I recently read a post that said, “Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.” These words were everything to me.
There was a time when I would have scrolled right past that post in a dismissive funk because I had no clue how that could be either possible or desirable. I never accepted that I was allowed to do anything poorly—I had to do everything perfectly. These words were heresy, they were offensive to too many gods, or rather, too many of my inner demons who lived under the dictatorship of the God of perfectionism.
This article is for the perfectionists and recovering perfectionists out there who want their lives back. It comes from a personal place: I am a recovering perfectionist.
I will share stand-out moments and learnings that have helped make me aware of when perfectionistic tendencies are about to take over and some tools that I, as well as my students and clients, have found helpful for meeting and healing unhealthy perfectionist tendencies.
These practices have become so important to me, and they really work. If they didn’t work, I wouldn’t now be able to write and deliver this article within a reasonable timeframe because I would be too involved in picking it apart, writing and rewriting it, doing it over and over again, and all the other rituals which come with pursuing the unreachable bar of perfect. In the big picture of my life, I know I wouldn’t be managing my chronic condition of Multiple Sclerosis (MS) to the point that I have stayed so well. I know that my world would have become increasingly smaller and distant from those things which bring me joy and make life meaningful. I even wonder if I would have had my child.
A chronic sufferer
I used to suffer from Chronic Perfectionism. This was mainly centred around the work I created and was bound up in the disproportionately high value I placed on productivity. I am not talking about having a healthy desire to do things well, but about living with an internal fascist dictator who ruled my time and energy and controlled how much joy, relaxation, and pleasure I deserved.
Perfectionism can manifest differently in different people. For some, it can be about being in perfect spaces and “getting a room right.” For others, it can be about having a “perfect” appearance or being the perfect parent/friend/sibling/lover. It is often used as a protection against the risk of feeling blame, judgement, or shame.
I know that while the promises of perfectionism can be compelling – the satisfaction, the sense of control, and above all that fleeting, yet potent, feeling you might just have earned your place on earth and your “enoughness” – its payback can take a huge toll on our mental and physical health. I, like many, have learned this the hard way.
I still need to keep a vigilant eye for its ghosts because, like many things we are recovering from, they never quite leave us. However, now when perfectionism rears its ugly head, I use it as awareness to bring in the tools I need to find what is balanced and healthy for me.
MS, Perfectionism, and Me
I was in my twenties when I was given the opportunity to begin to heal my unhealthy perfectionism. I was diagnosed with MS after an MRI was ordered to investigate a range of debilitating symptoms that I had been increasingly experiencing. These included an optic neuritis attack that left me partially blind in one eye temporarily. It had taken me a whole day to see a doctor after I woke up with my eye in that condition.
If I told you that this was because I had too much work to do; if I told you that for a while I had been blaming myself for being so fatigued and shaky because other people in their twenties seemed to be coping perfectly well; if I told you that I spent that 45 minutes in the MRI machine giving thanks for the gift of permission to rest, you’ll get a glimpse into my world of over-striving and valuing myself by how hard I pushed myself. My mantra in those days was ‘get it done, get it done, get it done.’ I often postponed taking a break until I felt I had earned it, which was almost never during a normal day.
Like so many, I had become sucked into the sense that my personal value rested on achievement and that the number of tasks I achieved bore a direct relationship with how much I was worthy of being alive.
The best advice I have ever been given (and also the most challenging) was to cultivate a path of ease, increase pleasure, and re-familiarize my body with relaxation the way we re-familiarize ourselves with strong muscles – by practicing again and again and again.
It wasn’t easy, but it was necessary. Perfectionism is unreasonable. It doesn’t consider life’s fluctuating rhythms – colloquially known as “shit happens.” And MS is the poster child for unpredictability. To be perfect requires having “perfect conditions.” I had to put that in quotes as, in recovery, I now don’t believe in perfect conditions any more than I believe there is a right time to have a baby or get a dog.
