Perfectionism is a badge of honor that too many of us wear for too long. And it’s actually holding us back.
Today I’m talking about how perfectionism is really fear in disguise, how it’s keeping us from truly showing up in the world, and how we can rewire our brains to ditch perfectionism and show up just as we are.
Ready? Let’s get started.
In this episode:
- Why perfectionism doesn’t have a “good side”
- Is procrastination a form of perfectionism?
- Three ways to break the cycle of perfectionism
Listen to the podcast here:
Perfectionism Is Fear
Hello, hello! I have been a Type A, overachieving, perfectionist for as long as I can remember. It honestly would not surprise me if my mom told me that I popped out of the womb disappointed in myself that I couldn’t immediately speak or walk.
And for a really long time, I thought that this was a GOOD quality. I thought wanting to do everything perfectly and have everyone be proud of me meant I was a go-getter, driven, motivated to be the best. I mean, isn’t that what society tells us to be?
When I was a student and then a teacher, I liked getting praise from my teachers and professors and bosses. It felt good to get that validation in the form of verbal praise or good grades or recognition for achievement.
It wasn’t until I started my own business that perfectionism really started to drag me down and seem like not such a great thing after all. Because perfectionism is rooted in anxiety and anxiety is rooted in fear.
In my professional life, perfectionism rarely got a chance to completely paralyze me like it does now because there was always someone on the other end waiting for whatever the finished product was. I was forced to finish it. Even if I had to pull an all-nighter or obsess over the tiniest of details, it got done because it had to get done.Because perfectionism is rooted in anxiety and anxiety is rooted in fear. Click To Tweet
Working for myself, the only person waiting for me to finish a task or project is pretty much just me. Save for client work or the content I have to finish so that my VA can work her magic (like this podcast), if I don’t have someone on the other end waiting for me to finish the thing and give it to them, then my perfectionism can often mean that it never gets done.
And once I finally realized this was a pattern for me, I had to sit down and examine it. I had to figure out where it came from, how it was showing up in my life, and what the fuck to do about it.
Some people claim that perfectionism has its good side but I would disagree. Because there’s a big difference between wanting to do your best work and then believing everything has to be absolutely perfect or you’re a huge failure. Perfectionists don’t want to just turn out a product that is the best that it can possibly be. Perfectionists believe that if they DON’T turn out something that is perfect in every way it says something about who they are as a person.Because there’s a big difference between wanting to do your best work and then believing everything has to be absolutely perfect or you’re a huge failure. Click To Tweet
A lot of perfectionists are also highly intelligent high achievers. Which isn’t the least bit surprising considering how much emphasis and pressure we put on kids in school to excel at literally everything. If I was good at something, I had to maximize that skill to make the most of it for college applications. It was exceedingly rare that I ever did something just because I enjoyed it. If I wasn’t perfect at something, I stopped doing it or if I didn’t think I’d be perfect at it, I wouldn’t even try.
Apologies to my aunt who spent one exhausting afternoon trying to teach my anxious, perfectionist self how to watercolor. And RIP to all the hobbies that I tried to turn into businesses because I thought if I was good at or enjoyed something I should try to turn it into something “useful”.
And perfectionism is often linked to procrastination. So if you’re listening to this thinking, you’re not a perfectionist, but you’re a grade A procrastinator, I’m sorry to inform you that your procrastination probably has its roots in perfectionism somewhere. Or, at the very least, anxiety.
If you put something off until later you get to temporarily ease the anxiety of having to do it perfectly (or at all) until you’re in a mad dash at 3am trying to finish up that paper or presentation or edits to your course.So if you’re listening to this thinking, you’re not a perfectionist, but you’re a grade A procrastinator, I’m sorry to inform you that your procrastination probably has its roots in perfectionism somewhere. Click To Tweet
Or, if you’re anything like me, sometimes you’re so paralyzed by your perfectionist fear of failure that you can’t even start the task in the first place. So instead you make big, lofty goals and big, fancy plans and then do absolutely nothing.
You do nothing because if you do something and it doesn’t work out then you have failed. And failure is your worst nightmare. Failure says something about who you are as a person. Failure is proof to your perfectionist brain that you were right all along: you suck.
