Perfectionism is a widespread disease in our culture. Research shows that perfectionism crushes creativity and growth both on an individual level and in organizations. Perfectionism can really have a paralyzing grip on you. It can stop you from releasing any creations into the world because your inner critic is whispering manipulative words into your ear about not being good enough.
Freeing yourself from the crushing straitjacket of perfectionism is a long process, but it is possible!
What is perfectionism?
First, I want to define what perfectionism is and what it isn’t.
Perfectionism is NOT:
- Striving to be your best self
- Motivation to create amazing things and results
- Healthy achievement and growth
- A self-destructive belief system that boils down to this mantra: “If I am perfect I can avoid the painful feelings of shame, judgment and blame.”
- Perfectionism is an unattainable goal.
- Perfectionism is about the perception of others rather than your internal motivation.
- Paradoxically, perfectionism primes us to feel shame, judgement and self-blame (the exact things we wanted to avoid by resorting to it!): “It’s my fault. I should have done better.”
Here is the fundamental difference between healthy improvement and perfectionism:
Healthy self-improvement is focused on yourself: “How can I improve?”
Perfectionism is focused on what others think: “What will they think of me?”
Perfectionism is a defensive mode. Perfectionism is strongly related to depression, anxiety and addiction. The fear of not meeting people’s expectations and being criticized keeps us outside of the space where healthy competition and self-improvement takes place.
So why are so many of us perfectionists?
It all begins in our childhood. If you didn’t get your needs met, and if you felt like you weren’t accepted as you are, you might have made guidelines for yourself on how to avoid the painful feelings of not being enough. Those guidelines may sound something like this:
- If I’m perfect, I will make them (parents, boss, spouse, friends) happy and that will make me happy.
- If I behave like a perfect angel only then will I be worthy of love.
- If I only looked perfect people would love me.
- If I make people feel better and take care of them, then that will make me feel safe, needed and loved for what I do for them.
- If I follow all the rules, nothing bad can happen to me.
- If only I could do this and that perfectly, I would be accepted.
Women are also socialized to be perfect, more so than men. We must look perfect or at least strive to look perfect, act perfectly, accomodate other people, and we must also be successful in our careers as well as being perfect mothers and wives. Men have their own set of expectations, such as “I must be strong, I must not show my emotions, and I must win.” But on the whole, perfectionism is a disease that mostly affects women, perhaps because we are also being socialized to be extremely detail-oriented.
Am I a perfectionist? If so, how does it affect my success?
Ask yourself these questions:
- Am I hypercritical of others, myself, emotions, situations or things?
- Do I often think after I complete something: I could/should have done better?
- Am I usually disappointed in myself?
If you recognize yourself from any of the thoughts above, chances are you are a perfectionist!
When you’re trying to be perfect, it limits your passions from being expressed freely. When you’re striving to fulfill unattainable goals, you’re killing your creativity. You need to redefine success.
When your thinking patterns become unhealthy and you start saying things to yourself like: “I’m broken, something is wrong with me, I have such bad luck, I’m not smart, good or worthy enough to have success, I’m worthless” then perfectionism is consuming your self-esteem and paralyzing you.
The effects of perfectionism are brutal
When you become obsessed with perfectionism, it paradoxically prevents you from being your best self. It keeps you from taking risks and being creative, intuitive and innovative. It sucks the energy out of you.
Here is how perfectionism limits you:
- Perfectionism keeps you from being your true self. It turns you into a people-pleaser rather than an innovative leader or team player. Doing things just to make other people happy, without any consideration for yourself, will slowly but surely drain you.
- Perfectionism makes you less efficient. You never get anything done, because you’re obsessed with making it even better. You’re unhappy, because you don’t feel accomplished. You spend too much time on a task than is really necessary.
- Perfectionism makes you procrastinate. You’re waiting for the perfect moment and you overcomplicate everything. It keeps you from taking action, which is the most important thing when it comes to being successful.
- You are afraid of getting bad feedback or being criticized because you released something that wasn’t perfect.
- You focus on small details and waste time working on things that don’t really matter.
- You’re not moving the big picture towards completion. It’s distracting and destructive.
- You’re trying to protect yourself by not putting yourself out there just yet.
How do I let go of my perfectionism?
The path to freeing yourself from perfectionism starts with self-acceptance and mindfulness. Perfectionism is very ingrained in you and it’s hard to change your thinking patterns. You need to call out the perfectionist in you when you notice patterns that spiral you into criticism and bashing yourself.
You need to pause and think: “I understand that this is the perfectionist speaking. I understand that I have this emotion now, but it is NOT related to who I am as a person. My thoughts do not DEFINE me. My work does NOT define my value as a human being.”
Here is a video that I found that will help you when you start the journey of overcoming perfectionism. At the end, there is a very practical 30-day challenge that will help you free yourself of criticism.
When you start freeing yourself from these toxic perfectionist patterns, you start living up to your full potential. The opportunities that come your way when you decide to just get started and follow your intuition will help you achieve success. Creativity free from restraints is what makes you successful, not forcing yourself to stick to some pre-made perfect plan.
How being an artist or a designer actually frees you from the shackles of perfection
Think about it. There are many things in this world that actually must be perfect. Such as building airplanes, trains, or writing code. If these things are not perfect, they will not work or worse, people might get hurt if they malfunction.
As human beings, we have a strong need to organize things and compartmentalize our lives. Think about the crazy endeavor to create legal systems: to write down instructions that cover every aspect of human life! The desire to create perfect systems and codes of conduct is present in our daily lives. In business, financial data is organized into spreadsheets, and sales processes are perfected for maximum profit.
But as creatives, we have a free pass out of perfectionism right before us. When we create intuitively, the very expectation is for it not to be perfect. Art is a form of direct communication about the very things that make us human. Art is about expressing our deeply hidden emotions and experiences in a creative process that is sometimes messy, usually intuitive, and always unpredictable.
Referring to your work as “art” effectively frees you from any rigid expectations and conduct codes. People will say “Ah! It’s ART”, let you off the hook about being perfect and go on minding their own business. That’s powerful! And that’s why it’s so incredibly healing to make creating without expectations a part of your daily life.
Here are a couple things you could do to fuel your free creativity:
- Start a doodle journal and let yourself draw without goals, without thinking about what you want it to look like.
- Start writing down thoughts as they come to you without judging them, and without trying to guide them in any particular direction.
- Go outside and take a walk without any plans, just go where your feet are guiding you.
Here are some techniques to start curing the perfectionist in you:
- Aim for 80% completion. You will never reach 100% – there will always be something that can be better. Trust your intuition.
- Set a deadline for yourself, so that you don’t spend too much time on tasks that do not require perfection. Like the brilliant Sashka Hanna-Rappl always says: Done is better than perfect!
- Don’t take yourself so seriously! Stay very light-hearted. When you see the perfectionist starting to run back and forth between the past and the future, STOP.
- Ground yourself in the present moment and realize, that in this moment there is no problem.
- Show compassion for yourself.
- If you start feeling unsafe and can’t stop the inner critic from appearing, you can do a short breathing exercise to regain your focus and energy.
Let me know in the comments if you are struggling with perfectionism right now, or if you have in the past. Acknowledging it and talking about it is very healing!
This blog post was inspired by the wonderful book “Daring Greatly” by Brené Brown.