A Letter from a Recovering Perfectionist

Apr 1, 2022 | Blog, Wellbeing

By Lillie Brown

Allow me to begin this article with a confession. As I, a hard-line perfectionist, sat down to pen these words, I felt paralysed. The great irony of a perfectionist writing an article about perfectionism! Here is a list of the things I did to avoid writing this article: I paced up and down my hallway for nearly an hour under the guise of ‘brainstorming’, made approximately 7 chai lattes, sent and filed some non-urgent emails, stuffed half a bag of corn chips in my gob, and tidied my desk.

Perfectionism is everyone’s favourite flaw. It used to be my go-to rebuttal to the dreaded job interview question “what is your weakness?”. “Oh, definitely my perfectionism”, I’d respond in a coy tone. We hold up perfectionism as an insignia of worth, something to strive towards akin to the Badge of Busy, where some people perceive their busyness and overwork as a sign of importance. It stems from marrying our identity and worth as an individual with our professional accomplishments. When you take a look at our society more broadly, it’s not difficult to see where this originates from — competition is embedded in schools and universities through standardised testing and high-pressure exams. It bleeds into our professional lives as we try to produce the best work, align ourselves with the best clients, and be the best. Often, the first question we ask when we meet someone is “what do you do?” (Sidenote — let’s park that snooze-worthy question indefinitely. Ask about their greatest joy this week or the best meal they’ve eaten recently instead.)

At its core, perfectionism is a tendency to demand an extremely high or flawless level of performance, in excess of what is truly required by the situation. This often manifests as fixating on perceived imperfections, trying to control situations, overworking, and being highly critical of the self. It’s a nasty disposition and the by-products of perfectionism include deep frustration and at worse, shame. On the surface, the drawback of perfectionism is that it holds you back from being your idealised self—successful, uber-productive, and impressive to your peers—but the reality is far more sinister. Perfectionistic tendencies have been linked to a host of clinical issues including depression and anxiety, chronic headaches and fatigue, eating disorders, burnout and more. It’s a horrifying reality. Even more frightening, is that perfectionism is on the rise, particularly among young people. However, this doesn’t mean each generation is becoming more accomplished. It means we’re getting sicker, sadder, and undermining our own potential and capacity for fulfilment and pleasure.

Working hard, being committed to your practice, and having strong attention to detail are of course desirable attributes, but this is not what perfectionism is. Andrew Hill writes “perfectionism isn’t about high standards. It’s about unrealistic standards”. Even if you do meet these achingly high standards that you’ve set for yourself, it’s unlikely that you’ll take the time to luxuriate in your accomplishments—you’ll probably assume you set the bar too low and crank it up next time. Perfection is a thief of joy and satisfaction. It is the antithesis of authenticity. It’s also unsustainable—it uses an immense amount of psychological battery. From one recovering perfectionist to another, here are some ideas to help you bid farewell to these tendencies that are no longer serving you.

Do something that you enjoy for the sake of it. Perfectionism is a roadblock that prevents us from trying new things that we might not immediately be good at—quelle horreur! Bust out the paints and do your best Bob Ross, bake up a storm or take that dance class. Enjoy the process. If it feels clunky, good! It means you’re learning.

Get clear on what it is that you truly want. You could always benefit from acquiring more money, status, education, and so forth—all of these desires are deeply entrenched in our conditioning from childhood, reinforced by the media and traditional education system. What is it that you truly want, in your heart of hearts? What brings you long term, sustained pleasure and joy and contentment? Grab the butcher’s paper and map it out, then make time for it in your daily life.

Reflect on the anti-perfectionist progress you’ve made this week. At the end of each week, take a few minutes to reflect on where you made a conscious effort to quash those perfectionistic tendencies and where they got the better of you. Be gentle with yourself here. Did you avoid something out of fear of making a mistake? Were there any instances where your perfectionism was not worth it? Were there times this week where you took action, even when you felt uncertain, and ended up making headway?

Practice self-compassion. This is the antidote to perfectionism—being kind, patient, and encouraging towards yourself heeds better professional results and improved wellbeing. This is a practice that originated in Buddhism but has been popularised in psychology by Kristin Neff—and it’s a great way to alter your perfectionist mindset. Treat yourself how you would treat a close friend.

Embrace “good enough”. It’s fine to set relatively high standards for yourself, but expecting absolute perfection is problematic and can lead to avoiding tasks out of fear you won’t get them right the first time. Good enough is good enough.

Research by Thomas Curran, a social psychologist from the London School of Economics and Political Science, outlines the toxicity of perfectionism in his fantastic TED Talk. “In my time studying perfectionism, I’ve seen limited evidence that perfectionists are more successful. Quite the contrary. They feel discontented and dissatisfied amid a lingering sense that they’re never quite perfect enough.” Perfectionism does not do you any favours. It isn’t contributing anything of value to your life, nor is it making your life more joyful or fulfilled. It doesn’t make you better at your job. It doesn’t make you more successful. Quit falling for the perfectionist’s trap. Approach your work with curiosity and beautiful things will unfold. And remember: finished is better than perfect.

6 Comments

  1. Natasha

    This is a lovely story, which resonated deeply. I really liked your procrastination strategies

    Reply
    • Lillie Brown

      Thank you so much Natasha, I’m touched to hear that it resonated with you. Hopefully the tips I shared are helping you to kick your procrastination to the kerb!

      Reply
  2. Deborah Singerman

    Ideally, finished and perfect but who is to say what is perfect or even know when you are finished? Who is to say what is the finished good, the good that is enough? A leader? Or collaborating workers? The latter seems fairer but will be difficult to coordinate in a hybrid environment.

    Reply
    • Lillie Brown

      That’s exactly right Deborah! That is why we always encourage our clients to define their own version of success—what does success or ‘good enough’ look like to you?

      Reply
  3. Cheryl Parsons

    Your article greatly resonates with me. I have always believed (and still do) if you’re going to do something, do it right! No half-measures, no in-betweens, no ‘that’ll do’. I have always thought this was a good way to be…until I realised it’s not!! You are your own worst enemy, overly self-critical, completely self-reliant, over-resourceful and relish when others tell you how perfect you’ve done a task. It may have taken you 10 times longer, cost more money and been unimportant, but that doesn’t matter to the perfectionist. It must be perfect, irrespective of the task at hand. But I’ve never known how to stop this. You’ve provided some fantastic starting points and I thank you. I’ve had my business idea, completely worked out, business/financial/marketing plans, etc. for over 15 years and never had the guts to do it for fear of failure and not being good enough. Your words will help.

    Reply
    • Lillie Brown

      Cheryl, I’m thrilled to hear that I’ve given you some helpful pointers to help you unravel your perfectionistic tendencies. I have found that it is a constant journey—we need to be kind to ourselves, try new ways of working, and repeat “done is better than perfect” on loop. Perfectionism steals the joy from making—let us bid it farewell and bring enjoyment back to our creativity!

      Reply

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