Perfectionism is a belief that you can be perfect or do things perfectly and anything less is not acceptable.
You think that it is possible to “win” at life if you just do everything right.
You believe the saying, “Everything worth doing is worth doing well.” And you also believe the flip side of that saying. If you can’t do it well, don’t do it at all.
But you might not even realize that you have these beliefs. I didn’t.
When you are unaware of the perfectionist thoughts, you are held hostage by them1. You can’t see that perfection isn’t possible. You think that you have high standards, and you see that as a good thing. But you might not identify with the idea of perfectionism, at first.
I am never more owned by perfectionism as when I am unaware of the perfectionist thoughts. And perfectionism is a great example of something that will control you if you don’t see it.
What exactly is perfectionism.
I never thought of myself as a perfectionist. But when it was pointed out to me, I became curious. I found a book by Stephen Guise, called How to Be an Imperfectionist. The main focus of the book is how to use mini-habits to overcome perfectionism – and become an “imperfectionist”. He also sums up various models of perfectionism (and his personal experience). He lists 5 major parts of perfectionism:
- Unrealistic expectations
- Need for approval
- Concern over mistakes
- Doubts over actions
For example, perfectionists won’t workout if we can’t go to the gym for at least 30 minutes. We won’t take a class if we can’t get an A. We don’t read at all if we can’t read for at least an hour. We doubt the things we do and spend excessive amounts of time thinking about the ways we “messed up”.
And yet, we also know that moving a little is better than not moving at all. That the purpose of taking classes is to learn. And reading 1/2 a book is better than reading nothing. But we just don’t think about this at the moment.
Of course, the bigger the stakes, the more likely we are to fall into perfectionist ways of thinking.
How can perfectionism affect you?
My perfectionism shows up in the belief that there is a right way to do things. That if I do things right, I can “win” at life. I can feel strong, capable, and proud of what I have accomplished. I can avoid failure, judgement, and burnout. My perfectionism shows up in the belief that there is a way to do everything all at once. Perfectionism tells me that life should be as easy as following the rules and having the perfect daily routine.
It’s hard to untangle and see the perfectionism clearly. Because it sounds right. But then it takes everything to unreasonable levels.
Perfectionism drives me to try to create the perfect daily routine. And this can be helpful. A daily or weekly routine can indeed make it easier to reach your goals and do the things you need to do. But perfectionism takes that to another level. It says that if I can’t follow the perfect routine, there is no point in doing anything.
The problem with perfectionism is that it works… Until it doesn’t.
I remember in grade 4 practicing handwriting and someone making the observation that my handwriting was not smooth. I was trying too hard to make the shapes perfectly. I realized that perfect wasn’t better. That I could have better handwriting (and my hands would hurt less) if I didn’t try to do it perfectly, and instead focused on trying to do it smoothly.
It was the first time that I realized that perfect wasn’t always good. But that didn’t totally end all my perfectionism or high achieving goals. It just helped me let go of perfectionism in how my writing looked.
And the perfectionist push did serve me in some ways. I went to the University I thought was best, and got into one of the two (at that time) nutrition programs with a guaranteed internship2. I said yes to some great learning opportunities. I graduated from university and then moved to another entirely new province and town to start work 4 days after I got my degree.
But perfectionism does not come without a cost.
There are times when I can’t be as productive as normal. There are times when I am ill, or in pain, or sleep deprived. And then I get stuck in this spiral.
- I can’t be productive – for whatever reason. The reason doesn’t matter.
- I start feeling bad about myself. I see the dishes piled up on the counter. I see the list of to-dos getting longer.
- I see all the stuff I need to do and all the stuff I want to do.
- I feel so overwhelmed and all the energy gets sapped out of my body.
- I start judging myself. I can’t do anything right.
- Then I notice myself judging myself, and I start judging myself for judging myself.
- And then I judge myself for judging myself for judging myself.
When I was unaware of the beginning of this spiral, I would get stuck for days. But with time, effort, and a lot of journaling, I can catch the spiral a lot quicker.
Recovering from perfectionism
As I’ve been working on my perfectionism, I’ve been working to accept that something is better than nothing. That everything has to start somewhere. That I can do the best I can with the time I have, share what I’ve done, and then go back and make it better later if I feel I need to. This blog would not exist without me doing that work.