Recognising the difference between healthy and unhealthy perfectionism
I don’t know about you, but if I were having brain surgery, I’d be keen for my surgeon to be a perfectionist. I also know that the things I am most proud of in my life have come from some healthy elements of hard work and challenging myself to do better. There is “healthy perfectionism” but there is also the kind that leads to anxiety, burnout, and despair, and it is important to know the difference between them.
To me, healthy perfectionism is “the best I can do in the current circumstances and conditions,” whereas unhealthy perfectionism is a rigid, unchanging, and highly unforgiving bar that says, “you must do everything perfectly every time and there can be no room for error.” And this is true of everything, including things which, unlike brain surgery, really aren’t that important.
In unhealthy perfectionism, being perfect involves discipline, sacrifice, and control, not just in special circumstances, but always. It can be limiting and can take up a lot of headspace and a lot of life space, making it hard to be present with other parts of our lives.
It is perfectionism that has an unhealthy hold over us, running us down and getting in the way of our health, happiness, and relationships. In some circumstances, it can lead to depression and anxiety.
A wolf in sheep’s clothing
Recovery from perfectionism is possible but first, you must know what you are dealing with. There is a reason why it is such a hard habit to drop.
Perfectionism is a bully and bullies come in great disguises.
Perfectionism can disguise itself as love. The truth is I was most perfectionistic during a time when I was the least loving toward myself. I now recognise that I was using perfectionism as a way of earning love from myself, instead of using self-loving kindness to steer myself toward a healthier approach to life. Love has boundaries and love is fair and reasonable. It gives you room for error and permission to take a break or not-do-the-thing. It balances the reward/cost payoffs in any energetic exchange using wellbeing as the gauge.
With perfectionism, what becomes most important is what might still be missing, what could be enhanced further, and where might you go that extra mile. There is no endgame. Perfectionism has no boundaries because its whole ethos rests on the idea that you must be boundless, and I am sorry to break this to anyone reading this, but that is just not in our nature.
It can seem to make perfect sense. When I was deeply attached to my perfectionism, I could argue that it made me, my work, and those around me better, stronger, and more capable. I would give evidence of the great results I got from pushing myself so hard.
Perfectionism and our inner critics are bedfellows. It can be a slavedriver who cracks the whip hard and keeps us away from the things that are truly satisfying and nourishing in the name of “getting the job done perfectly.” Unhealthy perfectionism mistrusts healthy things like rest, ease, and pleasure and this comes with high costs.
A senior manager at a well-known management consultancy once admitted to me that the company consciously looked to hire “insecure, over-achieving perfectionists” because they knew they would get more work from them than people who prioritise balance. Now that’s a sobering thought. Rebelling against our perfectionist tendencies could be considered a political act.
We humans seem to hold perfection in high regard. Oh, the gasps at a perfectly-cut diamond! The adulation for the singers with perfect pitch! The “wows” at the perfectly-executed somersault. Because the idea of perfection has been made so compelling, it is one of the hardest ones to separate from.
While to the outside eye perfectionists seem to be high achievers—at the top of their profession with unlimited energy and capacity to go the extra mile—the hidden reality is that you can be a perfectionist and never have completed anything because you are paralysed by feelings of anxiety and failure to meet a certain bar of worthiness. You can burn out from trying and never get to the level of achievement of which you are capable.
Stan Tatkin, author of Wired for Love says:
“The stress load on them is high. They are more inclined to get sick, more inclined to sleep more, more inclined to be irritable, more inclined to suffer the anxiety of not being perfect and the disappointment of comparison.”
Perfection likes to seize all the control in the room, and Tatkin also notes that the damage does not always stop with the perfectionist – they can make it difficult for the people around them.
“This is partly because of the way their mind has been re-tuned by the strict standards in which they operate within life. It’s part of the rigid mindset that can have deep repercussions on the client’s ability to connect with other people.
