THE UNEDITED TRUTH ABOUT BEING A PERFECTIONIST.
“Who are you and What do you want?”
Seems like a simple question, but I couldn’t ever answer quickly enough. And I feel as though a lot of people are in the same boat. They need time to analyze everything in the outside world to come up with an answer. Then compare and be validated before you would ever consider responding.
So the truth? For me, I didn’t know the answer to either of those questions because I was constantly viewing myself from the outside in. I was a perfectionist, but not the good kind that you would mention in a job interview. No, my perfectionism was paralysing, self-destructing, and absolutely pointless.
My mum would constantly tell me perfect isn’t real. She tried relentlessly to help me regain the clarity I had somehow lost in the black hole of comparison. She would remind me to take things slow and that I didn’t have to take on so much, but in the mind of a perfectionist, I didn’t take it as a warning sign. I heard it as someone who was doubting me and someone I had to prove wrong. In fact, that’s how I heard every piece of critical and supportive advice.
My perfectionism made me bitter, unhappy, and lonely. The constant shifting, analysing, and comparing was destroying me and affecting every single relationship I had, while simultaneously stalling everything I was working so hard to achieve. Not to mention the constant cycle for validation and perfection was exasperating and emotionally exhausting.
A true perfectionist thinks “perfect” is all the things they don’t have or all the things they have to do. They set unrealistic expectations for themselves, which leads to mental breakdowns and burnouts.
The real kicker: They struggle with finding joy in most things. They sure play it off well, though. Fooling everyone, or at least themselves, to make them believe they’re happy. A real perfectionist analyses themselves so much from the eyes of others they don’t have enough mental capacity left over to actually focus on themselves in the areas that really count.
These last few months as you guys would know I’ve been trying to generate a lot of content from my Youtube channel, to this podcast to Finally Found content and all that requires a lot of time and energy to smash out. I had this moment the other day where someone had said to me, ‘wow you are producing so much consistently, how do you do it?’ And my initial thought was, I just do. And it wasn’t until later on when I was thinking about the question that I realised I stopped letting perfectionism fuel procrastination.
Not too long ago, I would have analysed and redone videos 100 times before I’d hit upload and whilst was uploading, I’d be anxiously going over every detail and still not be happy with the final product. So what changed? Well a couple things.
1 - the amount of content that needs to be produced weekly doesn’t wait for my perfectionism to say good to go. Time keeps ticking and it won’t stop and allow me to make 20 adjustments before I hit upload. Then before you know it, you’ve missed the deadline.
2 - my ‘one shot wonder’ mentality means that I give it everything in the first go then move on.
There are so many layers to being a perfectionist. I remember when I used to view that as a really high regarded quality in a person. Like the kind of thing you’d want at the top of your resume under qualities. But truth is, perfectionists don’t actually get anywhere fast. It’s a slow and painful road and can be the death of creativity.
It’s a helpful trait when you’re just starting out in a new job or career. In fact, you get praised for it. It’s often called attention to detail, diligence, work ethic, or being highly organised. So you double down on it and pursue perfection even harder.
But gradually, this becomes a bad thing. Like when people start referring to you as being a perfectionist, that’s when it becomes a show stopper.
This podcast took me forever to start because I was procrastinating, but the procrastinating was stemming from this image in my head of how it was meant to look and sound like, but even that image in my head was not perfect and I didn’t even know what it even looked like yet because I hadn’t even started! But already I was telling myself it wasn’t good enough.
So how do you overcome being a perfectionist? Well essentially it involves getting over yourself and moving out of your own way to move forward.
These are some of the ways I’ve found helped me do just that:
The first step to letting go of perfectionism is to acknowledge that you’re doing it in the first place.
I didn’t say “admit you’re a perfectionist” because I hate labels. Labels are an invitation to buy into an idea about yourself that doesn’t serve you well, and makes it harder to change.
By seeing it as a behaviour, you can change it. It’s easier to change a behaviour than something that's imprinted on your identity.
