5 Tips for Living with Perfectionism

By Laura Sharon

Meriam Webster defines perfection as “flawlessness,” or having no defects or faults, and perfectionism as “the disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable.” As the meaning of these words and phrases sinks in, my reaction to this language is visceral. I have a heavy feeling in my belly and my jaw locks down. I mean, seriously, let these words sink in: “the disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable.” What a set-up, I think, as I begin to contemplate how we got into this mess of thinking and believing that an ideal state is a standard we should strive for. Who on this earth has no defects or faults? Who decided that perfection is an ideal worth trying to attain? And better yet, what would possess us to set ourselves up like this, and what can we do to set a different, more merciful course for ourselves and the world? We need to break up with perfectionism.

I grew up in a world of not good enough, which is basically the same as falling short of perfection and therefore being declared unacceptable. There was some ideal my mom had in her mind of how I was supposed to be, and no matter what I did, that ideal was ever-elusive. I was pretty but would be “so pretty” only if I lost 20 lbs. I was smart, but went to a school where the pressure was such that I was never smart enough. I was mature beyond my years, but because I was a child, I wasn’t good enough. Who would or could be?

No one explains perfectionism better than Brené Brown. She describes perfectionism as being “extrinsically motivated,” which means ‘what will people think’ drives us. She goes on to call perfectionism the “20 ton shield.” What happens when we live from perfectionism as our standard is that shame — the boogey monster of all boogey monsters that tells us our being is not worthy — rears its ugly head, and consumes us. And the cycle of not enough’s takes over. Without even realizing it, we are unconsciously wearing that “20 ton shield” as protection. It has become us, and the fact of the matter is that when we are weighted down and covered up, no one can see us or our value or contributions.

To sum it up, perfectionism is the breeding ground for feelings of unworthiness, shame, and disconnection, and thus isolation and loneliness. And that “20 ton shield” Brené talks about keeps us in a very dark and lonely place. So what do we do? How do we break away from this self-sabotaging and vicious cycle? We must develop new super powers that give us the strength to let that perfectionistic shit go. How do we do that? By practicing new ways of being.

1. Get and stay curious. Start by asking yourself some questions and answering as honestly as you can: “Who am I?” “What is most important to me — my happiness or what people think of me?” “How do I derive my self-worth?” “Am I more a human doing or a human being?” Keep going.

2. Name your shame. Remember that shame thrives in darkness and dies in the light. Naming our shame loosens its hold over us.

3. Create a vision of who you want to be. Write or draw a description of the best version of you. Or make a collage. This vision is the one where you are comfortable in your own skin, and you really don’t care about what others think of you. What do you look like? How do you feel? What are you wearing? Where do you live? Who is with you?

4. Practice courage, compassion, and connection. Brené Brown’s research shows that we need to practice being courageous, compassionate (first with ourselves), and developing connections with others — meaningful, authentic connections — in order to let go of perfectionism. “Practice” is an important part of this equation. It means there is no destination, no finish line. We try these new ways of being, or showing up, and we pay attention to how things go. We learn from each try, and we do it again. Over and over, until it becomes a habit.

For more on this tip, start by reading The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown, and then keep going.

For more on self-compassion, see https://self-compassion.org/test-how-self-compassionate-you-are/ and the self-compassion practices offered on this site.

5. Notice, don’t judge. One of the main ways we keep ourselves stuck in the darkness of perfectionism is by judging. Judging puts us and others out of our heart. The antidote to judging is learning how to notice without judging. This is what mindfulness is. It, too, is a practice and it takes time to develop this new way of being. Start by noticing how you speak to yourself and others. Judging is evaluative: “I didn’t do that very well,” or “she is so stupid.” Noticing is more akin to just observing, witnessing: “I lost my train of thought mid-way through the presentation,” or “I didn’t understand what she was saying.”

If you have techniques for living with perfectionism that have helped you, please share those in the comments section below. Let’s spread our collective tips and resources far and wide so we can help others find their way through breaking up with perfectionism.

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Laura Sharon

Writer, poet, coach, and consultant. Certified Daring Way™ Facilitator.