Do you ever find yourself reading and re-reading something before submitting it, paralysed with thinking “is this right?”
Do you ever find yourself going over and over the smallest bit of negative feedback in your head (especially at 3am), beating yourself up about it?
Do you ever find yourself not putting yourself forward, because are worried that you won’t be able to do something to the high standard expected?
These are all examples of perfectionism. And while accuracy is a good thing, perfectionism is not:
you are unable to delegate because you don’t trust that it will be done “properly”
your stress and levels of dissatisfaction are higher
you don’t take risks, and therefore don’t progress.
So to avoid perfectionism, practice the art of letting go.
In honour of Mental Heath Awareness Week, here are three ways to let go of perfectionism:
change your goal
change your language
change your mindset
1. Change your goal
There is a tradition in Persian carpet-making always to include a flaw, because nothing is perfect except God.
Your aim should be EXCELLENCE, not perfection - the two are different!
And how much more achievable - and more worthy of achieving - is excellence?
So be explicit about this to yourself!
write “excellence not perfection” up somewhere you can see it regularly to remind you
at the start of each project, think about what “excellence” would be in this particular case: a well-argued, persuasive thesis (and it doesn’t matter if there is one spelling mistake)?
define where your boundary of “excellence” is by experimenting: submit something even before you think it’s ready, to see what feedback you get. Have you reached “excellence” already?
and get out of your comfort zone by trying something new: perfectionism stops you taking risks, so enjoy the goal of building a new capacity of “excellence” (not perfection) in a new, different area. You will learn how rewarding life can be when you move past the block of perfectionism.
2. Change your language
Language is so powerful.
Words like “perfect”, “should”, “must” and “ought to” are often used as sticks to beat ourselves up with.
I call it the “tyrannical should".
I once did some Gestalt (experiential) therapy about this, and was asked to hold a series of really heavy floor cushions in my outstretched arms, one for each “should” I could think of.
And then I was asked how it felt to be weighing myself down with such expectations.
Guess what - it wasn’t pleasant.
And the key point: I was doing it to myself…
You can avoid this by changing your language:
remove these ‘obligation’ words from your vocabulary, and use more empowering words instead: “I can”, “I choose”, “I will”, “I want".
don’t talk about anything being “perfect”, even in a throw-away comment - language is powerful (and remember that rug - nothing is perfect…). I talk to my daughter about “progress not perfection” - you could use this as your mantra instead.
and if you are finding yourself struggling to remember this, use the rubber band trick: put a rubber band on your wrist, and when you catch yourself using one of these words, snap it (gently!). This is not about punishment, but pattern interruption: we are preventing ourselves continuing down that negative language pattern, and reminding the brain to avoid it in the future.
3. Change your mindset
Perfectionism is a mindset, and we all have the ability to choose our mindset.
So choose something else more constructive:
focus on the positive: look at the good stuff you have already, rather than the bits your are missing before you reach perfection. Neuroscience is clear: what you focus on is what you notice.
re-frame: look at the positive impact of letting go of perfectionism: “by letting go of this perfectionist thought, I am gaining the more confidence in my abilities”.
introduce realism: is it REALLY possible to achieve perfection in this situation? Or are you just setting yourself up for failure? (Isn’t that a bit pointless…?)
consider the cost-benefit of perfectionism: by spending an extra hour reading and re-reading something, adding very little value (maybe correcting an errant apostrophe), you are losing an hour you could be spending doing some strategic thinking, or having a recharging break, which are much more valuable in the long run.
And that’s it: three ways to let go of perfectionism.
If you'd like to see a personal video about my experience with panic attacks (triggered by being overly perfectionist), click here.
And to see this blog as a video, click here!