“The problem with perfectionism is there are a lot of anti-social qualities to it. Nobody can do things as well as I can. I don’t suffer fools easily. I am very critical of people who don’t meet my standards. I’m disappointed very easily – this is a painful issue, I am very disappointed, let down. I’m always under stress and anxiety of which I will complain, but I will not surrender that role. I am always comparing myself to others. I have a strong, comparing mind.”
Perfectionism came for me with some powerful unconscious beliefs, including the belief that “if I am not doing something perfectly then I am not doing it at all,” which meant I was dissociating from so much of the living that I really was doing. Debilitating unconscious beliefs are what power some of our most ingrained behaviours and in the end, create our reality. I often had a feeling of not really being here. I seemed to watch some of life’s most precious moments through a dirty windshield.
Had this belief never been realised into my conscious awareness I would never have seen that it was making half my life invisible and me with it.
Cultivating perfectionism awareness: spotting the signs
As with all things in our lives that we want to stand up to, we need to be vigilant for the circumstances, environments, and behaviours that come with it. A few of the most common are:
● Procrastination, the feeling of not being able to start on something until we know we can do it perfectly
● Feeling little or no reward in doing the activity because we are so focused on the end result
● Being hung up on completion while at the same time finding it hard to complete something to our standards and thus, often not being able to see something through
● Delaying rest, relaxation, and pleasure until they are “earned”
● Taking an excessive amount of time to complete a task that would not take others long
● Going over and over something – e.g. writing and rewriting an email
● Ruminating – where we constantly “regurgitate” something in our heads
● Having an excessive fear of making a mistake. We might experience intense anxiety and become preoccupied with the perceived “mistake” when we do so
● Extreme black-and-white thinking – believing that anything less than perfect is an outright failure
● Finding it difficult to be happy for other people when they are successful
● Comparing ourselves unfavourably to others and issuing harsh judgments against ourselves as a result
● Avoidance – such as skipping a class or avoiding doing a task because the demands of perfectionism are too great
● Feeling paralysed as a result of overwhelm
There are a couple of signs I look out for personally. The first involves a feeling I get when perfectionism is gearing up to take hold and the second relates to behaviours I might engage with when this happens, which I recognise as rituals of procrastination, fuelled by doubt.
When I am not troubled by perfectionism, I follow my enthusiasm and the trails of my ideas and begin something. I simply get on with it and naturally do my best, because after all, that is what most of us do most naturally – our best.
When perfectionism is present, it seems to seize power over the circumstances very quickly. Then, trying to start a project, deliver a presentation, create something with my full expression becomes a battle that can only lead to exhaustion. I can feel so viscerally the impatience of the eager, enthusiastic part of me that says “I just want to play” being pushed by a formidable force demanding that I bring huge and unreasonable physical, mental, and emotional energy into something that I know could be done in less time with greater ease and heaps more joy. Because it has to be perfect and because perfect is impossible, I am forever stuck in the territory of momentum meeting impossible force.
With that, can come excessive ritualising. There was a time when I would sit at my desk fiddling with two pens – one blue, one black – because a little voice inside me was telling me it would really make a difference to the quality of my work. Later, that became what font to use, what room to work in, what music to play….and all the time Absolutely Nothing Was Getting Done, whether perfect or flawed.
Why does perfectionism have such a hold? How your perfectionism is trying to keep you safe from harm.
If this attitude of perfectionism is so unhealthy and causes so much misery, then why hold it? It doesn’t work. It doesn’t help. Why not simply drop it and be messy and unpredictable and wonderfully human like all the happiest people in life are?
What are some expressions of the opposite of wanting perfection? They are things like not worrying about making mistakes, being tolerant of messiness and uncertainty, not needing other peoples’ approval all the time, having a willingness to explore, doing things for the simple joy of it, not being hung up on completion, honouring our natural limitations, being able to relax when things are not finished, being well-acquainted with ease, and having a self-relationship that is characterised by loving-kindness and forgiveness and good self-treatment.
