A Recovering Perfectionist

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“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”  Ferris Bueller

I am a recovering perfectionist.  The perfect me would spend hours and hours on a presentation or deliverable.  I would make sure every word was perfect.  I would send it over to my boss and wait. If a response did not come within an hour, I would assume that the presentation was awful.  Typically, the positive response from my boss came 24-48 hours. Chances are, if I had spent ½ the time rewriting/editing/rewriting, it would still have been a positive response.  I had wasted countless hours on making it perfect.

Many of us believe that being perfect is the key to being happy and successful. However, it’s the very thing that keeps us from understanding our purpose, our passion and wipes out most of our emotional energy in the process.

Let’s start at the beginning, if you were like me,

  • You had perfect grades in school
  • You had the perfect job
  • You raised the perfect children
  • You had the perfect husband
  • Your house was always perfectly clean

…. or so you thought.

You thought if you were perfect, life would be perfect.  Perfection, according to Brene Brown, is about earning approval.  You loved the praise you received in school.  You loved how others were envious of how accomplished your children were.  However, somewhere over the course of time, you started to believe “I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it.” If you were not perfect, you were unworthy. If you were not perfect, you were a failure.  If you were not perfect, life would come tumbling down.  This became your belief system.

However, life is not perfect. We lose our jobs.  We get sick.  Our children mess up, as most children do.  The challenge with perfectionism is it’s black or white. You are either perfect or not.  There is no middle ground with perfectionism.  It is emotionally exhausting and limits us in every aspect of our life.

Here are a few ways it impacted me.

  • I always had a sense of not being enough

One of the challenges is that I was so focused on being perfect that when I fell short, I would beat myself up, feel worthless and like a failure.  What I did not realize was that working towards goals and putting myself out there with projects was an accomplishment itself. Even failure is an accomplishment. With failure comes learning.

  • My work was never every finished.

For perfectionists like me, projects were never completed since they did not meet my criteria for “perfect.” As a result, I would keep working on a task but never finish it.  I had 15 different incomplete projects at work.  I had at least ten projects at work that I committed to that were not quite good enough.  I would end up in a cycle of paralysis with these projects.  I would work on the same thing, day after day, tweaking it, to make it perfect.  As a result, I missed out on career opportunities, baseball games, fun with my children, and evenings with my husband.  All because I was tweaking/re-analyzing one of my projects.

  • I was stressed out and no fun

Making things perfect is stressful. It impacted not only me but those around me.  This included my children, husband, and colleagues.  My children learned to ‘stay away’ when Mom was in a crabby mood. My colleagues knew when I was in a perfectionist mood and also ‘stayed away.’

  • My creativity was gone

Throughout the early part of my career, my mantra was…..How could I possibly be creative and take a risk and maybe even make a mistake? The thought would paralyze me.  Creativity and innovation are focused on questioning assumptions, looking outside the box, and to a certain extent, being uncomfortable.

I sent many years doing the same job, year after year, afraid of failing if I stepped outside my comfort zone.  I worked hours and hours every week being perfect but being both emotionally exhausted, frustrated that my career wasn’t moving, and bored.

  • Those around me had to be perfect

Being a perfectionist meant that I was always stressed out and I expected everyone around me also to be perfect. If I was giving everything 200%, then everyone else should too. The reality is that not everyone wanted to be perfect.  I became frustrated, angry and even started to look down on others.  This certainly did not help my career nor my family relationships.  Even today, my daughter calls me the ‘former judge’ since I was always judging others for not being perfect.

Is there one silver bullet to overcome perfectionism.  Unfortunately, no. For me, step 1 was finally realizing the damage I was doing to myself, my family and career by always trying to be perfect.  Step 2 was to then learn gratitude.  Gratitude was the one key item that helped me overcome my perfectionism.

Here is the process I used to get rid of my damaging perfectionism by practicing gratitude:

  • Each morning I would wake up and write down two things for which I was grateful. It could be as wonderful as my loving family, or it could also be as simple as the warm cup of coffee I was about to brew for myself.    I would picture it in my mind and sit with the feeling of gratitude.
    • The long-term result was that my brain ended up being fundamentally rewired to be more grateful naturally. Gratitude now comes to me throughout the day.
  • When I was outside, I would stop and take a deep breath of gratitude. All while smelling the flowers, the cut grass, or the nearby cooking.
  • Regardless of whether I was getting the mail, walking to the car, or just stepping outside, each time I would pause for just a few moments, close my eyes, and take a deep breath.

These small steps of gratitude enabled me to slow down physically and emotionally and gave me a bit of speed bump to check my perfectionism during the day.

Once the gratitude started, the perfectionism stopped. And when the perfectionism stopped, joy found its way back into my life.  I became the writer of my story.  Learning to not be a perfectionist by practicing gratitude gave me my life back.