Are you a perfectionist?
Perhaps you can’t leave the house until you look impeccable.
Or maybe you’ve made progress on a project, but can only see mistakes.
You set sky-high standards, then beat yourself up when you fail.
Striving for excellence can be a fun challenge, but perfectionism is different. The latter drains your time and energy. When you equate performance with who you are, you set yourself up for unhappiness and low self-esteem.
You achieve less, stress more and miss out on life.
I’m a recovering perfectionist who used to be proud of her attention to detail and unrealistic standards. I spent countless hours on the smallest tasks and craved the approval.
What I discovered is that there’s a world of difference between excellence and perfectionism. That fears motivated me. And that my happiness went out the window.
Want to know how to stop being a perfectionist? Start uprooting the habit with these 5 hard-won lessons below.
1) Notice what motivates you—fear or joy
A perfectionist ties their self-worth to achievements. They sacrifice their time, energy, relationships and even health to reach high standards. The fear of failure and disapproval is like a flame underneath their butts to spur them into action.
On the other hand, when you strive for excellence, you know you’re worthy despite your project’s outcome. You love a job well done, but you don’t neglect other important aspects of your life either. Joy and excitement animate your work.
How do you know if fear or joy motivates you?
Notice how you feel in your body as you go about your task. Do you feel tension? In your shoulders, stomach or mind? If fear motivates you, you feel like you’re grasping or chasing something, or like you have a weight on your shoulders.
If joy motivates you, you feel light, open, energetic and even grateful. You’re in the flow and ideas come to you easily. You might be so focused that you lose track of time!
Shining light on your fear is the first step to diminish its power. Now that you’re aware, you can change it.
2) Love what you despise about yourself
Perfectionism is actually a coping mechanism.
As a child, I learned that if I didn’t get good grades, my parents criticized me. If I didn’t look pretty or wear nice clothes, kids would make fun of me. If I expressed my anger, I wouldn’t get what I wanted.
Even seemingly small rejections can scar you as an adult. When they create too much pain over time, you naturally find ways to avoid more pain. In my case, I (unconsciously) resorted to perfectionism.
My inner critic learned which qualities won approval or disregard. So, with sheer willpower, I forced myself to be what other people wanted and denied “troublesome” aspects of myself (e.g. lazy, messy, clumsy, airheady, unpresentable, impolite).
And it worked, for years.
Until I realized how much time, energy and emotions went into the never-ending quest for perfectionism. Worst of all, I never felt good enough. The weight on my shoulders nearly crushed me.
Moral of the story? You became a perfectionist because the consequences of showing your true self—including your insecurities and “defaults”—were unbearably painful. And to stop the hemorrhage, you grabbed the most effective bandage you had at the time: perfectionism.
So, send some love to those parts of you that you’ve cast away. That your parents, co-workers, friends or society have deemed “unacceptable”.
Break out of character, even if it’s just in the privacy of your own room or your journal.
3) Challenge “No pain, no gain”
Our society praises hard work, often to the detriment of our well-being. Sure, it’s necessary to put in the effort to succeed, but perfectionists feel like a failure if they don’t achieve their mile-long list of goals.
“No pain, no gain” can be a dangerous motto for perfectionists because it justifies every ounce of energy devoted to getting things just right. Not only will we be rewarded with another accomplishment, we’ll also gain approval for our hard work.
But what does all of that mean anyway?
In the end, a perfectionist feels unworthy. They think, If I’m perfect, then I’ll be good enough. Then others will accept me. Or love me.
“No pain, no gain” has been hammered into me since forever. I used to wake up in a hurry. My first thoughts rushed towards my to-do list. I worked away at my computer until I became zombie-like.
If I didn’t feel completely exhausted at the end of the day, that meant I didn’t work hard enough. Then I’d beat myself up.
In a society that overvalues production, profits and perfectionism, it’s not easy to honor who we are.
We’re human, after all.
To feel happy in such a society, we have to muster up the courage to own our shortcomings, to take pride in being a work in progress. Which, in turn, inspires others to do the same.
“There is some kind of a sweet innocence in being human—in not having to be just happy or just sad—in the nature of being able to be both broken and whole, at the same time.” ―C. JoyBell C.
4) Pick your battles
Let’s face it.
It’s difficult to just “be yourself” and let go of your insecurities. What would your friends or family say if you worked less, made less money or had a messy house? Whatever the expectations are, you heed them to avoid criticism.
Some perfectionists might even say they’re their worst enemy. That it’s not so much others’ criticisms, but their own sky-high standards for themselves that run the show.
However, underneath it all, you’re still struggling with feeling not good enough. And to compensate, you became a perfectionist.
But, you can’t do it all. No one can.
And if they do, you can bet they’re sacrificing family time, self-care, money or their health. It’s not sustainable in the long run.
“[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 flight.” —Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
You don’t stop being a perfectionist overnight. To do that 180, you have to first build up your self-esteem, so that you can trust yourself enough to be ok when you fail. Check out my coaching services that will help you do just that.
For now, pick your battles. Be deliberately messy, just this once. Or twice.
Edit that email 3 times instead of 10.
Cancel 1 nonurgent task.
You’ll be ok.
You might even grin a little.
5) Celebrate your wins and failures
I used to think that perfectionism was just a part of who I am. I never questioned it because, as far as I could see, the pros outweighed the cons.
Here are the short-term perks of being a perfectionist:
- protects you from the pain of criticism
- makes you look hardworking, put-together and successful, thus…
- gives you the impression of feeling “safe” and accepted
- helps you avoid failure and win approval
- blocks the fear that you’re not good enough
However, I eventually realized that the drawbacks of perfectionism tipped the balance:
- forces you to uphold impossible standards
- depletes your time, energy, resources and happiness
- fuels procrastination, inefficiency and overthinking
- makes you constantly feel like a failure, despite achievements
- annoys people around you, as you correct them for everything
- lowers self-esteem and self-confidence
- inhibits spontaneity, resilience and vulnerability
Conclusion: In the long run, perfectionism is a dead-end way to live. It leaves no room for joy.
So, stop right now and acknowledge your wins and failures. Yes, even the tiny wins. And yes, even the failures.
Because your failures help you improve and grow. Stop focusing so much on results and see how amazing you already are.
Enjoy the process.
Embrace who you are today
Life is too short to please others. To tie your self-worth to your performance.
So, be kind to yourself.
Let the mistakes roll off your back.
Be proud of who you are.
How will you celebrate you today?
About the author
Annie Moussu is a mindfulness-based life coach who helps women let go of perfectionism, self-doubt and people-pleasing. Sign up for her newsletter to get blog articles twice a month.