“[You] don’t have to change your goal. Change your path, be willing to, and don’t see that as a failure. That’s just life.” -Diane Hendricks
“Have no fear of perfection. You’ll never reach it.” – Salvador Dali
It was not long ago that I was and very much considered myself a perfectionist. I wore this label proudly though my younger years and into adulthood as a badge of honor. Who wouldn’t want to be a perfectionist? I thought, without ever realizing what endless heartbreak it can bring into your life.
Childhood: A Budding Perfectionist
I grew up, like many of us, with the world around me continually telling me that if I wasn’t 100% all the time — 100% perfect in every way from head to heart to body — that I was simply not good enough, that I always needed to be something more than I already was.
For so long I believed this lie. I lived my life seeking perfection and pretending that I could really and truly be perfect.
I remember growing up thinking that even little things had to be perfect around me.
If a folder wasn’t quite positioned right among a stack of other folders, I felt compelled to immediately rectify this wrong and make it structurally perfect.
If I was painting and I didn’t recreate the colors just right from the photo I was going off of I would take many, many hours (often into the night) to painstakingly mix the right color combos.
The worst offender to my perfectionist self was always writing — it never wanted to behave but I always tried to bend it to my perfectionist will, nitpicking every word, sentence, paragraph, and grammatical error.
I became hampered by my quest for perfection — I slowed myself down and often stunted my own progress and growth. I would start something and then never pick it up again because I had already decided that it wasn’t good enough even before I really began.
If I continued on with a hobby or task, however, I would practice ad nauseum to try to push myself to the next level. But in reality, since I was always spinning in my own self-created perfectionist cycle, I never got much of anywhere — I was doing the same thing over and over again and hoping for different results.
Adulthood: The Perfectionist Saga Continues
As I entered my working life with my perfectionist ways still intact, I would sometimes struggle along quietly with projects and assignments — not letting go of an article, report, proposal, etc. until it was in tip-top shape. I didn’t understand what good meant and so good to me always felt wrong. It couldn’t just be good, it had to be perfect.
I was sensitive to criticism, much as I had been in my younger years. I took every comment personally, fretting over every little word I was told. I then took these words and weaved them into a thorny little negative self-talk quilt that I would revisit throughout the day and into the night, wrapping myself in self-hate until I finally fell asleep with a heavy, hurting heart.
I would wake up in the morning and look in the mirror, unhappy with what I saw.
- This little part needed to be exercised away.
- This little spot needed to be covered in creams until it disappeared.
- This strand of hair was ugly.
- My nose was ugly.
- My arms were ugly.
- My legs were ugly.
Everything was ugly and all sorts of bad and I didn’t know what to do with it all. I felt overwhelmed. And overwhelmed with a deep sadness that no matter how hard I tried, I would still look this way and be the way I was — imperfect.
What’s more, I thought others around me had to be perfect, too. I got agitated when someone didn’t write in the same style that I did or follow the same grammatical rules. I got a twitch when I watched someone clean the bathroom in a way that I wouldn’t.
I wanted to make everything around me perfect — or at least bring everyone into my little perfectionist bubble so that they too could see the light.
I continued on in this self-destructive manner until I decided: f this shit. Enough was enough.
Adulthood Part 2: Recovering from the Perfectionist Disease
Nowadays, I don’t consider myself a perfectionist. If anything, I am trying to distance myself as much as possible from this label because I found this state of being so extremely unhealthy.
I was blindly barreling down a path that was actually significantly hindering my own self-growth and making me lose out on opportunities to live a fuller and more meaningful life.
Quite simply, I was driving myself (and others) crazy.
I now know there were never any benefits to perfectionism. And if anyone claims that there are, they are likely trapped in the same self-delusional perfectionist cycle that I was.
At a certain point in my life, as I’ve gone through various stages of growth and change, I dedicated myself to making a very concentrated effort to rid myself of my perfectionist ways.
Today, I am a recovering perfectionist. I try my best to let go and just be my imperfect (and perfectly fun) self.
I may not be able to totally rid myself of all perfectionist tendencies, but so what? What matters is that I’m trying. I am trying to live my life just like you — I am trying to be free to be myself. This new focus in my life has brought great joy to my healing heart.
Now when I approach my tasks, hobbies, or work, I am open to failure, criticism and ultimately, growth. I have largely cleared the perfectionist disease from my system and can now have a more open heart and a clearer mind (and my body looks damn good too, if I do say so myself).
With writing especially I’ve seen much improvement. I just go and do it, even if I have nothing good or eloquent to say yet — I know that I will and that I just need to keep going. When I see a typo or some other kind of stylistic pothole now I think, “Great! I have a typo. I can fix it!”
There are some things in life we cannot fix and other things we shouldn’t try to fix. Yet we do have the power to revisit and revise parts of ourselves that are weighing us down and making us miss out on all the great, wonderful things life has to offer.
As they say, perfection is the enemy of the good — so why can’t we settle for good enough? Why must we keep striving for something more? Is that more really better and greater in the end? Or is it just driving us a little more insane and taking us away from something else that’s important?
Today, I am also more of an advocate against perfectionism. I’m not saying that you should let go of your search to be an expert or be very good at your field of work or hobby. All I’m saying to you is to let yourself off the f’ing hook. Because you’re not perfect.
You’re not going to be perfect. I’m not going to be perfect. We’re not f’ing perfect. And it’s okay.
We need to let other people off the hook too in addition to ourselves. We need to stop expecting utmost perfection from others because it’s just not going to happen. You’re just setting yourself and the other person up to fail. It is not constructive. It is destructive and demoralizing.
Growth is a positive thing. Change can also be a positive whether it’s for the better or the worst (since it is during the bad times that we build our character most). But we cannot grow and change in the ways we really want to until we let go of perfectionism.
There’s more to life than being perfect, and it is when we learn to live with our imperfections that we can start to become who we really are.
So let’s do that and be free to be our imperfect, wonderful selves.
P.S. I’d love to hear your own personal story of overcoming perfectionism — email me anytime or comment below!
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Feature photo credit: Bathroom graffiti / KP