I was a straight-A student growing up. If I got an A-, my dad would tease me (“What happened here?” he’d say with a wink). But I didn’t think it was funny. Straight A’s, indeed. A for anxiety. And that pressure didn’t come from anyone but me. My parents begged me to ease up, in fact. But I was a high achiever (still am), and wanted nothing but the top score. Sure, my school records are impressive, but my stomach would tell you another story. Because it, along with the rest of my intestinal tract, bore the brunt of that pressure. I spent a lot of grade school with a stomachache.
My perfectionism reached an apex when, in sixth grade, I was so overwhelmed by my first term paper assignment that I plain old freaked out. I couldn’t do it. The principal called me down to the office one day, upon hearing I was worked into a tizzy over it, and said it didn’t matter when I handed it in. It could be July for all she cared. I was in the curiously backwards position of having a school administrator tell me that a project wasn’t as important as I was making it out to be.
I’m still a high achiever, and it’s gotten me far to be sure. But I’ve loosened up considerably. What’s interesting is that the more confidence I have in myself and my abilities, the less perfect I feel the need to be. If only I’d known this then—that something doesn’t have to be flawless to be worthwhile. Not only that, but the less caught up you are in perfection, the less likely you are to procrastinate.
Here are some ways to get off your perfectionist pedestal:
Think goals, not ideals. Goals focus and inspire your efforts—but perfectionism squelches them. Needing to have everything perfect doesn’t guarantee it will be exactly how you want it—but it does guarantee you’ll have a harder time getting it done.
Super high standards—for your work, your projects, even your body, are a recipe for self-sabotage, simply because you’ll find reasons to put off and opt out of a thing you think you can’t do. And if only a perfect thing is worth doing, then you won’t be doing much. So you slipped and had a grande beverage that was more dessert than coffee—don’t discount all the healthy meals that preceded it. The process is far more important than a single result. Focus on gaining momentum behind your goals, not just sticking the landing.
Compare—the right way. In a piece I wrote for Whole Living, I explored different ways of dealing with perfectionism, and one of them is that comparison can actually be a good thing, when done the right way. Rather than assume everyone is doing better than you, recognize that we’re all human, and that likely your coworkers and friends have messed up, wasted time, and done things they regret. Start paying attention to what other people are really doing, rather than what you imagine they are. You’re certainly not alone, and shouldn’t assume the world is far ahead of you.
Tip the positivity ratio in your favor. Whenever you hear that inner perfectionist piping up (“Why can’t you get this right?” “How can you be so stupid?”) it’s time to outnumber those nasty claims with positive thoughts and emotions. Psychology researcher, Barbara Frederickson, PhD, author of Positivity, made headlines when she found that experiencing positive emotions in a 3-to-1 ratio with negative ones leads people to a tipping point beyond which they naturally become more resilient to adversity.
In the meantime, when you hear a negative thought spring up, turn your attention to three things that are going well. Or, all else fails, watch a cat video on youtube. Guaranteed mood shifter.
Delegate. There’s this rampant idea among perfectionists that you’re supposed to be good at everything. As if one thing weren’t hard enough! Delegate a project or responsibility. Let go, and let someone else handle it. Not only does this help release your white-knuckled grip on your life, but it also teaches you to accept help. You can’t and shouldn’t be good at everything. This is why we have tax accountants.