The simplest definition of perfectionism is the need to do everything perfectly. It might be a standard you place on yourself: to be the best, never make mistakes, always follow society’s norms, etc. You also might extend that to others, expecting your spouse, kids, or friends to be flawless, act perfectly, and always reach for something better.
The problem, when you expect perfectionism from yourself, is that it often will stop you from trying new things or working toward a goal. Your fear of failure – and failure to do something just right – stops you from even making an attempt. If you don’t allow yourself to make errors, you can never learn from your mistakes. And if you require perfection from yourself, you are always courting disappointment.
But what if you weren’t afraid to fail? What doors would that open for you? What if, no matter what you wanted to try, you just thought, “I can do it!” and then tried it? If you are having trouble getting started on things you want to do, because you’re afraid you might fail, I have some ideas you can try to help get past those concerns.
I’ve Been There
I’ll be honest, I used to really be hindered by perfectionist tendencies. I had a tough time even starting small projects, since I wasn’t sure exactly how to do it right. This was especially true for tasks that I didn’t have to complete very often, so I hadn’t developed a way to handle them, like packing a suitcase or packing boxes for a move.
I remember one time I moved to a new house and just could not get started with unpacking the kitchen boxes, because I wasn’t sure how I should set up the kitchen. Should I put food in this cupboard and dishes in the other? Would all the dishes fit best in the big cupboard with the glasses, or should I split them up? It sounds ridiculous, I know, but it’s true. I just stood there in front of the boxes and literally could not get started on putting anything away.
Then my sister came to visit, she opened up all the boxes, put everything away, and that was that. 🙂
I still struggle with perfectionism from time to time, but I’m much better about it now. I have learned to figure things out as I go along, which is a much better way to live. Without that skill, I probably never would have been able to start my own business or even this blog!
If your perfectionism sometimes causes you to get in your own way, consider these ideas:
Break It Down
If you want to start a project, but can’t picture how to do the whole thing just right, that’s okay. Just do something. You may end up scrapping the first part you complete, you may end up keeping some and junking the rest, or maybe the whole thing will work! You won’t know until you start.
If you want to write a book, but don’t know exactly how the whole story arc will go, that’s okay. Just write a page. Tomorrow write another page. When you have a full chapter, reevaluate. You’ll probably find more of it is usable that you thought it would be.
Looking back, when I was trying to organize my kitchen, I should have just unpacked one box and put the contents in a cupboard. Later, I could have unpacked another, looked at the cupboards I still had available, and put the contents somewhere there. Worst case scenario, I would have had to done some rearranging. Not a big deal!
If even those “get started” steps seem unattainable, you can try something even smaller, like mapping out your project. Or writing some notes about it. If you have to create a presentation, make an outline of it first. Any first step that you can handle and follow through on is a good way to start managing your perfectionist tendencies.
And whatever step you choose to start with, don’t worry about getting it exactly right. Instead get it good enough. No, I’m not arguing for mediocrity, but the fact is that if you can get started on small steps, keep doing more small steps, and keep getting them good enough, you’re going to get it right in the end. Repeating small successes over and over will help you to accomplish your bigger goal.
Know (And Honor) Your Own Idea Of Success
For every project, big or small, that you might encounter in life, someone has written an article or book on how to do it right. In fact, 10 people probably have, with 10 different ideas about what is best. But only you know what works for you.
Take parenting for example. If you’re new at it, you might be a bit overwhelmed at how to do it right. You want to do it exactly right, and everyone from doctors to family to friends has an idea on how to be the best parent. And there are countless books and websites with information about all kinds of different parenting styles.
You have to do what feels right to you, and not what feels right to someone else. Of course you should do your research, learn what you can, and create some ideas about what makes sense to you. But don’t try to live up to someone else’s expectations of what is right. What works for 99 other parents might not work for you.
The same can be said for other overwhelming tasks and decisions: What should I choose for my college major? What neighborhood should I move to? When is the right time to have kids?
Society in general has all these ideas about how things should be done. There’s no such thing. There’s just your thing. Do your thing.
Avoid Competition And Comparisons
Many perfectionists are competitive, because they need to be the best at everything. If you want to curb your perfectionist tendencies, be careful about comparing yourself to others.
Choose friends and organizations that foster a supportive environment, rather than one where there is more criticism. By surrounding yourself with people who give you the message you want to remember (such as, “As long as I am trying, I am succeeding!”) instead of messages you want to stop reinforcing (like “There are flaws in my work, and I’m not as good as she is”), you can start making your life a bit easier, and you can move into a place where your tendency is to embrace your successes instead of criticizing your own failures.
You Learn More From Your Mistakes Than You Do From Your Successes
It’s true – some of my biggest learning experiences have come from mistakes I’ve made. When you let go of your need to be perfect, you allow yourself to make mistakes. My friend Sherie Venner wrote in The Shocking Truth About Making Mistakes, that when you make a mistake, you should remember three things:
- Forgive yourself
- Look at why the mistake happened and see what wisdom you can gain
- Recognize that mistakes are the greatest path to learning
If you’re a perfectionist, you probably have tried to do everything in your power to avoid mistakes. But these are your greatest learning tools! You learn more about your project, about yourself, and about how to do things better. When you refuse to start a project out of fear of making a mistake, you are really just depriving yourself of learning lessons that simply can’t be acquired if you only have success. So jump in and see where your failures take you!
Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.