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We’ve also realized that it’s way more common than you think. And it’s really not all that surprising.
If you think about it, we’ve been trained to be perfect our whole lives. We went to school on time, never talked in class, got straight A’s on our homework, and were constantly reassured that we were doing a great job. This pattern followed us through elementary school, to middle school, to high school, and even into college. Maybe sometimes we exchanged our A’s for B’s in our tough classes, and occasionally we got grounded from time to time, but overall, perfectionism wasn’t so hard to achieve.
And then we graduated.
Oy. Whatta blow. All of a sudden we need the perfect job, the perfect apartment, the perfect boyfriend, the perfect salary, and we need it yesterday. Because that’s how our life is supposed to unfold, right? High heels – high standards. The perfect girl’s dream.
But it doesn’t work like that. Because perfect isn’t real.
What we thought was “perfect,” was really just us putting in some effort and getting some decent results. And honestly, the stakes really weren’t that high. It was easy. We were given a formula, we were told how to succeed, and we followed the rules. Plug and chug, girl. But after school – our sacred formula disappeared. It just evaporated into thin air and left us alone and clueless. That little a-hole brat.
So now, it’s our job to decide on what “perfect” really means. And instead of creating that definition ourselves, we’re looking to everyone else. And so, the rat race begins.
Society will always dictate some ridiculous standard of perfectionism. I can’t control that, and neither can you. But we can try to fight it off to the best of our ability. So, here are some ways on how to stop being a perfectionist, and start being a happy human.
You’ve heard it so many times – focus on the journey, not the results. But all you’re really thinking when you hear that cliché is, “If I don’t focus on the results, how can I even know what I’m working towards?” Solid question, friend.
What that quote really means, is divide your attention between both the journey AND the results, and appreciate both aspects. If you get so caught up in the results that you don’t even try to at least enjoy the process – you are wasting your time – and you are probably losing out on the opportunity to have the results you intended. Positive energy is required for positive results, so enjoying the process is crucial to the ending product.
But, there’s also one more benefit to this strategy – and that’s the element of pride. When you work hard for something, and you actually enjoyed it, you become proud of your result. And pride simply can’t be measured. Once you are proud of yourself and your creation, the idea of perfectionism doesn’t seem as relevant anymore. Who cares if your home-cooked meal didn’t turn out as well as Ina Garten’s chicken florentine? You worked your damn ass off and it tastes pretty good, eh?
Cultivate pride, and your lust for being perfect will slowly dwindle
Remember when we talked about that moment after graduation, when the formula disappeared? And we have to decide for ourselves what “perfect” means?
This is the time to do it. It’s time to take the power away from everyone else, and create your own version of perfect.
Looking over your shoulder at somebody else’s grades, shape, rewards, accomplishments, or anything else has seriously no weight on whether or not you are doing well in your life. None. And tricking yourself into thinking it does just makes your thirst for perfectionism downright unbearable. It will affect the way you view your life and your accomplishments, and it will never end.
They say that you are an addict if a substance you are actively bringing into your life begins to negatively affect your everyday functionality, and you cannot stop it. So if you are noticing that comparing yourself and your accomplishments to others is negatively affecting your life and you can’t stop – you might be addicted to perfectionism. This is when we would recommend coaching to work on these negative habits. Otherwise, if it is in your power, try to shield yourself from sizing up yourself in comparison to your peers.
Set yourself free, and live by your own definitions. (And check out this blog on how to stop comparing yourself to others.)
Or as I like to call it, exposure therapy.
When I was in grad school, I got a job as a server at a nice restaurant. I had probably applied to 200 different places of employment without so much as a “you suck and we aren’t hiring you” reply, so waitressing was my last resort. I was determined to become good at this job so I could become somewhat financially secure — but also so I could prove to myself that I wasn’t a total failure.
I remember on day two of my training, my boss asked me to carry three glasses in one hand. If you don’t know me, my hands are freakishly tiny. I was terrified. Like, this is not going to happen. I am going to spill everywhere. And get fired. And crawl in a hole. And never come out. And, bye.
I practiced and practiced and practiced. I had repeated nightmares of of dropping all three glasses and spilling on myself, a coworker, or worse – a guest. The horror.
As I continued with training, a tenured employee was watching me, freaked out about how tense I was. I’m sure I looked like I had a bushel of sticks up my butt. Not a good look.
So, on a crowded Tuesday night, she did what any smart human would do. As I rounded the upstairs corner, trying desperately not to drop three trembling glasses of water, she deliberately knocked them out of my hands.
Glass shattered. I was soaked. She was smiling. Eyes were staring.
And that was it.
