I will admit it: I am a perfectionist-in-recovery. For many years, I downplayed what it cost and only focused on what it gave me: diligence and determination to keep working until I achieved the high standards I set for myself; rave reviews from supervisors; success in my career.
We live in a society that loves high-achievers. Unfortunately, there is a slipperly slope between being a high achiever and a perfectionist.
“They say that nobody is perfect. Then they tell you practice makes perfect. I wish they’d make up their minds.” — Winston Churchill
My experience crossing the line into perfectionist-land left me with this legacy:
- Being afraid to try something, out of fear of failing. For the longest time my motto was: better not to try then to fail (not one you would see on Pinterest!)
- The pounding my confidence took from years of focusing on the “what could be better”. Through my perfectionist lens, I would do a quick celebration of the 90% then it would be straight to the 10% that was “wrong”.
- The roller-coaster of propping myself back up after I continually missed the perfection-target and fell into “not quite good enough.”
So, how do you release yourself from the shackles of perfectionism in a society that celebrates the high-achiever?
For me, the shackles loosen the more conscious I become of myself in the present moment, for my perfectionist is clearly tied to past messages. Let me give an example:
In one of my writing classes, we each posted a short story and our group gave feedback (it was called work-shopping). I knew my piece was strong and I was proud of it. I was reveling in the positive feedback until I opened a document from one classmate (whom I highly respected). Wham! Even though she prefaced her feedback with an excellent writing tip (one I was not aware of), all I could see were the edits. I was shattered. It was only when I re-read the feedback the following day, that I realized how much I had blown it out of proportion. It was like reading a different document. Clouded by the chatter of the past I read one thing; grounded in the present I read something different (and could see how helpful the feedback was).
As I get better at being more grounded – and in the present moment – the chatter of the past takes on a very recognizable voice. I can feel my body reacting differently to it. When I am paying attention to myself, I can pick up on a number of signs that are telling me that my perfectionist is wrestling for control of the car. When I am disconnected (not in the present moment) she can be driving the car for miles, wreaking havoc as she goes, and I do not catch it. Awareness is the key. Once aware, there are a number of things I can do to kick her out of the driver’s seat (smile).
One, is what I focus on. I need to pay attention to the chatter of the past for a moment: not to give credence to what it is saying, but to know how to counter it. For example, I have a tendency to want to jump ahead and be good at something right away (hit that 90% marker), so learning something new (and being no where near 90%) can trigger old messages. Reminding myself of where I am on the path (i.e. brand new writer) can help me get my expectations back to a realistic range.
“We learn wisdom from failure much more than success. We often discover what we will do, by finding out what we will not do.” — Samuel Smiles
“The greatest mistake you can make in life is to continually be afraid you will make one.” – Elbert Hubbard
Another is learning to disengage, so I can be curious about the 10% and learn from it. Disengaging means that my whole identity and self-worth is not wrapped around how well I do. I can look at a something that I am doing (i.e. writing) and not see “myself” as a “failure” if the piece does not turn out. I can be open to receiving constructive feedback because I can separate myself from my work: the feedback is about the words I have written, not about me personally, nor is it about me as a writer. It is about one particular piece of writing. One moment in time. And who I am is an accumulation of many moments in time.
“My imperfections and failures are as much a blessing from God as my successes and my talents and I lay them both at his feet.”- Mahatma Gandhi
If you are perfectionist-in-recovery (or wondering if you have crossed the line from high achiever to perfectionist), here are some articles you may find interesting:
About.com has an article by Elizabeth Scott, M.S. called Perfectionist Traits: Do These Sound Familiar? that does a great job of distinguishing between high achievers and perfectionists. It also links to a second article that has tips on overcoming perfectionist traits.
- Beliefnet has an article by Therese J. Borchard called 10 Steps to Conquer Perfectionism, which has a nice mix of personal experience and solid ideas.
- The Centre for Clinical Interventions in Perth, Australia has an extremely comprehensive website that includes a 9 part module for Overcoming Perfectionism. Each module can be downloaded and printed.
- Psych Central has a detailed review of the book Present Perfect: A Mindfulness Approach to Letting Go of Perfectionism and the Need for Control.
Any thoughts you would like to add? Please feel free to leave a comment.