These are desirable things; things to aspire to. They feel spacious and achievable.
And yet it seems that extreme perfectionists are willing to sacrifice these things.
Judon Brewer, author of The Craving Mind points out that humans never do anything that doesn’t come with a reward and for humans, that usually involves some positive gain (for instance, personal satisfaction at a job well done) and some kind of risk-avoidance (for instance, the risk of feeling not-good-enough). Brewer says:
“I ask my clients a simple question which is ‘what do I get from this?’ When they stop and step back and ask themselves, they say, ‘I’m anxious, I’m exhausted, I’m behind on my family duties.’”
If the rewards of perfectionism are truly so low against its costs, then it makes sense we must become aware of what it is we are trying to avoid. To put it plainly, what is the fear?
I have surveyed a lot of unhealthy perfectionists in my time – because I know a lot of perfectionists and there seem to be quite a few of us around. When I ask them what the fear might be operating in the background, they often say things like:
“I have a fear of being judged and found wanting.”
“I generally feel unworthy, and I have to prove to myself that I have even a little bit of value by doing things very well and thoroughly and usually that means overdoing things by most peoples’ standards.”
“If I mess something up, I feel physically sick with dread.”
“I imagine people have all these expectations of me and when I think I’m not meeting them, I feel a deep sense of shame.”
“That phrase ‘ you can’t improve on perfect’ says it all for me. It’s like there is a place I can be where there won’t be any more pressure to do better.”
“For me, it is a trauma response. I push myself to work hard and be perfect so I will be beyond rebuke and no one will come after me. It’s my way of keeping safe.”
These are horrible, difficult, and soul-destroying feelings, and when allowed to appear unchallenged or unregulated, our nervous system feels them as deeply threatening—creating powerful reasons to bring in protection in the form of energy that simply won’t tolerate failure. Enter: perfectionism.
Perfectionism as a threat response
We feel it in our bodies. I know for myself that when I go after perfection I start to brace. Then I build and bury myself under a tower of expectations. Then I feel my inner selves split into slave and slavedriver and that energy of slave driver is relentless. Nothing will ever be good enough for them and thus, I am full of tension and fear of rebuke. Everything in me tightens as I brace more.
Bracing is useful when you are crossing a road and realise suddenly you are about to go under a bus – then, you need every muscle in your body to tense and pull you back. It is not, I can tell you, useful when you are trying to create a workshop or write a chapter of a book. Under such weight and with such bracing, how can any natural living thing be free to create and blossom let alone breathe or move?
That feeling in our body produces a behavioural response that psychologists have identified as falling under six different “Fs”: flight, fight, freeze, fawn, flood, and flop.
Perfectionism as flight or fight tends to look like what I call “over-ing” Over-doing it. Over-scheduling. Doing too much too quickly. If it’s making your heart race and you feel pressure tipping over into anxious-overwhelm, then you are doing all these things in a fear state.
Perfectionism as a freeze-response can manifest as a feeling of having an overwhelming amount of activity on the inside while paralysed on the outside and powerless to act. Freeze as behaviour is procrastination and delaying.
Perfectionism as fawning can appear as thinking there are people to please and judges to appease. It can result in over-offering or over-promising.
Our flood response to threat involves becoming overwhelmed with uncontrollable emotion. Have you ever found yourself surrounded by the chaos resulting from doing battle with perfectionism, curled up in a heap on the ground, sobbing uncontrollably, with only an abandoned project to speak for it?
Flop as behaviour is just that – giving up, going to bed, and passing out with exhaustion and despair. Sometimes the word “flop” is replaced by the word “fatigue” when describing this psycho-physiological state.
I know flop well. I described earlier a pattern I used to live with a lot, of moving from enthusiasm to pressure. The end of that story has to do with battery drain and having nothing left to give. My normal human capacity would meet an energy of “nothing you have to give will ever be enough” and out of all unreasonableness towards myself, I would continue to try to push, strain, and punish myself to meet that energy and of course, naturally, I would collapse. As anyone would if they were pushing against a brick wall in the hope of melting it to the ground.
