My name’s Ellen, and I’m a recovering perfectionist. Not so long ago – and still sometimes now (because nobody’s perfect even at imperfection) – I’d hang my head in shame and feel a big knot in my stomach every time I did something wrong, or was less than perfect. I’d beat myself up for not being good enough, and I’d return to work even harder. Sound familiar? Read on for my notes from a recovering perfectionist, what I’ve learned about perfectionism as I try to release myself from its grip.
Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good
Ah Gretchen Rubin, when will you stop being such a guiding light? (I suspect possibly never?!). This is one of Gretchen’s ‘Secrets of Adulthood’ and was pretty transformational for me. It was more of a slow burn than your average lightning bolt moment, but it kept coming back to me after I’d read it and then one day I quoted it in a meeting with my theatre company and I’ve not looked back.
I combine this quote with another great motivator from Sheryl Sandberg “done is better than perfect”; because it is. Perfectionism is one of the biggest de-motivators in the world. We might think striving for perfection helps us work better, but how many times have you not been able to start something for fear of it not being perfect?
Reward action, not perfection
This relates to the point above. If you’re someone who, like me, has placed their sense of self worth in the jaws of perfectionism and high achievements you need to remember this. We should be rewarding ourselves for showing up, for the doing of the thing and not the outcome. ‘Reward all your wins’ is a tip Kayte Ferris wrote in her recent post on ways to invest in your business when you are the business. This resonated with me because, yes, now I’m self-employed I don’t reward any wins. So let’s combine these two, let’s consider simply getting something done a win and reward it accordingly. Rewarding just top results only feeds perfectionism.
Recognise what, and perhaps who, is feeding your perfectionism
This is difficult; it’s great to surround ourselves with people who encourage us to strive for more and aim higher, but when those people feed our perfectionism the relationship becomes challenging. I can think of a few people in my life, who I’ve trusted and relied on, whose feedback has ultimately left me with a crippled sense of self-worth because I felt I wasn’t perfect enough. I’m not saying it was their feedback that did that necessarily, because my approaching them and their feedback from a place driven by perfectionism definitely played a role too. It serves to use “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” as a mantra for receiving, and perhaps giving, feedback.
The other big thing that feeds our perfectionism is, of course, comparison. For me the biggest place to fall into the comparison trap is on social media and, to some extent, the online world in general. As a rule, if I catch myself having negative thoughts about my abilities and self worth whilst doing anything on the Internet I have to come off for an hour or so at least.
Wabi-sabi is the Japanese aesthetic and world-view centred on imperfection and transience. Whole books are written on the subject, so I’ll leave it to you to dig into it deeper but this definition (quoted by Oliver Burkman in an article on wabi-sabi for The Guardian) gets to the heart of it quite nicely:
“It is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete” – Leonard Koren
In essence, imperfections make us – the lives we lead, and the work we do – more beautiful.
It’s not easy to remember that, and I definitely still notice my perfectionist ways creeping in every now and again. But I’ve taken ‘perfectionist’ off my CV as a strength, and I no longer mention it in interviews. I’m a recovering perfectionist, and I’m starting to accept the beauty of imperfection.
Do you struggle with perfectionism, or have you never really felt that perfectionist urge?