7:00pm: Alert, signs of perfectionism ahead!
My partner Loïc and I hastily stuff spring rolls with cucumber, pickled carrots and cilantro.
7:30pm: Our friends are coming.
We hadn’t invited them over in a while, so I wanted to spoil them. I assured Loïc it’d be a simple dinner.
Yet here we are, rushing to set the table for 4, spilling the lemongrass marinade and vacuuming.
We didn’t need to line up the cutlery, make an elaborate marinade or vacuum one more time.
How did I get myself into this mess?
The pressure exploded—Loïc and I yelled at each other for working too slowly. My shoulders slumped, as I rolled spring rolls through tears.
My perfectionistic tendencies got the best of me. Again.
Does this ever happen to you?
Do you get tired of needing to perfect everything?
Myth: Perfectionism isn’t a problem
Most people think it’s a positive thing.
It helps you succeed and look your best. But perfectionism can also cause anxiety, stress and depression. It makes you feel like you’re never good enough.
“Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. 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 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 flight.” —Brené Brown
Of course, there were obvious signs, like when I’d spend hours picking the right outfit, display veggies in my fridge as if in a museum or deny I had problems to friends and family.
As years passed, more signs—not so obvious ones—crept up and ignited numerous arguments with Loïc… until I could no longer look away:
My perfectionism was a toxic habit.
The first step to let go of your perfectionism is to be aware of the signs. Once you’re aware, you can begin dismantling the habit.
Do any of these surprising signs show up in your life?
When I was little, getting A’s was easy. I realized I could procrastinate and succeed, so it naturally became a habit. I could play first, then work.
Flash forward to Smith College, the night before my 20th-century art slideshow was due. We had one month to complete it, yet I had failed to start it until now.
In my early school years, I felt confident about my abilities. But as the workload and life got heavier, my confidence dwindled.
Would I be able to do as well as before?
When you feel like you might do something less than perfectly, it’s easy to think it’s no use.
If you put off the task, you won’t have to deal with the possibility of failing at it. Which, ironically, feeds your perfectionism.
2) Seeing small mistakes as proof you’re a failure
Small mistakes? There are no small mistakes! 😉
For a perfectionist, everything seems important.
If you don’t recall a vital fact to back up your ideas in a conversation, you might feel upset and sheepish.
Perhaps you made a stellar meal, but beat yourself up about that one dish that was way too salty.
It’s all or nothing: either you succeed… or you fail—as a human being.
When you tie your self-worth to your mistakes (or achievements), you set yourself up for disappointment and shame. As a result, you don’t gain resiliency to bounce back from mistakes.
3) Trouble delegating
When we bring home the groceries, I like to stock the fridge, while Loïc puts away the dried items in the pantry.
But he doesn’t put the tomato sauce in its usual place. He doesn’t transfer the dried fruit into Mason jars. He leaves the tote bags everywhere.
I should just do everything myself.
I resist the urge and point out to Loïc the things he neglected.
But even when he does things right, it’s never quite right. Week after week, he sees me readjusting or redoing his part of house chores.
So, it’s understandable he feels nothing he does is good enough. Poor guy. And of course, I feel guilty and exhausted.
Perfectionists crave control to guarantee a certain outcome. Underneath, though, the fear of judgment and shame simmers.
Sound dramatic? Maybe.
But perfectionism is actually a defense mechanism. It’s a temporary band-aid we learned, probably in childhood, to ensure we feel accepted and loved.
4) Holding loved ones to unrealistic standards
The fear of rejection is at the heart of perfectionism.
Some parents unconsciously look for approval via their kids’ performance. Talk about pressure!
Did your parents criticize you all the time?
Then, as a child, you most likely believed you’re incompetent or unworthy… unless you performed adequately.
You learned that love was conditional.
I can’t help but think of the 7th Generation principle taught by Native Americans, which encourages us to be mindful of the consequences of our actions (or inactions) seven generations later.
I don’t think our parents knew exactly what they were doing, let alone the effects they’d have 7 generations later. Our parents did the best they could.
What we can do now is heal past hurts and accept ourselves.
We can model unconditional love by being kind to ourselves when we make mistakes.
In turn, the children in our lives learn how to cultivate the confidence necessary to thrive.
5) Creativity blocks
Have you noticed how creative little kids can be?
It was a typical family get-together at my aunt’s house in Orange County, California: the adults were merrily chatting in the living room and watching the latest Vietnamese musical variety show, Paris by Night.
I noticed my 3-year-old cousin Khuong yawning and staring into space. So, I went to my aunt’s desk and came back with some printer paper and markers.
Khuong woke from his slumber with a smile. He grabbed a red marker (red being his favorite color) and in 2 minutes, proudly held up his drawing: Look, it’s an alien!
To me, it looked like a crushed piece of sausage.
No matter. Khuong rushed over to our family and proceeded to show off his drawing to echoing oohs and ahhs.
When you let your perfectionism take over, it squashes your voice. Instead, allow yourself to feel vulnerable.
Feel the fear of slipping up.
And speak, write or draw anyway.
Heed the signs of perfectionism and breathe
Remember, the first step to free yourself is self-awareness.
You don’t have to beat yourself up if one or more of these signs of perfectionism lurk into your life.
Embrace your failures.
Let yourself be human.
Heed the signs and try again.
About the author
Annie Moussu is a mindfulness coach on a mission to help perfectionists let go of self-doubt, fear of failure and people-pleasing. Sign up for her newsletter and get access to free resources.
Further reading to let go of perfectionism: