In my first year of graduate school, in one of my very first classes, my professor and supervisor—a woman who oozed wisdom from her fingertips—spoke words I’ll never forget: “We need to let go of perfect in order to be good.” As a recovering perfectionist, the truth and impact of that statement really hit home.
For so long “perfect” had seemed like the ultimate good, but a little life experience had already taught me that striving for perfection—if it actually exists—only gets in the way of allowing ourselves to be good (or good enough). Through my training to become a marriage and family therapist and in my work with clients, I learned much more about the ways that perfectionistic habits can hold us back from enjoying and succeeding in life.
How perfectionism holds us back
01. Perfectionism keeps us from trying new things.
For perfectionists, an implicit and false notion swirls in our heads: “If I don’t master it immediately, I won’t like it, so I won’t try it.” We want to do it perfectly right away, so if we have a sense we won’t be good at it, we usually just avoid it if possible. Not trying new things means missing out on a plethora of enjoyable experiences and potentially missing out on something we actually could be really good at—or something we’re terrible at, but really enjoy!
At its worst, perfectionism distracts us from reveling in the process because we’re so focused on the finish line. Not only does this keep us from experiencing new things or trying our hand at new activities, hobbies, or jobs, but perfectionism keeps us from struggling or failing—an important part of the process of trying something new.
02. Perfectionism keeps us from experiencing failure.
Stay with me—while avoiding failure might sound like a good thing at first, failure is a normal and even an important part of life. Failure helps us build character and resilience, so avoiding failure (by not trying new things or only doing what we’re good at) keeps us from building character.
We might feel like we experience enough challenges in our lives while still avoiding failure, but not experiencing failure is different from not experiencing challenges; perfectionists are very good at conquering challenges that are still in their area of skill. Perfectionists know which challenges are outside their area of expertise or skill—and know how to avoid them, to their own cost. When we don’t experience small and normal failures, we don’t know how to handle the bigger failures of life, or the real and inevitable adversity life throws at us. When we don’t learn to fail early on in life, then one big failure later in life can be nearly debilitating because we haven’t had experience with smaller, normal failures along the way.
03. Perfectionism often drives procrastination.
The same notion that keeps us from trying new things and avoiding failure is actually the same reason that perfectionists are often procrastinators; we put off starting something new (even writing a paper for school or a project for work) out of an internal (even subconscious) fear of not doing it well. At the eleventh hour, the procrastinator finally takes action. Doing it at the last minute like this gives her an out, so to speak: if she doesn’t succeed or do it perfectly, she can tell herself that this is because she did it at the last minute. Usually, though, the perfectionist pulls off a last-minute feat, accomplishing her goal, which only reinforces this procrastinating pattern. While this may sound like a good thing (and it is nice to be able to get things done at the last minute) procrastination, in turn, fuels anxiety and poor health habits, such as a chronic sleep deprivation and stress. Procrastination also doesn’t allow us the time to go over our projects or work, keeping us from revising it, catching mistakes, or making it better.
04. Perfectionism keeps us feeling like we’re not enough.
Perfectionism keeps us relying on the approval of others to give us our worth—be it in feedback, praise, monetary compensation, or awards and prestige. Psychotherapist and professor Dr. Ilene Strauss Cohen says, “Perfectionism stays alive when you look for other people to give you worth, relying on their opinions to give you a sense of your value.” However, a real, personal sense of worthiness or enoughness can never come from others—it can only come from ourselves. When we can’t decide for ourselves when we’ve done enough or are enough, we look to others to tell us that we are enough in various forms: money, feedback, awards. In this case, we are essentially putting our self-worth in the hands of others. If we get positive feedback, it feels good, but it only lasts so long. After the positive feedback wanes, we set new goals, striving for perfection yet again because we struggle to affirm ourselves as good enough or having done enough—and the cycle continues.
05. Perfectionism fuels anxiety.
Perfectionism is fueled by setting nearly unattainable standards for ourselves, as well as looking to other people or to external metrics of success to give us our worth. With the constant pressure of striving to reach high goals and impress others, perfectionism often leads to an underlying (or even overwhelming) sense of anxiety.