There was a small round of applause from some smug table in the back (hate those people), but otherwise everything was fine. I think a few servers actually stepped over me to get to their next table. I quickly raced to the back, grabbed a mop, cleaned it up, and kept going. And after that, I wasn’t so afraid of dropping the glasses anymore. Hell, it was almost an adrenaline rush.
If you are constantly worried about failing or falling short of your perfect standard, try the opposite. Mess up on purpose. It’s healthy to see how walking into the lion’s den isn’t as scary as we thought. So bring it on, failure. You’ll have to be much tougher than that.
If your situation doesn’t really allow for the whole “mess up on purpose” strategy, that’s fine. I get that you might not want to bomb your entrance exams on purpose. So instead, ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen?”
Seriously. What is the worst that can happen if what you are trying to achieve isn’t perfect? So what you don’t get into the graduate school you wanted. Are you going to die? Are you going to be shunned from society? Will your friends abandon you? Will you never be employed again?
I am going to guess the answers to those questions were a resounding NO. Because your life isn’t going to fall apart if you aren’t perfect. In fact, the only one who will really freak out about falling short of perfection, is you. And if anyone cares THAT much about your accomplishments or shortcomings, could you please tell them to get a life? Or give me their number so I can tell them to get a life?
You are the only one who does and should care. You’re also probably the only one who notices, for that matter. So relax and play it out. Ask yourself what would happen if you didn’t reach your impossible standard. Answer honestly. And hopefully you will see that if you don’t reach that bar, your life will continue on its beautiful and unique path regardless.
So we’ve already established that the idea of perfectionism is completely and utterly subjective. People just like, make it up. It’s fascinating, really. But it also means that if you strive for perfection in everything that you do, you will never be done. There’s no real rubric to decide what is perfect and what is not. So, you’ll continue to chase this impossible standard of perfection until you wear yourself out. How exhausting.
Some things in life are never meant to be complete – things like discovering new things about yourself, improving your self-esteem, or finding interesting ways to enhance friendships and relationships. Those should be never-ending processes. But homework assignments, work projects, or applications and more should have a start and an end.
This is why we need to become friends with “good enough.” If we become friends with her, then we won’t feel the need to waste our energy trying to make everything perfect. We’ll finish the project. We’ll submit the application. We’ll get to work on time. Things will be easier. And you know what? We probably won’t even notice a huge difference. They say that people who put in 20% of the effort reap 80% of the results. And guess what? The people who put in the extra 80% of the effort (giving the “perfect” 100%) only reap the remaining 20% of the results. Holy inefficient.
Become friends with “good enough.” She won’t let you down. And maybe you can spend that extra 80% you’ve been saving on something you actually enjoy!
Soooo is what you are beating yourself up about right now going to matter in five years? Be honest. Seriously. Be really honest. If it’s a ‘yes,’ ok fine, let’s talk. Maybe you gotta put in some extra effort this week. Bump it all the way up to 80%. I get it. But if not, it might be time to put the pen down and let it go.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t put effort into ANYTHING that won’t matter in five years – cleaning your room is a necessary evil – but there is no need to break your back over everyday tasks. And if you don’t think you will look back and remember that time when everything was perfectly tidy and there were absolutely no spelling errors (there are probably at least three or more in this blog) and perfection ran rampant…then just let it go. Memories aren’t constituted by perfectionism, they are constituted by emotion. So focus on what makes you happy, because that’s what you’ll remember anyway.
Otherwise known as, create your own definition of perfection.
Now, tread lightly here. I don’t want some of you going off and creating this absolute grandiose goal that you want to achieve by midnight. Hence, the word realistic. We have to hone it in. Focus on what we really want. Prioritize. And put our efforts towards the result that we know will make a difference in our lives.
The best part about this is, our goals won’t look like her goals. Or his goals. Or Kim Kardashian’s goals (unless it’s to have the perfect contour and in that case we need better goals). They will be YOUR goals, and these goals are unique to you. So you can’t really compare them to anyone else’s. And just like that, you’re out of the race.
It’s also very smart to have in-check expectations. Talk it out. Understand what it is that you are reaching for, and forgive yourself if the picture in your head doesn’t play out in real life. To be honest, it hardly ever does. But we are resilient, and we were designed for adaptation. Darwinsim, baby! We won’t break if things don’t go the exact way we planned – in fact sometimes it works out even better. So give yourself some wiggle room in these expectations. Don’t break over unmet goals, work with them. Tweak them. And keep going. Overall, if you can balance realistic goal setting, focused effort, and adaptable results, that is the key for any kind of success in my book.
To any struggling perfectionist out there, I hope this helped. Let us know what you think about this guide and how perfectionism is playing out in your life in the comments below! And if you are interested in life coaching to kick this nasty habit – you can sign up today.