journal. I had to force myself to scribble on the first three pages so I could get past the paralysis.takes the pressure off acting right away -- but the seeds are subconsciously planted.
Take a class. Like most perfectionists I got to the point where I’d never do anything that I wasn’t already really good at doing. That meant NEVER trying anything new. Now I force myself to try new things and take classes. Dare to be awkward, goofy, and a little out of control. It’s terrifying but also liberating.
Perfectionism is contagious. Be mindful of the messages that you’re sending the people around you – your kids, your partner, your co-workers, your friends. Make “embracing imperfection” a family project. If the house is messy or you’re late for church or dinner is overcooked, let yourself off the hook and celebrate being imperfect. Doing this has changed our lives.
Surround yourself with people who are on a similar journey. Letting go of perfection is scary. It’s how we protect ourselves. I don’t’ think we can do it alone.
Practice self-compassion. We need to be kind and tender with ourselves. Most of us talk to ourselves in ways we would NEVER consider talking to other people. We are critical instead of kind. We are judgmental instead of loving. Perfectionism is ultimately a struggle for worthiness and there’s no better place to start than remembering that our imperfections and vulnerabilities connect us to each other and to our humanity.
Brené Brown, Ph.D., LMSW is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She has spent the past ten years studying vulnerability, shame, and authenticity. Her work has been featured on CNN, NPR, PBS, and was the topic of two recent TEDx talks. She is the author of The Gifts of Imperfection: Letting Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embracing Who You Are and I Thought It Was Just Me: Telling the Truth about Perfectionism, Inadequacy, and Power. You can learn more about her work on her website or blog.
Original for BlogHer