A cure for perfectionism

2009

Perfectionism is a thief that consumes the healthy things inside ourselves. You could also think of it as a mental obstacle that prevents much forward progress. Either way, it causes mental stress, tension, and fatigue.

Perfectionism is a major cause of procrastination. It also contributes to an imbalanced life, with people working excessive overtime to ensure everything is just right. The ripple-effects are many.

Recently a friend of mine realized how her own perfectionist expectations of herself were robbing her of true joy.

She wrote me the following, and I reprint it here with her permission:

"My life is so good right now. My husband and I are doing great; we are falling more and more in love, and my appreciation for him grows each day. My children are doing amazing things, and everyone's health is great. But today, when I picked up some things at Kinko's for one of my clients, I noticed an error. Turns out I had uploaded the wrong file for some copies I needed. It took me almost an hour to get over the disappointment in myself.

"Why I was beating myself up was beyond me. It was a small, simple mistake that no one else would even notice. But to me, I was providing my client an inferior product, and much of the wonderful joy in my life seemed to dissipate instantly.

"What was printed was still quite usable. Like I said, no one was even going to notice—only me. And it was only one small portion of a much larger project, so I really don't know why I was so worried. I've been doing exceptional work for this client for over a year, and they are thrilled with what I do for them. It's just that I allowed my perfectionism to focus on something so minor that it stole much of my joy.

We act based on what's inside us
What I recommend for my friend (and anyone dealing with perfectionism) is some time spent swimming in an attitude of patience, and also time spent swimming in an attitude of fun. How we respond to events has much to do with what we are feeding our minds.

Side note: Some suggest we should "focus" on being patient with ourselves or "tell ourselves" to be patient and enjoy life more. That's okay, but I like the visual image of swimming in an attitude of patience. The idea of being surrounded by patience—and being saturated by it—seems to have a deeper effect. After all, whatever is inside you is what will be displayed to others.

Think about it: If you own a barrel full of water and you poke a hole in the side of that barrel, water comes out. If orange juice is in the barrel, orange juice comes out. It's a no-brainer, but it's also a very safe bet: Whatever is inside the barrel is going to come out if someone pokes a hole in it.

Therefore, in our own minds, if we take time to "fill our barrel" with attitudes of patience and fun, when life pokes a hole in our day, then patience and fun will come out, not self-criticism or a debilitating fear of disapproval.

How Perfectionism Is Born
Many factors can contribute, but most perfection originates from our youngest years by either imprint or example. Sometimes it emerges in environments of conditional love, such as when children receive positive recognition only when what they do is "perfect." People can also become perfectionists by example, such as when young children see their parents modeling perfectionist tendencies.

Overcoming Perfectionism
One of the best ways to eliminate perfectionism is to replace it with something else. Patience and a light-hearted approach (more fun) are great replacements. So think of yourself swimming in a pool full of patience. It may help to define what that looks like. A great definition of patience is "good-natured tolerance of delay or incompetence." I like that, because "good-natured tolerance" ties right in with a common definition of fun, which is "activities that are enjoyable or amusing."

Want an example? How about Charlotte Otto, a Vice President at Proctor and Gamble. Being perfect on everything could consume Otto's every thought, and any criticism seemed to debilitate her. But eventually she learned how to be patient with herself and view constructive criticism as just that: Something she could learn from to build her skills - to construct stronger talents within herself. With that attitude, she could look at those times as enjoyable - even fun.

The important thing to remember is that what we focus on will be what saturates us on the inside. We must also remember that we all choose what we put in our "barrels."

What about you? Is it time for a good swim?

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About The Author

Dan Bobinski
Dan Bobinski

Dan Bobinski is a training specialist, author, and an accomplished keynote speaker. He's been providing management and leadership training to Fortune 500 companies as well as smaller, regional concerns for more than 20 years.

Older Comments

Hi there, Good reading instead. You're right! Perfectionist sometimes is not good especially for mental straints.

Regards

Izzat

Hi, Dan,

Interesting piece. Another downside of perfectionism is that one cannot be 'perfect' and real/authentic at the same time; they are mutually exclusive.

Trying to be perfect also points to not allowing our self to be who we are, in the moment, that somehow who I am is not good enough in some way, shape or form....a feeling of lack or deficiency that is an imprint/belief, as you say, we take on in childhood and bring with us to adulthood where needing or wanting to be perfect wreaks havoc with our sense of well-be-ing.

The more we try to be perfect, the more we move away from our True and Real Self. The move towards self-actualualization, a la Maslow, comes with an energy that is lively, juicy, positive and uplifting, not the heavy, thick, efforting energy that accompanies needing to be perfect.

peter vajda Atlanta, GA

One of the hardest lessons I learnt in business is the phrase good is good enough. I am a perfectionist by nature and letting go enough so that my business could grow was really tough. Often entreprenurs are perfectionists - you have to be good at everything to get to where you are - then you have to let go and find people you can really trust to keep the quality up and maintain standards. It can be scary if you are a perfectionist.

Ken New York