Or that could be me projecting. I’m sure not all perfectionists are procrastinators and vice versa but I’m sure we all have anxiety about something. And anxiety is fear.
Fear of snakes, fear of falling, fear of failure, fear of being seen, fear of fucking up and having the whole world know that you are lacking.
Brené Brown said it best when she said “…perfectionism is not about striving for excellence or healthy striving. It’s… a way of thinking and feeling that says…: ‘If I look perfect, do it perfect, work perfect, and live perfect, I can avoid or minimize shame, blame, and judgment.’ I call perfectionism ‘the 20-ton shield.’ We carry it around thinking it’s going to protect us from being hurt. But it protects us from being seen.”
I think we combat this perfectionism trap best if we teach it to our children. So that they aren’t 33 and anxiously proofreading a Facebook post for typos seven times or agonizing over ways they could have given that presentation better while they try to fall asleep.
If we can normalize failing for our kids and redefine success we can raise adults who don’t tie their sense of self-worth into their achievements. Making a mistake is not the end of the world, it’s a learning experience, and we don’t teach that to our children enough. If you don’t yell at your toddler when they fall over while they’re learning to walk then don’t get upset with your third grader for not getting a perfect score on their spelling test.Making a mistake is not the end of the world, it’s a learning experience, and we don’t teach that to our children enough. Click To Tweet
Reward the amount of effort instead of the outcome. And since this isn’t a parenting podcast and you’re already raised, that goes for you, too. So what can you do to overcome perfectionism, procrastination, anxiety, and the fear that accompanies all three?
First, I highly recommend picking up Brené Brown’s book, Daring Greatly. Or really any of her books and giving them a read, to help you learn how to release shame and foster connection with yourself and others.
I am a constant work in progress on this topic but the things I find most helpful for me when I’m smacking up against perfectionism and using that as an excuse to not move forward is to…
First, find something about whatever it is I’m doing that I enjoy. If I’m working on my novel, for example, I can spin out into perfectionist overwhelm and anxiety super quickly if I think 500 steps ahead to actually publishing the book. Nothing stops me from writing faster than freaking out about strangers reading my work and hating it.
But if, instead, I focus on how much I love developing a character or how much I enjoy researching a profession or location or how much I love writing dialogue that makes me laugh or cry. Then I can get through it by just focusing on what I enjoy in the moment over and over and over again until I have a whole book.
Another thing that works for me is, once I create the plan, I make myself immediately stop thinking about the end result or goal and focus only on the next thing I have to do. This is for all of the people who are such perfectionists that you won’t even start something for fear of fucking it up.Another thing that works for me is, once I create the plan, I make myself immediately stop thinking about the end result or goal and focus only on the next thing I have to do. Click To Tweet
Because that end result thinking is one of the biggest things that trip me up. Nothing feels more overwhelming than sitting there staring down the 25 steps you have to take between where you are to get where you want to go. There’s really no way to get around the planning phase. You have to know where you’re going so you can plan out the steps to get there.
But, lucky for me, it’s the planning part I find really fun. I LIKE the dopamine high of planning out something and what it’s going to be like when I get there. But once that’s done and I know all the steps I need to take I focus only on the very next thing I have to do and that’s it. Otherwise, it overwhelms me and I’ll either stop halfway through or never start at all.
And the newest, and arguably hardest thing, I’ve started doing is to focus on and celebrate my effort and not my output. My entire life I’ve been celebrating achievements. If I didn’t achieve the thing then that meant I failed and failure was bad. But I never commended myself for my effort.
I’m absolutely not a pro at this one yet but I’m hoping that the more I’m able to recognize and celebrate my effort—no matter the outcome—the more willing I’ll be to try something again even though it means that I might not succeed or that success might not look exactly the way that I thought it would.
Because success is less about reaching your goal perfectly and more about putting in the effort over and over and over again until you figure out what works for you to get where you want to go.
As much as we might want to be, as much as society tells women they should be, nobody is perfect. And all perfectionism is doing is holding you back from really showing up for yourself, from making big moves, and from changing lives. And the world deserves your genius, every imperfect piece of it. Alright, that’s it for me today. Bye, y’all.