Is your perfectionism helping or hurting you?
During an interview years ago, I was asked about my weaknesses. I said with a smile, “I’m a perfectionist.” I thought I was pretty smart. I thought I was giving myself a backhanded compliment.
But I wasn’t.
I was revealing something risky about my ability to work with others and deliver results on time.
Indeed perfectionists are usually highly skilled and reliable in their own way. But they can be difficult to work with and take too long on stuff that doesn’t matter.
It’s not that perfectionists don’t want to be open-minded, collaborative and flexible. They truly want to take bigger risks, just “put it out there”, fail fast, learn from mistakes and all that good stuff.
But they can’t. Their compulsion for perfection gets in the way.
But isn’t it a strength to have high standards? And to work hard to reach those standards?
Sure. But that’s not what perfectionists do.
Perfectionists covet the only standard. Their own ideal. And they will evangelize and defend it as a matter of religion.
Perfectionists work to the bone on things no one else sees because they feel that they must (It’s the right thing to do!).
And honestly, this can be awe-inspiring when perfectionists are artisans, chefs, artists, athletes…
But on a team, perfectionists can come off as rigid, arrogant and judgmental.
They reel and ruminate with the slightest criticism because their entire sense of self-worth feels attacked.
And even when perfectionists receive compliments and recognition for their work, they can’t take it in. Because they can see 10 ways it could have been better.
Perfectionists, I feel you. My heart goes out to you.
I know that your life is dominated by self-criticism. Just like mine was.
I know you don’t want to always be so tortured by the details. I know you don’t like how upset you get. I know sometimes you wish you could just “let it go”.
Because deep inside you just want to know that you’re OK just as you are.
And you are.
So let’s get one thing straight.
You might call yourself a perfectionist, but a perfectionist is not who you are.
Instead, there is a part of you inside that tries to make you perfect as a defense against vulnerability.
The perfectionist inside you was born out of pain and fear from the past. It was designed to protect you against ever feeling as worthless, rejected, or ashamed as you did in those moments.
But when perfect is your standard, nothing is ever good enough.
When you only look for the flaws, eventually that’s all you can see in your world.
When your first impulse is to judge and criticize, you never fully feel alive.
And when you need to be perfect to show up, you tend to stay home a lot.
Letting your inner perfectionist run the show is an incredibly lonely, ornery, self-conscious existence.
So what can you do instead?
First, recognize that you’re dealing with a very young part of you. A child.
And this child was likely hurt by scolding and criticism. So when you feel your perfectionism flaring up, greet it like you would a scared child.
If your child was upset that they got 99% instead of 100% on a test, the shaming thing to do would be to shake your head and scold the child for missing that 1%. (Sadly this actually happens to many, many children.)
Stuff that doesn’t help or even reinforces the perfectionism:
You’ll do better next time. (Validates their fear that they messed up)
C’mon, it’s not a big deal. (Minimizes and shames them for being upset)
You’re still better than most. (Creates a condition that they need to stay the best to be loved)
Instead, be the parent you never had. Reassure the child on the deepest level. Literally say to that young part of you inside:
I know you’re upset, but it’s going to be OK. (Reassures them that their feelings don’t dictate reality)
You’re already perfect, just as you are. (Reinforces their inherent worthiness)
I love you no matter what. (Removes any condition for them to be loved)
If you feel a stirring inside of you, your message was heard. If not, close your eyes and calmly try again.
Then ask yourself:
Do I really need to be so strict on my standard right now?
What’s the purpose of what I’m doing, and is shooting for perfection required?
What is the level of quality needed to get the outcome I actually care about?
You may choose not to change course at all, and that’s OK. The important thing is that you made a conscious decision from a place of greater clarity.
Practice this cycle of reassuring then reassessing every time you feel “hooked” by your inner perfectionist. Slowly it will loosen its grip.
The goal is not to eliminate your inner perfectionist. After all being able to imagine an ideal is a beautiful thing. It’s what helps drive human progress forward.
The goal is to heal that old wound that made you doubt your inherent worthiness, so that you’re no longer a slave to criticism.
And ultimately, the goal is to embrace and love the imperfection that makes you perfect.