Using all these fear responses, our bodies protect us.
It took a while for me to get my head around this. What, the things that make it so hard for me to do the things I want to do and am oh-so-capable, even gifted, at doing – are actually trying to offer me their help?
Think of that image from earlier of walking into the path of an oncoming bus. Think of how that bracing and tensing halts us in our tracks, pulls our body away from falling under the bus and allows us to live another happy day in our own precious bodies. Whenever you recognise fear coming up for you in the ways I have described above, ask yourself, “What is my body trying to protect me from?”
Once we are in touch with that – and equally in touch with how these behaviours don’t actually resolve the fear, they simply put it at bay – we are in touch with the potential for positive change and healing.
Perfectionism and inner child
Our brain-on-perfectionism is a brain doing its best to keep us safe from harm. Often, there is no real-and-present danger of harm, but something in our presence is creating a feeling, flavour, or echo of a past time in which harm was felt.
Whenever we are triggered, we can assume our inner child is present.
Think of these responses as saying “we will never allow you to feel this again” and saying it in as powerful and forceful and uncompromising a voice as possible.
They are saying this because they are remembering harm that came from a previous experience of not being perfect or of perceived failure. Often, that experience will have involved being shamed for not having done something “properly,” as deemed by another person (usually an adult) whom we depend on and want to please or appease.
As a trauma expert, psychologist, and writer Bessel van der Kolke says, “Our body keeps the score.” It is our bodies and not our minds that remember the worst feelings of our lives and the moments in which those feelings happened. Our bodies are triggered to remember this later and spring into action to keep us safe from feeling anything like that again.
You may have learned it from your parents, conditioning, the culture you were raised in, from the playground, the digital space, or advertising – to heed, at all costs, the commandment not to screw up. It may be that you can’t remember ever not feeling this core-wound of shame and “not good enough.” What matters is that you understand it is there and that you identify a vision or intention for yourself, in which you can exist comfortably in a space in which there is neither perfectionism nor shame. This is because they are inextricably linked, and bringing in practices to lower the energy of even one of them, will do wonders for healing the other.
Relinquishing the tyranny of “perfect”: recovery tips
1. Setting a Replacement Vision
It is time to retire perfectionism and cultivate the guidance of deeper wisdom. Our inner wisdom rises up when we respond to our actual needs and instincts, rather than our limited beliefs and wounds.
● To orient toward rewards against costs, we need to be aware of both, so take an honest inventory. Make a list. What have you missed out on because of perfectionism, or not enjoyed as much as you could have? What have you sacrificed? What has been made harder in your life because of it and how has it affected your mental and physical well-being? Do the rewards that have come from perfectionism – such as satisfaction and a sense of control – measure up to the costs? There can be a real aha moment when you realise: “I am anxious and burned out and I am behind on everything.” These questions can help us dive in and see what we are actually getting from perfectionism, which is not much, compared to what we could be having without it, which is a lot, and this can help incentivise us to make changes.
● Be guided by the mantra, “Is it worth it?” We often make obligations of things that are actually optional, burdened by worries about how we will be judged or a sense that we must do everything all of the time.
Try knocking down some of those obstacles by asking yourself: “What is important to me? How is this value best served? How is it not served?”
I have spent enough time feeling horribly ill and debilitated and enough time feeling wonderfully well and happy, to know which one I prefer and which one I will fight for. I am adamant when it comes to what I choose to take on and what I choose to let go. I have to be. Creating boundaries to protect our health and happiness is wise and skillful.