As you acknowledge, think through what situations bring out your perfectionist behaviour most strongly. For me it was anything I had to hand in to someone else or otherwise share publicly. In fact there was a precise moment in Primary school when I was in grade 4, I had just written a story in English class and was so afraid to hand it in, because I didn’t want the teacher to tell me it was no good. So I sat there waiting until she had graded everyones and the lunch bell went so I could do a drop and dash out the door and I wouldn’t need to see her sitting at her desk grading it. I was like 8 years old.
WHAT DOES IT FEED?
Understanding why you challenge yourself with ultra high standards is also helpful. Like any other habit, perfectionism must be serving some part of you, even if it doesn't serve your higher self.
Simply identifying the underlying beliefs that drive your perfectionist habit is a good step toward changing them. You can choose the beliefs you want to hold, and the ones you want to feed.
3 FACE THE WORST CASE
Perfectionism is often a way to make sure you don’t fail. But a prevention mindset is hardly the best one for creativity and innovative thinking.
To get over this, I’ve found it useful to look at the worst case scenario, and how (un)likely it is to occur. And to realise that there’s probably something you can do in that remote situation anyway.
If you’re a champion catastrophiser too, then it’s helpful to list out all the worst things that can happen versus the most likely scenario. Then talking them through with someone you trust is even better (preferably not a fellow perfectionist!). Getting those dark thoughts out in the fresh air takes away their potency.
4. IDENTIFY STANDARDS NEEDED
Challenge your assumption of “perfect” as the standard for everything you do.
This is where it helps to ask what the standard is that’s needed for the job at hand. Do they need “quick and dirty”, client ready, or something in between?
This was a valuable lesson I learnt at my last job. I remember taking extra time to polish the look of a presentation, turning it in to my boss, and then finding out that she just wanted it as background and not for the meeting’s presentation. What a waste of time and effort. I could have been working on any number of things that turned out to be more important.
It’s like arranging transportation. Sometimes nothing short of a limo will do, and other times a bicycle would be sufficient.
Make sure you ask first so you know what to deliver.
ADJUST YOUR STANDARDS
Even when others have lower standards, those of us in perfection mode can have a hard time letting go of our own super high standards. We think we must go above and beyond what’s expected. To outperform.
I’ve found it helpful to make two adjustments to my own standards.
First, I’ve adopted my mum’s concept that “good enough is good enough”. That’s about giving myself permission to accept what others have set as the standard and stop there. And while it’s hard to stop at “quick and dirty”, I hear my mum’s voice telling me that “good enough is good enough” and I stop myself from outperforming.
Second, I’ve adopted the idea of setting situational standards – that is, I have different standards for different things. For example back at my corporate job, for internal team meetings I’d share copies of my hand drawn diagram rather than have someone turn it into a PowerPoint slide. That’s “good enough” for this purpose and saves time. On the other hand, for manager meetings I would spring for the branded presentation material.
At the same time you adjust the standards for yourself, make sure you apply these differential standards to your team as well. So don’t delegate and then transfer your perfectionism to others.
WATCH YOUR SELF TALK
As you retrain yourself, one of the most powerful obstacles in your way will be your self-talk. When the voice in your head says things like, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right” or “Don’t be lazy” or “Everything is riding on this”, it’s hard to stop yourself from going for perfect.
So start noticing your self-talk and how it supports your perfectionist behaviour. And when you catch yourself in that self-talk spiral, you can choose to replace it with something else.
And also look out for times when you apply positive self-talk to feed your perfectionist habit.
When you catch yourself in “just a little more” mode, step back and ask yourself whether that’s necessary for the task at hand before you dive in.
GIVE YOURSELF A REASON TO MOVE ON
This one is about doing the very best you can do, but within a specified time limit. That way, you won’t be able to keep re-working something until it’s “perfect”. Sometimes you just have to put a limit on how much you can work on something.
Deadlines are great for this.
If you have a tendency to strive for perfection in a task, then decide you’ll only spend 30 minutes (or whatever time frame) on it. Set a timer and make it “pencils down” when it rings, just like those college entrance exams. Or, plan something really fun or that you have to go to when time is up.
At the end of the day, the word perfect is just fear in fancy shoes. It’s a false belief that if we’re not achieving greatness and exceeding expectations, we’re failing. It’s toxic.