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 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.
You set yourself up for misery and low self-esteem when you equate performance with who you are.
I’m a recovering perfectionist who used to flaunt her attention to detail and unrealistic standards. I spent countless hours on the smallest tasks and craved approval… until my joy shattered.
Here are my 5 hard-won lessons to start uprooting perfectionism in your life.
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 feel 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, or like you have a weight on your shoulders.
Contrarily, you feel light, open, energetic and even grateful when joy motivates you. You’re in the flow and ideas come to you easily. Time seems to fly because you’re so focused!
Shining light on your fear is the first step to diminish its power.
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.
Seemingly small rejections can scar you.
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, 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 misery went into the never-ending quest for perfection. Worst of all, I never felt good enough.
We become perfectionists because the consequences of showing our true selves—including our insecurities and “flaws”—were too painful. And to stop the hemorrhage, we grabbed the bandage available 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 hard work.
But despite their efforts, a perfectionist feels unworthy: If I’m perfect, then I’ll be good enough. Then others will accept 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 till my eyes glazed over. If I didn’t feel 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 perfection, 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 hard to “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?
Some perfectionists might even say that it’s not so much others’ criticisms, but their own sky-high standards for themselves that run the show.
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 though.
For now, pick your battles.
Be deliberately messy, just this once. Or twice.
Edit that email 3 times instead of 10. Cancel one nonurgent task.
You’ll be ok.
You might even grin a little.
5) Celebrate your wins and failures
I used to think perfectionism was just a part of who I am. 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
But, I eventually realized 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 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?
Let go of perfectionism for more confidence and joy via my coaching packages.
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.