This pervasive anxiety is usually fueled by a little voice inside our heads. This “voice” may be the voice of someone in our lives that we have internalized: a critical parent, a never-satisfied authority figure (coach, teacher, etc.). It may even be the internalized voice of what we believe society expects of us. Regardless of where this internal critic originated, its persistence can fuel social anxiety, performance anxiety, and/or general anxiety in the perfectionist by constantly telling us that we are not enough, that we need to do more and achieve more.
How to let go of perfect
01. Try new activities or hobbies that you aren’t good at.
If you struggle with perfectionism, try doing new things that feel unfamiliar or completely out of your comfort zone. Trying something new knowing that you won’t master it right away teaches you that it’s okay to learn, to struggle, to fail, and not to have it all figured out. Read, even if you’re a slow reader; knit or needlepoint, even if you’ve never tried; try a sport or go for a run even if you swear you don’t have an athletic bone in your body; try a musical instrument even if you gave up piano lessons at age six; take an art or cooking class even though you believe you lack creativity. Additionally, such hobbies or activities may become outlets for the stress or anxiety that can come from lingering perfectionism.
02. Change your perspective on failure.
When you fail—whether it is a minor failure at the new hobby you’re trying out or a larger failure at work that others witness—think of it as a course correction. A failure, big or small, teaches us when we start to stray off course (or have already done so). Lessons we learn from mistakes we’ve made—whether in math class or in life—are usually the things we’ll remember the longest, as our mistakes have a way of sticking with us.
Further, learning what the disappointment of minor to moderate failures feel like—and learning that life goes on—will help build character and resilience for the times we experience failure on a larger scale or real adversity in life. Life’s difficulties happen to everyone—from being laid off to experiencing a loved one’s premature death—and having dealt with prior disappointments teaches us how to carry on after severe setbacks.
03. Practice being vulnerable.
Perfectionists don’t usually like to be vulnerable. Being vulnerable not only means letting down the pristine image that you have often worked hard to sustain, but it also means that you have to ask someone else for help, or tell them something is wrong. As perfectionists are usually fairly self-sufficient folks who don’t like to inconvenience others, this is a big ask. But not only will the other person likely be happy to help you—even if that just means offering a listening ear or a shoulder to cry on—he or she probably is relieved also to see that even Superwoman is human.
04. Begin to look to yourself for validation.
If you are used to looking outward for validation, the antidote is to begin to turn inward for affirmation. Self-affirmation allows you to set goals that are true to your own values, and it begins to build a real sense of self-worth by recognizing your own enough-ness—something that doesn’t wear off or leave you when others deem you unworthy. Being able to internally validate yourself doesn’t just mean you can pat yourself on the back for a job well done. The importance of internal affirmation is that you can decide when you’ve done enough. For example, being able to recognize that you don’t need to stay after work every day to make your project “perfect” because you know you’ve worked extremely hard on it during working hours and it is good enough. Of course, this is easier said than done, but it involves telling yourself precisely that: “I have already put so much time and energy into getting this project done well. It is done well as it is, and staying after work to do more is unnecessary.” This is difficult when you have the urge to do more to make it just right, but if your values include being home with your family and doing a job well, you can recognize what you’ve done aligns with those values—not some arbitrary or external standard of perfection.
Likewise, in the face of failures or setbacks, being able to internally validate yourself means telling yourself that you are not your failures, that you still are important and valuable, that you are not worthless. Internal validation allows you to know that you are enough—something that isn’t determined by outward appearances, successes, accolades, or even failures. This might look like creating an affirming internal voice that says things such as, “I put a lot into that interview—whether I get it or not, I am proud of my effort.” At first, your affirming internal voice may be in response to the internal critic, that longtime resident in your mind. When the internal critic alarms in response to a failure, you can tell yourself—internally, aloud, and/or written in a journal—“I didn’t get the part I wanted, but I am still smart, hardworking, and worthy. I will do my best in this role.” The more you hear these affirmations from yourself and see them written down, you begin to look to yourself for validation rather than externally.
While perfectionism can certainly have its benefits—namely, outward success and feeling like we’re in control—it actually holds us back. Perfectionism can stifle creativity, keep us from having new experiences, hinder our development of character and resilience, and even obstruct our authentic human relationships. When we finally put our worth in our own hands rather than those of others, we allow ourselves to see that we are already “good enough” as we are—and have been all along.