● It may help to have visual reminders of what is more important to you than being perfect, in the places where you are most likely to engage in perfectionist behaviours, for example at your desk or next to your mirror. These might be pictures, photographs, or written affirmations. It may be an image you have in your head. For instance, I want to feel freedom from unnecessary stress. I want to build and grow beautiful things that aren’t forced. For me, I imagine the difference between hot-housing flowers for mass production to market versus flowers growing naturally in the wild, enjoying the breeze and the sunshine, without any sense they are in a hurry to meet anyone else’s expectation of what a flower should be. Whenever I feel I am forcing or over-efforting, I go back to myself as a wildflower and I have a picture of a whole field of them pinned to my monitor.
● Go to the spaces and people and activities that bring you joy as much as possible. Make a project of it. When we have lots of experiences of feeling good in our body, a feedback loop is created that extinguishes old patterns and creates a structure for more goodness to come in. Simply put, we feel better and better and are less likely to want to sabotage that feeling!
2. Cultivate Body Awareness
“Soma” is Greek for “living body,” which is where we get the concept of somatic awareness. Somatic awareness simply means learning to connect to and feel what is happening in our body and nervous system.
● Consider that we “wear our energy” in our body and let that clue you into how you may be over-extending in your life. Do you feel tension in your back, for instance., indicating you are “bending over backward” to be a perfect version of yourself for everyone else? Perhaps your shoulders feel a burden of stress from all you are taking on? Is your jaw chronically clenched? Focus on softening and releasing in these areas as parallel healing to the rest of your perfectionism recovery work. Yin yoga, Bowen therapy, or myofascial release are among the modalities that may help with this.
● Grace yourself generously with regular “perfectionism check-ins.” Become aware of signs in your body linked to putting yourself under unrealistic expectations and undue pressure. Is there bracing, tightness, or tension being held anywhere? How is your breathing? Notice accompanying thoughts. You may be able to identify the voice of a core wound you have, perhaps from childhood. Notice behaviours such as rituals, procrastination, and avoidance. These can point to anxiety-based, unhealthy perfectionism.
● When you detect inner disruption, offer your body some regulation and some resourcing. This could be in the form of deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, movement, humming, self-touch, or shifting your posture or physical space. Once you feel a little more regulated (remember, you don’t have feel perfectly at peace, but just a little better than you were), then you can add some further resourcing. Ask yourself: “Am I asking too much of myself?” “Would I ask this of another human being – especially someone I love?” “What is the worst-case scenario if I don’t get all this done/get all this right/produce something perfect/come across as perfectly “put together.” Truthfully, what is at stake here? Does everything really rest on this being perfect?
3. Cultivate Loving Awareness on the Inside
Begin with love. Self-discipline is not the same as self-love. Make a sacred contract with yourself around self-treatment: that you will aim to be kind, respectful, and reasonable toward yourself and that if you find yourself not treating yourself this way, you will simply grant yourself forgiveness and move on. Use this focus as a way of growing your inner awareness and particularly, your awareness of when you are beating yourself up or asking too much of yourself.
● When you feel demands upon yourself that are uncomfortable, question them in the name of love. You have a heart full of love. Let it lead the questioning rather than leading from the fears that are behind the demands. Ask: “Is this loving?” Consider that disciplining ourselves is a very primitive approach. Do we want to punish and discipline ourselves into doing things? Is the only way to get ourselves to do things pushing and punishing and nagging? The answer is no. You know that.
● Now ask yourself what a more loving and kinder approach would look like. If you find it hard to do that for yourself, then connecting with love via someone you care about can be a very powerful technique. Ask yourself: “Would I ask these things of them? Would I make them work this hard to earn my love? Or before I offer them something good, some pleasurable?” Then ask: “What would I do instead?” and find some way of doing that for yourself.
● Recognise that perfection has a particular inner voice so that you can be alert for when it is speaking to you. Unhealthy perfectionism tends to have a relentlessly demanding tone that doesn’t allow you to soften your approach to a task and shouts critical phrases at you when you do. Give voice to those other parts of your life and self that you have identified, that believe you have the same rights to health and happiness as you want for others and see if you can do one thing that meets their needs, such as take a short break or tolerate something being “done enough.”
