There’s a voice in your head that tells you that you could do better—at everything. Especially this time of year. Could have bought a better gift; hosted a better party; found a better tree. Even that meal, well, maybe you should have gone with the mashed instead of baked. It’s endless.
I know that voice because I have one just like it. And when I finish writing this article, it’ll pipe up and call all I’ve done into question (“You sure this blog post is good enough?”).
When you look at everything you do with judgment, you get less done and you’re unhappy with the things you have done. It brings down your mood, self esteem, and self worth. That’s not ambition; that’s perfectionism. And it’s not your friend.
The belief that you should be perfect is an Iceberg Belief. It took shape when you were young, and it affects and informs your thoughts and actions to this day. You may have several different Iceberg Beliefs, but the ones around perfectionism are particularly potent—and limiting.
“People cling to perfectionism because they fear the consequences of failing,” says meQuilibrium’s Chief Science Officer Andrew Shatté. “They worry that the wheels will fall off their life, the world will explode, they’ll be exposed as a fraud, or people will think less of them.”
I put important things off all the time, and certainly not just during the holidays: project proposals, emails, calling the insurance company, you name it. I always told myself that it was because I’m lazy, but then I realized that I jump to do work for other people—sometimes when it’s not even urgent.
When I examined my actions more closely, I saw that I have an Iceberg Belief that if I can’t do something perfectly, I shouldn’t do it at all. I delay action because I (mistakenly) assume I’ll know more or be smarter later. This sounds optimistic, but it’s not. It’s just another way of reinforcing distrust in myself. And that does me zero favors.
So once we realize where our perfectionism is coming from, what are we to do about it? Here’s how to respond when your inner perfectionist starts speaking out of turn:
Iceberg: Everything I do must be perfect.
Thought: “It’s not good enough! I’ll embarrass myself!”
Response: What’s really the worst that could happen if you turned in that report or sent that email right now, as is? How might doing so even benefit you?
Iceberg: If I can’t get it done perfectly right now, I shouldn’t do it at all.
Thought: “Just wait til tomorrow to do it!”
Response: Ask yourself this: What will be different tomorrow that would make waiting matter? Then, take one action toward your goal.
Iceberg: Anything less than perfect is unacceptable.
Thought: “Forget it. I’ll never get it done. It’s too much.”
Response: Adhering to your inner perfectionist standards would require far too much effort, that’s true. Instead, ask yourself, what would seven-eighths of that effort look like? And then try doing just that much.
Every time you hear your inner perfectionist start to clear his throat, especially this time of year when you have a zillion things to do, shift your focus to what you have done, what is working, and one of many reasons to be happy with what is. You’ve worked hard all year, and it should end on an upswing—with a moment of peace, contentment, and gratitude. You deserve that much, don’t you think?
Terri Trespicio is a New York–based lifestyle writer. For nearly a decade, she served as a senior editor and radio host at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. Her work has appeared in Jezebel, XOJane, Marie Claire, Prevention, MindBodyGreen, and DailyWorth. Find her on Twitter @TerriT