Escape from Perfectionism

I grew up in a household of intellects, myself included, though at the time it didn't feel that way. My father taught computer science at Yale University, my mother got a perfect score on the SATs, my sister was a straight-A student who was put in "TAG" in elementary school. "TAG" stands for "talented and gifted." It carries with it an implication that anyone who is not put in TAG (ahem, me) is therefor NOT "talented and gifted." My parents used to playfully argue over who was the "real" scientist, because while my dad's title said "science" directly in it, my mom was a chemical engineer who developed the process for safely disposing of zirconium fines and radioactive railings for a chemical plant in Utah in the late 70s.

Oh, and me? I was a wild child. I was the one reaching for more chicken at dinner and knocking over the milk, I was the one who wanted to spend all her time in school making friends and talking to people (not sitting still in a chair listening to a teacher). I was an experiential learner who always wanted to be doing, going, seeing, exploring and digging holes through the earth to China.

I wasn't a bad student, but I was unable to apply myself in the way my sister did. Thankfully, I had sports. I quickly realized that excelling at sports got me a lot of attention and praise. It felt good to be praised, but it led me to believe that I had to be perfect to be loved (that sounds a little mellow-dramatic, but that's how it felt).

Either I was a great athlete or I was nothing at all.

Achieving excellence was the only way to prove my worth. Overtime, the pursuit of perfection in sport seeped into chasing perfection in all other areas of my life. Make people happy, get straight-A's, only show your "final draft," keep your house spotless for guests, don't show people your mistakes. In full transparency, this obsession for perfection did lead to a successful ski career, but it has subsequently led to exhaustion, burnout, lack of satisfaction, and in my more recent life, a lack of fitness.

So, to all my fellow perfectionists, how do we break this pattern and recognize that we are enough?

  1. Embrace the mess.

    The mess is where you figure it all out. The mess is the learning process. It's experimenting and doing, not reading the "how-to" manual. If you're constantly afraid of the mess, you'll never begin. If you never begin, you'll never get where your compass is pointing. You can get yourself to start embracing the mess, by intentionally creating a mess.

    Are you someone who has to make the bed everyday or do the dishes every night? If so, I want you to try something: DON'T DO IT! For one morning or one night, leave the bed unmade or the dishes dirty. See what happens. I bet you'll realize a few things: a) you didn't die, b) everyone that loves you still loves you, and c) your life is still on track. Perhaps this was a bit uncomfortable for you, maybe it threw you off a bit, but didn't unravel because of that one mess. The same is true for your goals. They're a work in progress and they may be messy, but it's not going to be a permanent state.

  2. Learn to Say "NO!" 

    Are you a people pleaser? Me too. Satisfying other's needs by saying yes to every invitation and every favor is common among perfectionists. Last month, a friend asked if her boyfriend could borrow my husband's ski boots for an upcoming trip. But, they don't wear the same size boot. Instead of simply saying "no," I started to take on the mission of trying to track boots down through another means. I created a project where there didn't need to be one, because I felt imperfect for not solving my friend's boyfriend's problem of not having ski boots. (Shame on my husband for having big feet. Wait, what?!)

    Learning to say no is hard, but it's like any muscle - it gets stronger by using it. The next time someone invites you somewhere, think about your motivation is for wanting to say yes. What is driving it? Are you trying to avoid disappointing a friend? Or do you really want to be there? Are you sacrificing more important things out of fear of letting someone down? If you're still finding this difficult to discern, use Derek Sivers' rule: "If It's Not A Hell Yes, It's A No."

  3. Write It Down!

    Write down a short list of some mistakes you've made in your life and note what you've learned from them. Realize that imperfection often creates an opportunity for growth. While I can't say I've never made the same mistake twice, I do learn something new each time I fail. Writing these lessons down helps you to tangibly recognize how interconnected the lessons we learn in life really are. It helps us to see the breadcrumbs that were left behind leading us to where we are now. With this perspective, we can begin to welcome imperfection for the success to which it's leading us.

  4. Quit the Comparison Game

    This is quite straight-forward. When you are working on your projects, on your path, on your life, on your dreams, refrain from the temptation of comparing your journey to others. Comparison can be a helpful tool if used correctly but (and I say this with love) WE SUCK AT USING IT CORRECTLY! Too often we're comparing our beginning with someone else's middle - leading us to think we have so much more work to do before we can put our product or message into the world. You will learn more by starting than by comparing, I promise.

  5. Check-in On Procrastination

    Ironically, procrastination can be one of the primary hiding places for a perfectionism problem. For a perfectionist, the thought of doing any activity/task/chore/project comes with it the burden of doing it perfectly. Doing things perfectly takes A LONG TIME. But truthfully, you don't need to be perfect in order to get your desired results.

    With my desk job and coaching business, it has been hard to workout as long or hard as I used to in my professional athlete days. So, instead of doing a little bit every day, I started doing nothing... My goal of doing the perfect workout was making me less healthy than if I were to embrace any small amount of movement that I could fit in a day.

To all you recovering perfectionists, know this: your tendencies may always be there, but they don't have to captain your ship. The goal is not to rid yourself of perfectionism, but to become aware of perfectionism has taken control of your life. When you recognize that, you can begin to set your own sails.