I have been learning how to approach what I do and how I do it in a different way. To lead with more compassion, curiosity, and openness. To be able to strive to do the best I can, while also taking time to rest, to play, to be mindful, and to connect with the people in my life.
But it is also easy to overthink things. It is easy to fall into the trap of questioning your motives for everything you do. To monitor yourself so closely that you become paralyzed. This is just another form of perfectionism.
Get to know your perfectionism
The first question to ask is, “Is what I am doing working for me?” This might seem obvious, you are reading a post about perfectionism, after all. But if you think things are working for you as they are, are you really going to put in the work to change things? No. So first, get clear on how things are going.
Think about your career, your relationships, your connections to your community, your family life, your health, and your mind/mental health.
- What is going right?
- What is difficult?
- How would you like things to be different?
I highly encourage you to keep a journal. Take a few days or a few weeks and come back to these questions a few times.
Next? Go see a mental health professional. Seriously. I can’t recommend this enough, especially at the beginning stages. Even if you are an introspective person, having someone outside of your mind hear what is going on can give you so much perspective. In fact, this might be your very first step and do the journaling after.
Use action to break this cycle.
If you feel paralyzed, and don’t know what to do, you need to do something. If you don’t know what to do, go for a walk (or insert your exercise of choice).
Do something physical. Either start by being very aware of how it feels to move your body (mindful exercise) or do enough exercise that your mind stops chattering. Just take a break from the spiral of thoughts that are making you feel paralyzed. Chances are that after this, you’ll get unstuck.
- Run mini-experiments. Nearly every post on this site has some ideas for experiments you can run – think about how you eat, move, rest, grow, and connect.
- Think about how you think – consider compassion, curiosity, mindfulness.
- Consider what it means to you to live a good life. Are you moving closer to that?
- Keep doing things that “work” – And consider this in a broad sense. If your 5am wake-up time means that you go for a run but you feel miserable the whole time – before, during, and after – is it really working?
- And think of the things that take you further from your goals. How can you reduce them, or replace those habits with ones that will work better?
Finally, remember to give yourself a break from time to time. Changing habits can be hard. You don’t need to make it harder on yourself.
Perfectionism can hide in the middle of your thoughts, to the point where you don’t even see it for yourself. It can take you places, sure. But at some point, if you don’t address the perfectionist tendencies, it is likely to come crashing down.
Perfectionism can trigger a downward spiral and keep you stuck. It can keep you from your biggest goals. In fact, the bigger the goal, the stronger your perfectionist thoughts are likely to grow.
But you don’t have to get stuck in the perfectionism. You can get to know how perfectionism shows up in your mind and your life. You can learn to cut short the negative spirals and take action.
- Get to know your pefectionism
- Use action to break the cycle
- Keep journaling & trying different experiments
Remember that you don’t have to be beaten down by your own mind. You can choose a different path and be even more productive while feeling calmer and saner.
This month, I’ve been focusing on compassion. Compassion will allow you to do more than you thought possible with more ease and confidence. It is the key to long term success in anything.
Sure you can push and force yourself to get up at 5am or exercise every day or never eat any junk food. But that won’t last long. Eventually, you’ll get sick or tired or fed up with making yourself miserable.
You can do things that seem big and hard with a touch of self-awareness and a LOT of compassion.
We can do this together.
You are reading this because you are interested in improving your life. That means we have something in common. I’m still working on what the Foundations for the Good Life is all about, and I’d love for you to join me in this journey. I’d love to build a community with you. With people who are trying to figure out what “the good life” means, and how to set up their life to make it possible for them.
If this interests you, join the newsletter to be the first to know about updates, new articles, and to try out tools as they are developed and improved. I hope to connect with you soon.
- Dan Harris, of the 10% Happier book, podcast, and app, is fond of sayign the that the purpose of meditation is to see your thoughts clearly so you aren’t yanked around by them. Keeping a journal and counselling are two other routes to this end.
- To become a dietitian, you need to get an accredited bachelor’s degree, and an internship that’s at least 36 weeks (and also accredited), before you can write the national exam. So it’s a really important step. Unfortunately, a lot of programs don’t include the internship so you have to compete for the spots. It’s stressful and not everyone gets an internship. So getting into a program that guarantees an internship really helps.