Breaking Away from Perfectionism
Confession: I am a recovering perfectionist. You might be one, too. There are a lot of us out there—aware that our perfectionism is holding us back, wanting to do something about it, but not sure how or where to start. Breaking away from perfectionism is hard. Not only are some of us naturally inclined toward perfectionism, but society rewards perfectionism. We have been trained to try to be perfect at school, in our careers, in our relationships, and in just about every aspect of our lives.
The problem with perfectionism
But breaking away from perfectionism is worth it. More than worth it. Perfectionism is linked to things like:
- Social phobia
- Suicidal thoughts
It makes sense, if you think about it. The cycle of perfectionism is this:
- Believe you should be perfect.
- Try really, really hard to be perfect.
- Fail at being perfect.
- Think that you are a failure.
- Believe that proving that you are perfect will help you feel less like a failure.
Rinse and repeat.
The problem is that perfectionism is a losing game. When the goal is unattainable, you’ve lost before you’ve even started. And perfectionism is unattainable.
Not a single person on the earth is perfect. Not one. And I hate to break it to you (and to myself), but that includes you (and me).
When we keep playing this game, we are going to spend a lot of time in that 4th stage: thinking that we are failures. And of course, that can easily segway into depression, suicidal thoughts, and any number of other mental health issues.
The only way to win is to refuse to play the game.
Breaking away from perfectionism
But how can you get out of the game? Breaking away from perfectionism can feel unnatural, especially if you’re a lifelong perfectionist like I am.
In my efforts to break free from perfectionism, I’ve found 3 things particularly helpful: the wisdom of others, simple habits I can develop, and shifting my mindset.
I want to give you three examples of each (three quotes, three habits, and three mindsets) that might help you start to free yourself from perfectionism. Adopt what resonates with you as you start your journey toward greater self-acceptance and less need to be perfect.
This quote reminds me that perfection can’t be the goal. In fact, it’s an obstacle to the goal. Trying to get to perfectionism, as we discussed before, is a losing game. So any attempt to be perfect is really just going to get in your way. It’s going to actively stop you from reaching the real goal because it’s obscuring your vision.
Are you really going to let perfectionism stop you from getting what you want out of life?
I don’t want that for you. Find the real goal. Go after that. Perfectionism is an obstacle that you can overcome.
Perfectionists are inherently hard on themselves, but they may not connect this self criticism to their perfectionism. Of course, in reality, they couldn’t be more connected. As I mentioned above, perfectionism is a relentless cycle of trying and failing, trying and failing. As this quote highlights, this has two major consequences:
- It highlights your mistakes. When you try to be perfect, you fail. It feels like messing up over and over again.
- It minimizes your progress. Perfectionism doesn’t allow for progress. It’s very “all or nothing.” Either you’re perfect or you aren’t. It doesn’t recognize baby steps, learning curves, or rough first drafts.
This kind of negative self-talk—focusing solely on your weaknesses while downplaying your strengths—is going to take a toll on your self confidence. I guarantee it. Wouldn’t it be nice to be your own best cheerleader instead of your own harshest critic for a change?
As a creative person, this one speaks to me. It helps me to remember that when something is too perfect, it feels less alive. Where is there to go when you’re already as good as you could ever possibly be?
The beauty of life comes in the messes and the variety, not the Stepford-level “sameness” of perfection.
One way to break away from perfectionism is to change the goal. What if the goal wasn’t to be perfect, but just to be better? What if you didn’t have to dive into something headfirst in an attempt to be perfect at it?
I think of this as going halfway, but of course that’s just semantics. It could be part of the way, or even just a single step. The point is, it’s choosing progress over perfection.
Here are some examples:
- Instead of committing to never eat sugar again, commit to never eating sugar after 4 pm.
- If you hate running, but know you need some cardio, go for walks instead.
- Don’t commit to reading a book every week when you didn’t read at all last year. Commit to a book a month.
Perfectionism tells you that if you aren’t going to give 100% to something, then it’s not worth doing. That’s simply not true. You get credit for every step you take in the right direction.
If all you can do is go halfway, then go halfway. Set goals you can keep. Don’t let perfectionism get in your way.
Perfectionism is a constant state of dissatisfaction. Since you can never actually be perfect, you’re never going to feel like you’ve “made it.” Your shortcomings, and all the ways that life isn’t perfect, will stand out in sharp relief.
Counteract that with gratitude. As you recognize things that you’re grateful for, you’ll realize all the good that exists in your life and in the world. You’ll see that things don’t have to be perfect to be worthy of love. And you’ll see that you, in all your imperfection, have been immeasurably blessed.
Make gratitude a habit through daily prayer, a gratitude journal, or just a running list of things you feel grateful for. Whenever you’re feeling particularly hard on yourself or negative about the world, pause and be grateful.
Win or learn.
If you can make a habit out of learning, then you never have to lose. You’ll either win, or you’ll learn (and sometimes, you’ll do both!).
Perfectionists see failure as something that must be avoided at all costs. But what if you could stop seeing failure as failure? What if you saw it as a learning opportunity instead?
Make this a habit: when things don’t go as planned, instead of wallowing in self pity, ask yourself: “What can I learn from this?”
Nobody is perfect.
You’ve heard it before, and I’m sure you’ll hear it again: no one is perfect.
That person you follow on Instagram and are insanely jealous of? Not perfect.
The celebrity with millions of dollars? Not perfect.
The entrepreneur that’s starting a business that’ll change the world? Not perfect.
You see where I’m going with this?
The people you think are perfect…are not perfect.
I’m not saying that to get you to feel better about yourself, necessarily (though if it accomplishes that, that’s great). Really, I’m saying it to get you to realize that perfection is a myth. It’s a total and complete myth and no one—no one—is an exception to that rule.
This mindset can help you as you’re breaking away from perfectionism.
Done is better than perfect.
This goes along with the “do it halfway” habit.
Have you ever put off starting something because you didn’t think you could do it perfectly? I know I have. I tell myself that once I have all the information, all the materials, all the know-how…then I’ll start. Guess what? I never start. Not because I can’t, but because I believe I can’t.
And of course, if I never start, I never finish.
It’s like planning a 5-course meal that I’ll never get to enjoy. Yes, it sounds amazing, but at some point, I’m going to get hungry, and a pizza suddenly becomes better than the 5-course meal because it’s done, and done is better than perfect.
When breaking away from perfectionism, give yourself permission to start, even if you feel like you aren’t quite ready yet. It doesn’t have to be perfect; you just have to finish it.
You are enough.
I saved this for last on purpose. Because the truth is, this is the mindset that will help you not just with perfectionism, but with a lot of other insecurities as well.
Repeat this, out loud, right now:
I am not perfect. I am enough.
You don’t have to be perfect to be worthy of love, creativity, inspiration, support, meaning, and happiness. You don’t have to be perfect to get everything you want and deserve out of life.
Because you can have all of those things, every single one of them, just the way you are right now.
If you can internalize this belief, you can break free from perfectionism. You won’t need it anymore, because you’ll know that you don’t have to be anything other than you—human, flawed, exceptional you.
Breaking away from perfectionism happens a little at a time. These quotes, habits, and mindsets can help you sever the ties you have with perfectionism so that you can live a happier, more fulfilling life, imperfections and all.
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