How to Stop Being a Perfectionist
One of the most important things I’ve had the pleasure of learning over and over again in life is that perfection is a myth.
The first time I really HEARD these words (actually felt them, and could understand the validity and impact of this lesson) was in a college classroom. I was working as a supplemental instructor, learning how to teach writing to college freshman from one of the most amazing and passionate people on the planet.
The way this professor talked about language, learning, and writing turned my world upside down. I was in the middle of one of the most stressful semesters I’d ever experienced - applying for graduate school, taking on brand new leadership roles, working, and taking honors classes… and on top of the baseline requirements, I was learning how to become comfortable behaving and coping as a college senior, as a writer, or and as a teacher.
Long story short, I had no idea what I was doing.
But this professor changed everything for me.
The following words were spoken in class and written on the syllabus: Perfection is a myth!
It was as if I learned the power of language at that exact moment. As soon as I heard her speak, I felt the weight lift right off of me. I hadn’t actually experienced someone in a position of power explain perfection that way before. Everyone in my past constantly promoted hustling, getting things done perfectly, and being the absolute best out of a group of people. They talked about honing your craft, and they talked about grades as if they defined a person’s worth, and they never directly mentioned anything about perfection.
That line of thought never worked out for me. When I focused on perfection and grades and endless hustle, I learned to feel like I was never good enough. I learned to feel endlessly inadequate. I learned to quit doing things that I wasn’t immediately good at. I learned to apologize for not learning quickly enough to please other people. I learned to stifle my voice and my opinions because of a deep fear of being wrong or being disliked.
And although falling in love with writing in college helped me break out of all of those learned limitations, this one statement, that perfection is ultimately a myth, hit home more than building my writing confidence ever could.
Up until that point I believed that confidence was earned. I believed that the closer I got to perfection, the more I was worthy of expressing myself. The problem was that I was actually doing really well in my classes. In my mind, self-love and confidence were rewards for getting closer to perfection. I love writing, and I learned that other people thought I was good at it! Which meant that although my confidence grew, it was always based on the approval of authority figures.
At one point, not only did I crave results in the form of grades and recognition, but I craved reaching those results effortlessly. So whenever something felt too challenging, I felt as if I was doing something wrong. I interpreted imperfection as failure.
It was a complete mess.
I was committed to my classes, to my writing, to my grades… and for the first time in my life I saw straight A’s. But the pressure of keeping that up was really heavy. And the interesting thing that I realize now that I’m 6 years past college graduation is that I wasn’t actually living. I wasn’t truly experiencing my work. I was wrapped up in getting somewhere, and appeasing other people.
So when I heard that professor explain perfection as a myth in my last year of undergrad, it was as if she let me out of prison.
I became more creative with my fiction. I learned to love inspiring the students I was working with. And I learned SO much about teaching. All because of this professor, this woman who knew how to take a seat a the table and pull up a chair for someone who was still learning and growing.
See, here’s the thing about learning that perfection is a myth… when you realize you don’t have to get it right, you actually end up getting it right! Because what’s right is your ability to participate, experience, experiment, and grow.
Understanding that perfection is a myth doesn’t mean that you let yourself off of the hook. It doesn’t mean that you accept disinterest, encourage a lack of effort, or become less motivated.
It means that you become journey-oriented instead of results-oriented. You focus on doing the work the best way you know how so that you can truly learn… you don’t do the work because of what you think you’re going to get. Criticism becomes teamwork instead of punishment.
This is freedom. This is authenticity. This is living.
So you’d think that once I heard that phrase (perfection is a myth) I would’ve become completely free and inspired all of the time right? Well, you’d be so totally wrong. I’ve had to remind myself about the myth of perfection in so many ways, and in so many situations over the years. When I started teaching in my own classroom as a terrified 23 year old, when I decided that teaching in the traditional sense wasn’t for me, and when I needed to learn to redefine who I was after letting go of who I thought I was.
I had to confront perfectionism all over again when I started my blog, and then grew it into a business. And I’m facing perfectionism once again now that I want to expand and grow in different online spaces.