● Don’t fall into the trap of trying to be perfect at not being perfect. You are now in the practice of doing your best, remember? Forgive yourself for slip-ups and give yourself the grace to be human. Your aim is to cultivate a bigger internal space to move in and compassion is a great spaciousness-creator.
4. Make Some Behaviour Shifts
Be the change you want to see in your life. Once you have decided the costs of perfectionism outweigh the rewards, it’s time to get serious about making changes. This is where all that training in self-discipline can pay off in positive ways.
● Stand up to the dictator. Do the opposite of what your perfectionism is asking you to do. Practice being messy and see what happens. Feel your power here. Tolerate the discomfort but realise that you have come to no harm. You are still loved; you still have a right to enjoy yourself and take part in life. Claim that right and do something pleasurable straight away. Reward yourself for imperfection. We need to keep having experiences of messing up and not coming to harm and messing up and being rewarded with pleasure. This will allow the neurons in your brain to form new networks.
● Recognise that the anxiety, guilt, and any other such emotion you may be feeling when you practice “not perfect” are a good sign. They mean you are challenging the thing which is hurting you. Reward yourself. Say “thank you for doing this for me” and stay steady with your vision of deserving a better life for yourself and a happier way of being.
● Ask yourself: does everything rest on getting the first attempt perfect? There are many times, with many things where we don’t just get one shot, and that is a privilege. So don’t make it all about getting it right the first time. “Let the first draft settle” is one of the best pieces of advice I have been given.
● Practice validating yourself. A habit I had was to hate something I had written until someone else had read it and validated it. Only after external approval, could I love it. Now, I always take the time to be proud of my work and for doing the best I could, even if it is not what I would call “perfect,” before sharing it with others.
● Many perfectionists are over-sensitive to criticism which means that offering constructive feedback to a perfectionist can be fraught. Maybe you have had criticism come from an attacking place in the past. If you have a fear of critical feedback because it renders you feeling ashamed or unworthy (and lots of people feel this, so you are not alone!) reframe it from being attacked to being honoured and respected. We thrive on helpful feedback, don’t we? That’s how I offer it to students. That’s how I take it myself. Otherwise, I am unteachable, and as someone who loves learning and has great respect for teaching, that’s not what I want to be.
● Reward yourself for every bit of progress and dismiss any perceived slip-ups as swiftly as you can. Humans have a negative brain bias which means we are more likely to pick ourselves up on what we are doing wrong than what we are doing right. Say out loud to yourself, “Thank you for being on my side.” Focus on what is going well and celebrate your progress to what may seem like an excessive degree.
5. Recognise Wounds that Need Healing
● Remember that perfectionism is a behaviour. When this behaviour is excessive, it means there is some anxiety present. Behind that anxiety is a wound. Once we have knowledge of the wound, there is an opportunity for healing.
● Begin by recognising perfectionism for what it is, a maladapted attempt to relieve stress by bringing some control into our lives and bodies. In other words, we are trying to protect ourselves from suffering which is a generous impulse. Unfortunately, the way we are doing it causes the opposite effect and exposes us to more suffering and more internal disruption. Now we are aware, we can approach ourselves in ways which heal, rather than sustain what is ultimately hurting us.
● It might help to identify voices which are not your own, that might be telling you that you are lazy or undisciplined. Do you want these voices taking up space inside you, rent-free? If you know whom the voices belong to, try this technique from Judith Orloff, author of The Empath’s Survival Guide: With every exhale, think “return to sender” and imagine the words and their energy going back to their owner.
● When voices inside you start to murmur about you falling short, use the redemptive words “and that’s okay.” Behind the voices there is often a fear wanting to be soothed. For instance, the fear might be, “it won’t be as good as I want it to be.” Can you take the sting out of the fear and offer soothing, by adding the words “and that’s okay.”? Notice how it changes the message entirely. “It may not be as good as I want it to be and that’s okay” is a reassurance you can gift yourself and breathe with for a few moments. Let it land and notice how you feel afterward.
