Are you a perfectionist? Me too, but I’m trying to overcome it.
I’m not sure that’s possible, but I’m trying.
Here’s what you get when you’re a perfectionist:
- Low self-esteem, because, you know, you’re not perfect.
- Depression and anxiety. See above.
- Living a life motivated by fear. Fear that you’ll never be good enough.
Sounds great, right?
So why do we do this to ourselves?
The Roots of Perfectionism
Your perfectionism most likely started when you were little.
Now please note that I am not a trained professional in any sort of mental health capacity. This is from experience and research.
Most perfectionists got that way because of something that happened in their childhood. They may have had parents who were overly critical or possibly neglectful. Or they were sensitive children who easily picked up on things and may have taken things too seriously.
For instance, my dad expected perfection from me. There was no recognition or praise for an almost all-A report card. All attention was focused on the one B I received. I got a stern lecture and was expected to earn an A next time.
And yes, I was very sensitive as well. Crying was not allowed, or having an opinion of my own.
I’m sure that you must have things that you can relate to in your own childhood.
I want to stress that not all parents meant to inflict psychological harm on their children. I’m sure most of them were doing the best they could and from love.
All Grown Up
Now that you’re an adult, how do you cope with being a perfectionist?
I used to think it was a good thing; something that I made note of at job interviews. You know – “what’s your biggest flaw?”. I thought I was being clever, not honest.
As I mentioned previously, there are a lot of mental health problems that go along with being a perfectionist.
But in addition to that, it can make your life harder than it has to be.
When you put off doing something until “just the right time” or until you have time enough to do it perfectly, it adds stress when you finally get around to it.
Because most likely, you’ve waited too long and now you’re under a time crunch to get it in. And it won’t be your best work because you rushed.
Or you get criticized for working too slowly because you’re agonizing over each detail, trying to get them all right.
My oldest daughter is a perfectionist too (although I suspect my grandson has tamed that a bit). I used to see her start an entire homework assignment – almost finished – over again because she was laying on the floor doing her work and the dog walked over the paper and creased it.
This is not the way to live your life!
How to Begin Embracing Imperfection
You probably already know where your perfectionist tendencies lie.
Maybe it’s the way you dress, your home, or the work that you do. Maybe it’s sort of everything.
Start with one that seems easier to tackle.
For me, it was anything that was written down.
I’m a writer. Here, I type on the computer (and still expect at least perfect spelling and grammar). At least I have software for that!
But I keep a paper planner and several journals, all handwritten. I used to expect those to look perfect. Handwriting that was neat, legible, and pretty. Spaced properly and straight.
I once waited until I had the exact perfect color pen before I would use one of my journals. It was a beautiful shade of pink and the pen had to match exactly.
I kept a handmade one for two years waiting for the right pen and the best thing to write in it. I ended up starting with one subject, switching to another, and then finally giving up. Now I use its beautiful paper for art projects.
I’ve since learned to not only embrace messy but enjoy it.
So find something small and practice with that.
If your makeup has to be perfect all the time, go without it one day.
Wear the same outfit two days in a row.
Force yourself to do the smallest thing imperfectly and see what happens. Spoiler: the world won’t end. Or probably even notice.
Also, start practicing mindfulness by catching yourself when you try to do something perfectly. Take a minute, a deep breath, and then try to make a different decision. Something slightly imperfect.
The Biggest and Best Thing You Can Do
As I said earlier, being a perfectionist is hard and it’s built on a fear of failure. That isn’t the way that you want to live your life.
And I know – it’s hard to change.
I’ve made some progress with two things:
- Shadow work
Let’s talk about shadow work.
Carl Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist, came up with the term “shadow self”. His theory was that we all have sides of ourselves that we aren’t proud of. Our ego tries to hide some of them from us out of shame. These are our shadow selves.
Shadow work is uncovering those parts of ourselves and understanding where they came from.
Most of them were formed in childhood, and although they sound scary, a lot of them are pretty innocent things. Remember, they’re things that a child would think were bad. (Although there are things later in life that we do that we might try and hide from ourselves that might not be so innocent.)
You can do shadow work with a therapist or trained professional, or you can do it yourself. It depends on how you feel about it. If you become frightened, nervous, or uncomfortable about something, it might be best to see a professional.
You can begin by either examining a certain trait that you know is a shadow self – something about yourself that is negative or brings shame. It could be simple, like believing you are no good at math. Or you could use a journaling prompt. There are lots of them online.
First, you try to figure out exactly when and how this belief started. It’s OK if you can’t. Just a general idea or maybe even knowing who told you this thing.
Usually, it’s a family member or someone in authority: a teacher, minister, or coach.
Then examine that belief. Is it true?
A belief is just a thought that you have had for so long that you believe that it’s true. It doesn’t mean that it is.
And you can change your beliefs. Every time you think the false belief, remind yourself that it isn’t true and tell yourself the truth.
Work on one thing at a time and expect it to take a while. You’ve spent your whole life believing this thing; it will take a while to undo it. But you can.
I know because I’ve done it.
Somewhere along the way, I got the idea that I was bad with money. I’m really good at math, so it didn’t make a lot of sense.
I did some work, including meditating and journaling, and I eventually turned things around.
Now I know that I’m good with money and I’m confident in my abilities. It’s a huge relief for me.
You Can Make Your Life Better
Tackling perfectionism might seem like a big task, but if you break it down, you can do it.
Think of the one thing that affects your life the most.
Are you making yourself crazy trying to keep a perfectly clean and decorated home?
Maybe you get in trouble at work for your perfectionist tendencies.
Whatever it is, try to break it down to the simplest thing you can. Something small, if you can. If not, start where you can and go from there. Maybe later you’ll see how it breaks down.
Then set aside some quiet time each day if you can, or at least a few times a week, and journal or think about your belief. See if you can remember the first time you felt that way or how long you’ve thought that.
Then write down a new belief. It’s important to write it down so that you will remember it. Every time you think of the old belief, tell yourself it isn’t true and repeat the new belief.
I’ve added a few journal prompts below to get you started.
You can also sign up for my newsletter. It comes out once a week on Tuesdays and always contains a journal prompt along with an essay you won’t find anywhere else and an affirmation or positive quote.
You can do this. I know you can.
Journal Prompts for Shadow Work
- Think about a time when you felt dumb, embarrassed, or ashamed. What was happening? Who was there? How does this make you feel as an adult?
- What happened when you were a child and you failed at something? How did your parents react? Were you teased?
- What happens if you’re not “perfect”? What did you think as a child? Were you expected to be perfect? Were you compared to someone else who seemed perfect?
- Do you always try to please others, even at your own expense? Can you remember when this started? Was this something your parents taught you?
The sign up for my newsletter is at the top right hand side of the page.