I used to say it all the time. “I am a recovering perfectionist.” What I really meant was more along the lines of, “Yeah, yeah, I know it’s a bad thing to be and I’m working on not being it.” It falls in line with all the things that I think I need to change about myself. The things I am able to recognize as traits within myself that are not looked upon very highly, especially when the world is in a “done is better than perfect” push. In that climate…perfectionism seems to be something to be ashamed of, so I need to cover up that shame with, “I’m in recovery.”
But what if it’s not something to be ashamed of? What if the answer is not changing it at all? What if the goal becomes learning to embrace perfectionism rather than vehemently reject it? Now, I get that “done is better than perfect” has it’s rightful place in my perfectionistic brain. There is a time and space for learning to let things go and just let it be. AND, there is space for other views and ways of being as well. Maybe there is a positive space for perfectionism. Stick with me. I’ll explain.
The Shift From Bad to Not so Bad
One day things really shifted for me in regard to perfectionism. I was talking to one of my wise friends about my need to always do things 110%. Probably more focusing on how much it sucks to be a perfectionist and complaining about this shameful tendency. I mean, come on, maybe it would be okay to do some things half-ass from time to time. Then she asked me, “Are there any areas of your life where perfectionism serves you well?”
Wow…let me think about it for a minute. Could it actually serve me well? As soon as I was able to make the shift to the fact that perfectionism could possibly be a good thing…why, yes, I could definitely think of a few. For instance, I’m really good at seeing details. I can pick up a lot of things that other people miss. In our short-term rental property, I aced the super host status quickly because of my attention to detail. It serves me at work. It serves me when I’m helping others. I think my perfectionism is actually a result of my keen initiation. It also helps me not to miss much with my kids. Most of the time I’m pretty on top of it. Even though it’s chaotic (in the end) I get the job done. Well, usually. To my surprise, upon deeper investigation of the question, there were actually quite a few ways I could see that perfectionism serves me well.
Perfectionism Isn’t Always a Bad Thing
The culture right now in the self help world is to help people learn how to get rid of their perfectionism. How to cure yourself. The reality is, I don’t want to get rid of it. I don’t want to do things half-ass. While this is a noble feat, I also think it can breed more of the “there is something wrong with me” mentality. I say this while also acknowledging that the anxiety that perfectionism can evoke is real. So I argue that what we should be focusing on is how to respond to our perfectionism. Is it causing panic attacks and keeping you stuck in the same spot, unable to take a step forward? Okay, that’s an issue. Because it’s keeping you from your greatness. Is it causing you to turn in superb work and getting you to advance in your job the way you’d like to? Well then, not so bad.
What I’d like to do is encourage you to look at your perfectionism in context. There may be times where it is serving you. Heck, there may be times it is causing you to thrive. There also may be times where the issue isn’t even your perfectionism, but it’s the anxiety that is being created because you think there is something wrong with being a perfectionist. It’s almost like a “what comes first, the chicken or the egg” scenario. Sometimes our beliefs about something (that are often put into our minds by other people) are what’s actually causing the angst. If we could change the beliefs, maybe we could better go with the flow and focus on seeing things for the blessings that they are.
The Key to Everything is Acceptance
One of the biggest issues I see when working with people is that they try to make themselves be something different than they are. You are not in recovery. You are gathering awareness about how this characteristic you have serves you. Most of the high level, successful people I know are perfectionists. But the key is, they know how to harness it’s power productively and reject the part that causes them distress. If your anxiety level goes through the roof if you produce something that’s a little short of your version of perfect, by all means, get some support in interventions to slow down that part of your brain. Find some peace and coping skills to be able to let things go when needed. How do you harness its power rather than get rid of it altogether?
The more we beat ourselves up about what we aren’t, the less likely we are to become that thing we want to be. If you are always in “recovery” it’s impossible to accept yourself. I will always be a perfectionist and I will always care what people think. I will also always have some level of anxiety that can flare up at any moment. These are things about me that I fought for years. Things I thought I needed to recover from. Now I realize they are a part of me. Rather than fight them, how can I get to know them better? They give me the information I need about myself. They serve a purpose for me. The more I get curious about them and embrace the characteristics of who I am, the more I can then work on accentuating the benefits of these characteristics and mitigate the pieces of them that bring me stress. But as long as we are in constant denial of who we are, we can never be outside of stress. It’s impossible. There is no moving forward in an aligned way without acceptance.
Rather than getting on the bandwagon that it’s all negative, do some digging. Here are some exploratory questions to ask yourself:
- What drives my perfectionism?
- Is it fear based? If so, what am I afraid will happen if I’m not perfect?
- Is my need to be perfect keeping me in the same place or propelling me forward?
- Are there areas of my life that perfectionism is serving me in a positive way?
- Are there areas of my life that perfectionism is serving me in a negative way?
- How do I respond to perfectionism?
- What are my coping skills to help cope with a negative response?
- What ways can I better embrace perfectionism?
- Are there areas of my personality I’m fighting myself on?
- What do I need to learn to embrace?
Embracing Perfectionism and YOU
These questions are great journal prompts to help you get to a deeper understanding of you. Let me remind you: you aren’t meant to fit inside the same beige-colored box as everyone else. Your personality, the things that drive you, the things that you dream of, and even the thing that you see as flaws are not an accident. You do not need to learn to recover from yourself. You must learn to harness the power of all that you are.
My perfectionism serves me. I no longer see it as something that I need to get rid of, but rather a gift. I’m grateful for my attention to detail, intuition, and ability to produce excellent work. I’m also grateful that the more I embrace these things as positives about myself, the more I can release the need to be perfect in other areas that cause me stress. It’s a beautiful dance to be at ease with yourself and who you are, rather than a ferocious battle trying to make yourself different than who you are.