Perfectionism: Striving for excellence or an excuse to play small?

I remember being in a job interview when the interviewer asked me:

“What is your greatest weakness?”

I’d smile back, so pleased to answer the question I know how to answer so well:

“I’m a perfectionist….I set high standards for myself and others. I achieve a lot but then can often get frustrated if things aren’t going as planned.”

Well, the part I’d withhold is the depth of the frustration - how this inner perfectionist never ever is truly satisfied.  How even if I achieve one thing, the goal line keeps moving further and further. How sometimes this inner  perfectionist makes me take on more than I can chew or say that I don’t want to complete something or deliver because I’m/it’s “not ready yet.”  

While perfectionism can be great to help us to strive and achieve more, on the shadow side, perfectionism can be maddening.  It can cause us to hold impossible expectations for ourselves that are more about keeping us safe and protected vs. driving us to grow.  In this way, perfectionism in fact is an insidious coping mechanism that can stop us from realizing our goals and full potential.

If you relate to this at all, make this your new mantra:

“I give myself credit for my progress no matter how big or small. It’s my consistency and commitment that matters most in the long-run.”

You don’t have to be PERFECT to manifest your goals, you just have to make small incremental changes and stay committed to the process.  After all, gym-goers know that it’s showing up regularly and doing their workouts that give them the results they want - not doing each workout at 100% effort perfectly!

So what’s the first step to taming the voice of the perfectionist? Begin to recognize it when it shows up.  Perhaps you resonate with any of the following:

  • All or nothing thinking – You’re either going to stay committed to your plan and diet or NOT at all.

  • Eating ‘cuz you ate – You did well all day but then one slip up leads you to continue eating because you already messed up

  • Not starting something because your plan isn’t “perfect”

  • Not going after what you want (a career, relationship, goal, etc.) or delivering because you aren’t “ready yet”

  • Beating yourself up when you’ve slipped

It’s in these ways that “perfectionism” keeps us safe – because we don’t have to try and face the disappointments if we never get far enough to experience them.  But if you’ve read any of Brene Brown’s work, you would know that vulnerability and joy are on two sides of the same coin. You don’t have great growth, bravery, and joy without the risk of being vulnerable.

So what can you do to tame this inner perfectionist?

Recognize it’s only a part of you, not who you are

The English language sometimes does not do us great justice when we say something like, “I AM a perfectionist,” “I am lazy,”  or “I am disappointed.” Even if language set us to identify with a label or emotion, remember that you are NOT that label, it’s just an aspect of what you’re experience.  You are NOT perfectionism, it’s just an aspect of who you are. If you become aware of the voice when it comes up, you’ll be better equipped to deal with it and let it go if it’s not serving you.

Remember, you are in the driver’s seat.  Even if the inner perfectionist yells and screams from the back, it’s not the one driving the car!

Instead of “all or nothing. “  Be able to say “Good enough”

Often times people ultimately fail to change their habits because they set goals that are too overwhelming and unrealistic.  If cutting out all sugar for the week hasn’t worked in the past, why not start with replacing your after-lunch desserts with fruits?

If you like setting big goals, then go ahead and set a “CRAZY” goal.  I would also recommend setting a “lazy goal,” which is the minimum goal to get you moving forward regardless.  For example, let’s say you don’t exercise at all. If the “crazy goal” is to run every morning at 5 am, the “lazy goal” could be to do this at least 1x this week (After all, 1x per week is still > 0x per week).

Yes, you high achievers.  Consider this your permission slip to stop striving for A+’s all the time.  Do your best, even if that’s a C this week, then a B+ the next. But no matter what, stay committed to your goals.

Get back on track right away

On the shadow side of perfectionism is the act of  beating ourselves up when things are not going as planned.  I don’t know about you but I personally have never seen where using guilt and/or beating yourself up has yielded the long-term success or sustainable change.  If you slip up with your eating, acknowledge your mistake, learn from it, then use that energy to get back on track right away.

Ask yourself - “What is the most loving thing I can do for myself right now?”

Try asking yourself this question every day for a  year and see what it does for you. It can be incredibly healing.  You may be surprised how the response to this question can change moment to moment.

Embrace your Perfectionism.  Let go of the need to be “perfect” in taming it.

This tip is a funny one but I’ve seen myself and my clients feel ashamed and guilty when we recognize the voice of perfectionism and it’s hold on us.  It’s alright! Acknowledge it as a part of yourself (not your whole self) and say “Oh well! I’m not perfect at letting go out my perfectionism” and that’s okay.  Another good way to do this is to recognize that the perfectionist can be really helpful at times to get things done well. Perhaps it’s time to befriend it and use it as an ally.

So let me ask you….Where do you see the perfectionist show up in your life?  What is this listening to it costing you? What would life be life be like if you tamed that perfectionist and kept moving forward?

By the way, in case you didn’t know it already, you are perfect as you are.  You absolutely deserve to create the life you’ve always dreamed of. Don’t let the inner voice keep you down and small from realizing your full potential.

Stay well, eat well, and savor all that life has to offer

because Life is simply too short not to.