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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

How to Stop Perfectionism From Running Your Life

In an interview between Oprah and Dr. Brené Brown, vulnerability researcher and storyteller, the following words were exchanged:

People who are walking around as perfectionists are ultimately afraid that the world is going to see them for who they really are and [that] they won't measure up.

Though I’d been living this way since my eager childhood, only recently did I place the behavior. The quest to please, the self-imposed pressure to amount to something, the colossal hatred toward living in learning curves, the fear of change and starting. It left me clinging to instant gratification, praise, and results like lifelines—and I wanted all of them, all the time, without fully extending myself.

I never really had to. School and all those miscellaneous extracurricular activities that padded my college applications (I mean, made me well-rounded) required minimal effort. And with (relative) success reinforcing my actions, the patterns continued. I went into college and the workforce with this deep-seated drive to be the best.

Consequently, I was regularly pulled under by nauseating bouts of “the never enoughs.” Predictable as a carousel, they spun me backward and kept me down. Until I finally did something about it.

First, let’s examine my inflection point. I was 22 years old with a big girl job and a heavy dose of grief from losing my father. At work, though, I compartmentalized and consistently achieved and overachieved—to the point that even my dreams were seized and conquered by work-related themes.

One morning, I sent my boss a very important deliverable—one that I poured my heart and free time into. When the workday ended at 6 PM, I heard nothing. No feedback, no acknowledgement, no comments or energetic high-five. I blew it.

You knew you weren’t ready for this responsibility, and now your boss thinks you’re a careless, hurried hammer with nothing but a bucket of bad ideas and poor spreadsheet management. She’ll probably have to redo the entire thing. Did you even proofread it? You’re a joke—15 other girls could do your job better than you.

Of course, one day later, the response came. Rave reviews. The low was lifted, but I sunk with immaturity.

I wish this were a lie. I wish I were as secure in my abilities then as I am now, but for perfectionists, self-doubt is a deeply engrained behavior. I feel lucky, though, that this particular episode started an avalanche of introspection and change. That person, crippled by intense worry, was not who I wanted to be. So with courage and active practice I started to work out the kinks.

Here are the manageable steps I took, and that you can too, to take strides away from perfectionism.

Do a Reality Check

When my inner critic gets in a shouting match with reason, and self-doubt begins to bubble over reality, I make efforts to keep myself in check. I do that with this series of questions:

  1. Are my thoughts factual, or are they my interpretations?
  2. Am I jumping to negative conclusions?
  3. Is this situation as bad as I’m making it out to be?
  4. What’s the worst thing that could happen? How likely is that to happen?
  5. Will this matter in five years? At the pivotal moments of my life (read: moving abroad or childbirth), will this moment actually matter?

By the end of it, I’ve either forgotten what started my funk or come to realize that I was building elaborate falsities in my mind while awaiting validation. As perfectionists, we have a tendency to play the starring role in countless self-doubt sagas and confuse compliments for deep, authentic sources of self-esteem and inner peace. This reality test simultaneously makes us accountable for our own reassurance and less dependent on others for positive reinforcement.

Practice Radical Self-Acceptance

Perfectionists tend to be critical of others. It’s a defense mechanism that causes us to reject in others what we can’t accept in ourselves, and the more we pick at our shortcomings, the more we fixate on those of the people around us. These strong feelings come from idealizing the perfect person and life, and it’s a menacing filter we can’t seem to lift off of reality.

To kick this habit in the jaw, we must be kind to ourselves. When we like ourselves, even our “flaws” and “imperfections,” we’re much less likely to be grumpy pricks who hold everyone under a microscope.

So every morning, I tell myself something I love about myself. The subject can be as simple as my morning Medusa hair, or as complex as my love language. Whatever it is that I choose, I choose it for the day, and I repeat it when I feel I need that boost. I repeat it and I believe it, and practicing that radical self-love beats the hell out of the alternative of living a hard-hearted, locked-down, and unforgiving life.

Create and Trigger Rituals

As perfectionists, we’re afraid of so many things. Starting new projects, making the wrong life decision, choosing a partner—and each of them share this common denominator: fear of failing. It makes us indecisive and reliant on others to guide.

To combat such submissive behavior, we have to cultivate the habit of refusing to let fear dictate our every move—a trick I learned from professional athletes. As Twyla Tharp illustrates in The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It For Life:

A pro golfer may walk along the fairway chatting with his caddie, his playing partner, a friendly official or scorekeeper, but when he stands behind the ball and takes a deep breath, he has signaled to himself it’s time to concentrate. A basketball player comes to the free-throw line, touches his socks, his shorts, receives the ball, bounces it exactly three times, and then he is ready to rise and shoot, exactly as he’s done a hundred times a day in practice. By making the start of the sequence automatic, they replace doubt and fear with comfort and routine.

As for my progress, it’s triggered by a 19th century Russian and a cold glass of water. Whenever I feel the stuffed and helpless inability to start, I play in my mind something Tchaikovsky once said:

A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.

And with a tall glass of cool clarity, I swallow my fear of starting and begin. Laundry, health goals, sketches, writing, music—no different, one from the other. I replace self-doubt with self-respect and march on, blunting the fear of failure.

Lower the Stakes

Constantly basking in the glow of anticipation, we put so much pressure on ourselves to have fun—no, the most fun that’s ever been had in the history of fun-having. It’s too much. It’s unreasonable to place those demands on ourselves, and we end up bitterly emerging from events and get-togethers, giving off the impression that we have someplace better to be, with people who are far more interesting. It’s bad form and has the potential to destroy relationships.

So, lower the freaking stakes. Notice when you’re pouting or disengaged. Notice when you’re the only one not laughing, or when you’re frantically pressing patterned napkins instead of enjoying your guests and the party you’re hosting. There’s fun to be had, but you have to allow yourself to let it in.

I know because I’ve shunned it before. Attached to doing everything, and doing it perfectly, I’ve watched leisure hours slip away as I became totally absorbed in my tasks. And what room does that leave for love and lying around in happy messes? None. My personal relationships suffered until I learned not to take the maxims for success as absolutes.

Ridding “should” from my vocabulary helped, too. It was an eye-opening experience, realizing how often I felt burdened by the 18 things I “should be doing” instead of being at a friend’s bonfire. What things “should” be or look like. The self-recriminations slowed as I lowered my unobtainable standards, and eventually I didn’t need to be an eight-packed runner with a 401(k) and a book deal to know my worth. Now, I tell myself “So what?” and move right along to celebrate my friends, loves, and self.

Grieve Unrealized Dreams

Few of us end up becoming what we sketched out in crayons when we were five; God knows I’m no dentist-astronaut hybrid. Instead, we’re broke or baristas or barely spending enough time with our families because we work too much. Whoever we are, it’s unlikely that we’re who we thought we’d be. And perfectionists, in particular, need to come to terms with that. Since we struggle with these notions of not being enough or never amounting to anything, we need to find consistent comfort in our skin and pride in our accomplishments.

So keep a list. Write down what you’ve accomplished this week, month, or year, and see your worth come alive on paper. It’s simple, and I swear by it. That deep-cleaned kitchen glowing from your elbow grease, the book you finished, your brown-bag lunches—they count! You made those things happen. All of them. And they’ve been accomplished despite the fact that you’re not the ballerina-marine biologist your toddler-self thought you’d be.

Like any change, taming perfectionist tendencies requires self-examination and trust. It also demands that you don’t take yourself too seriously or beat yourself up if you meet a stretch in the road without forward motion. Care for yourself in the process, and know that the only person stopping you from emulating and adopting admiral behavior is you.

Photo of woman courtesy of Shutterstock.