Recovering from Perfectionism

I had a mentor once, whose mentor who had instructed him, “It’s important to make five mistakes a day.” While for many, this might seem to be an easy assignment, accomplished quickly through wrong turns while driving, incorrect references in speech, maybe forgetting to throw the laundry in the dryer, perhaps an errant email spelling, for those who struggle with perfectionism, the task might seem unimaginable. The thought of making a mistake, let alone five of them, can elicit discomfort, anxiety, even dread.

Perfectionists hold themselves to rigid standards in action, performance, and speech.  If they don’t perform up to these standards, they will often rehash and review, berating themselves for erring or not performing up to par. The perfectionist has a judgmental, unforgiving inner critic. That perfectionists hold such impossible standards often inhibits any behavior, with individuals frozen in fear that they’ll mess up. It’s not surprising that perfectionists often procrastinate. Perfectionists might also impose their rigid standards on others in their lives, including coworkers, partners, children, and friends, disappointed and angry when these individuals don’t measure up.

Perfectionism is correlated with several mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. Moreover, those who have perfectionistic tendencies often struggle with balance, acceptance, self-care, and self-compassion – all elements in a healthy emotional life. It’s not surprising that perfectionism is correlated with poor physical health.

Perfectionism has been identified as a characteristic of white supremacy culture that shows up in individuals and organizations. Here, perfectionism functions to point out others’ inadequacies and mistakes in the absence of appreciation and a focus on learning.

Still, perfectionists are typically reluctant to lower their standards, afraid that if they dial back their expectations, their achievements will take a hit. But seeking perfection can interfere with learning, creativity, risk-taking, and flexibility, variables that can actually promote achievement.  As Winston Churchill said, “Perfection is the enemy of progress.”

What does recovering from perfectionism look like?

It’s setting a high bar and learning from our mistakes. Mistakes are conceptualized as opportunities, not failures.

It’s settling for “good enough” and living a life in balance. We realize that time spent pursuing perfection is time removed from important areas of our lives.

It’s making those five mistakes a day, sometimes less, sometimes more. It’s exposing yourself to mistakes, allowing others to witness your errors without covering them up or retreating in shame.

It’s starting when the end (or outcome) is uncertain. We take risks when there aren’t guarantees.

It’s saying, “I’m okay,” “I’m good enough,” and “I deserve” as many times as necessary until we believe these words.

It’s finding compassion for ourselves and others, toward the goal of peaceful living.

And finally, it’s simply being human and embracing our messy, flawed, and evolving whole selves.

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