Anytime I faced uncertainty I reverted back to a biological need to feel safe and secure. Anytime I faced a decision that seemed scary, I had this thought in the back of my mind that said, “If you were perfect, nothing would be scary. There’d be no way you could make a mistake.”
Why? Why am I still confronting perfectionism when I know intellectually that perfection isn’t real? Because I’m human! I’m human just like you are. We’re wired for connection. We’re wired to want love and acceptance from other people. Our brains are designed to keep us away from danger and move us toward comfort.
And making a mistake, or doing something the wrong way, or looking imperfect means that someone will probably say something that lets you know they don’t accept you. That they’ve noticed something about you or what you’re doing that they don’t like. They’ve found what they believe is your achilles heel. And many times, people feel like it’s their duty to tell you exactly how you’ve messed up.
Our need to be perfect comes from being afraid of this experience. Being afraid that someone won’t want us. Being afraid that they will encourage other people to not want us. Being afraid that our best isn’t good enough to be loved. Being afraid that we’ll do our best and no one will acknowledge that we tried. That all people will see is the wrong, the bad, the failing. And that all of a sudden you’ll be defined by that failure.
We don’t get over perfectionist tendencies by ignoring them. And we definitely don’t get over them by continuing to let them control our lives.
We get over perfectionism by being present with it. By acknowledging when the desire to be perfect shows up. By feeling all of the feelings that come along with it. And then by realizing that we have options. That perfection isn’t the only way to live.
We do exactly what we’re afraid of anyway. Imperfectly. Over and over again. Before we’re ready.
We learn that when we fail we don’t have to punish ourselves. We aren’t in third grade anymore. We learn that we can turn our failures into accomplishments. We create opportunities out of ashes.
We learn that getting things wrong and learning and growing is actually all we’re ever doing!
We learn to get real with ourselves. We realize that everyone is always imperfect. Because perfection is a myth! Even people we think are perfect, even the people who seem like they have it together all of the time… they’re imperfect too! Imperfection unites us if we let it.
We are always learning, growing, and improving. At every age. In every moment. You know more than you did two minutes ago, two months ago, ten years ago. This is because you weren’t perfect two minutes ago, two months ago, or ten years ago. If you were, there would be no room for growth. No space for experimentation. No opportunities to pursue and explore.
Imperfection is a gift. Taking messy, imperfect action is actually the key to living a complete and full life.
And when we remember this, imperfection actually feels really really good!
Once that realization turns into a life philosophy, your desire to be perfect becomes so tiny, you almost forget it was there to begin with!
Want some concrete steps to help you get to this realization when you’re in the middle of wishing something was perfect?
1. Get mindful.
Realize that in this exact moment, in the only moment you have, right now… you don’t NEED to be perfect. We put unrealistic and unnecessary expectations on ourselves all of the time. And these expectations force us to look at life in a harsh, rule-based light. But when we put things into perspective, when we pay attention to the world around us and our role in the world, we can CHOOSE to be more playful. We can understand that in this moment imperfection and authenticity will not ruin our lives. In fact, it can actually make things brighter. And when we settle into the present moment, when we accept that all we have is this second, we understand that LIVING is more important than waiting for perfection. (Learn more about living a mindful life here).
2. Get curious.
Asking ourselves questions holds so much power. How many questions do you ask yourself in a day? Out of all of those questions, how many of them are empowering? Are you able to ask yourself what you're learning in any given moment? Do you believe in your ability to grow over time? Or are you playing defense against yourself? Get curious enough about your future to be your own cheerleader. Nothing is set in stone and everything is possible.
3. Get grateful.
When we focus on what we already do well, when we think about the things we’ve learned, and when we can take time to appreciate the things we aren’t so good at yet, our understanding of perfection begins to shift. And when we can redefine perfection, when we can find joy and gratitude in the things that have been labeled “imperfect,” we take our power back!
So bringing some gratitude to the moments when you feel overwhelmed and paralyzed by the desire to be perfect can really change the situation. Think about what a great opportunity is in front of you, and realize how amazing it is that you get to live this life and learn how to do this thing (even if it feels hard or impossible).
The gift is in the action! You’ve got this!