● Practice meditating with this question: “What if there were no judges?” We only feel we are not measuring up when there is something to measure up to – usually, outside ideas, expectations, and demands that we have internalised. When we go into a space where there is a feeling that no one is judging or watching us, we can begin to connect to perspective and a sense of ease.
● Remember that every day you show up and do your best and be proud of all your efforts. At the end of each day, write down all the things you have done and enjoyed, whether they have been done messily or perfectly or even only half-done. If this activates you at first, breathe deeply and keep going. Stay steady. You are training your body to come down from high adrenalin based on perceived high stakes into a place that can be “peaceful, not perfect.”
● Separate the past from the potential. Spend time with people who love and respect you unconditionally and who can encourage you to recognise that you do what you do well, and well enough. Find allies who can support you in helping you to know when enough is enough. This is a way of cultivating a sense of safety in the here-and-now that doesn’t need the protection of perfectionist “overing.”
● Celebrate progress over perfection. I realized that the things that I have achieved in life have not been by perfection but by balance and doing what is reasonable, a little bit at a time.
● In yoga philosophy we find the Sanskrit word for “beauty” – alamkara – which roughly translates as “doing just enough.” This concept is important in both our yoga practice and in our daily lives. In each, overdoing can put stress on our bodies and nervous systems and take us out of safe alignment and into the territory of injury.
● Yoga also has a word for perfection – purnatva – which can also be translated as “fullness.” Yoga teacher Julie Smerdon describes this as doing the very best you can at any given moment, understanding that those given moments are going to be different depending on how you feel and what’s going on in your life. She says: “If you’re doing the best you can, in that moment, then it’s perfect because you can’t do better than the best you can. There’s a kind of contentment and perfect fullness that comes with that. It’s the feeling of being in flow, supported, and relaxed. And it comes from the inside.” I have found that focusing on alamkara and purntava in my yoga practices has translated to more off-the-mat experiences of backing off from the over-extending of perfectionism and sinking into the feelings of fullness that come with balance and flow.
● From Daoism we have the concept of Wu Wei, the principle of non-forcing in anything you do. While I have found perfectionism always seems to involve energies of pushing and forcing, I know that truthful, authentic living and practice comes from natural spontaneity, working with rhythms, and a degree of effortlessness. These cannot come forward if we are forcing them. Lao Tzu, who around 500 B.C.E. wrote the main book of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching, is translated as saying: “Superior virtue has no intention to be virtuous and is thus virtuous.”
● In Japanese Philosophy we have the concept of Wabi-Sabi. Leonard Koren, author of “Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers,” tried unsuccessfully to discover a precise definition while researching his book. He eventually coined his own, which has become standard for authors in the West: “Wabi-sabi is the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete, the antithesis of our classical Western notion of beauty as something perfect, enduring, and monumental.
● There can be value in finding professional help with treating issues that have led you to develop perfectionist qualities. These could include issues like a fear of failure, a desire to be loved and admired, and the need to please one’s parents or trauma-related issues that might stem from having been bullied or abused.
● Read Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese,” which starts with the lines “You Do Not have to be good…you only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves…”. This poem is itself a meditation on enoughness.
I realise that each person who identifies as a perfectionist has their own unique meaning attached to it. What I have realised, is that whatever the individual definition may be, perfectionism is more often than not, an expression of fear. If you feel your life is governed by perfectionist tendencies and behaviors that are denying you access to real peace and happiness, you may find it helpful to acknowledge that you are afraid. Do this with the greatest compassion – each of us is afraid of something. Once we address the feelings of fear in ways that reduce it, rather than perpetuate it, we find there is much more to us and much more to life, than perfectionism. And that is a journey worth taking.
Edited by Jordan Reed
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