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Declare war on perfectionism

Updated: Sep 6, 2022

Serious, battle lines and weaponry war. Not kidding, it is the most toxic thing we are breathing in right now, more than pollution or plastics or politics. Perfectionism is an active evil thing we are doing to each other and ourselves every day. It’s the thing that tells us what’s impossible, out of reach, and not worth trying. It’s the thing that kills a dream before it starts, and stifles a smile with a sour note. It’s worth going to war against.

Know the enemy

Perfectionism is recognizable as the tendency to do everything, please everyone, have “no hair out of place”, thinking that if we do, we will find that nirvana of doing all the things all the time for all the people without breathing hard.

Ain’t gonna happen.

But that’s the public face of perfectionism, the “somehow shouldn’t I still strive for this even though it’s out of reach so I don’t compromise too soon” veneer. That’s the part we see, recognize, go to therapy over, blame our parents, our lineage, our heritage, our environment for a bar just that much too high. There’s a deeper, more insidious enemy at work infecting us in ways we don’t see. Perfectionism gives us permission to define the way things “should” be in unachievable terms, creating fantasies of what “good” and “right” are. Instead of holding to values, an input to how we do things in the world, we paint these perfect outcome pictures full of all sorts of assumptions, biases, judgements, and other gross toxic elements hidden in our own private Dorian Gray portrait. 

We’re seeing the outcome of this. How do people make such insanely bad judgement calls? From #MeToo to corruption to Tide pods to the just the head-scratchingly bizarre behaviors to ourselves and others we are seeing and hearing every day, there’s a huge disconnect between what we say we want and what we’re doing. A large part of that comes from the anxiety and confusing self-hatred that perfectionism creates.

What we really, really want

Can we pause for a minute and declare our side of the war? What is the alternative to aiming to be the very best, have the very best, be the most right, and always be on top? If we pull that tentpole of goal-setting, what do we have left? How far apart are we from each other if we do that? The good news is at the heart of it, we probably want exactly the same things.

We probably can agree that we want to live in health, comfort, and belonging. We could go further and say that we want to feel challenged in our strengths, forgiven for our weaknesses as we work on them, and have an opportunity to express ourselves in ways that feel meaningful. We want a connection to things bigger than ourselves to not feel lost, and a connection to things we can care for to not feel small. We want to be safe to be ourselves, so that fear can be reserved for that moment of faith when we commit to try, not because we are at risk of being hurt. When we are hurt, we want to trust that our connections will support and nourish us through recovery and growth.

That was a lot. Sounded fluffy. Hardly ready for a war. What, we’re gonna throw flowers on the table in the next meeting where politics is so bad people are hiring busses to throw people under? Hug it out? This is exactly why perfectionism is so successful. Our enemy is sharp, cutting through all our nebulous good intentions with the hardest edge of one right way, one right answer, and the one thing, no matter how hard you tried, that still wasn’t...perfect. It’s a trap of ease, saying “hey look, just take this definition of good and you’re good to go.” And we go hang ourselves from it in the effort.

Getting battle-ready

So how do we take our sloppy, soft, mushy sense of there has to be something better and turn it into a more powerful and “winner-worthy” approach? Do we have to wait until we can be one of the lucky few that can figure out how to chuck it all and move to a chic and zero-footprint tiny house on a slice of Montana heaven? Do we have to just keep getting rid of everything in our apartment waiting for the peaceful zen of having one shirt, one pair of pants, and one really confused cat? 

Nope, that’s exactly the problem. That’s just as much a quest for perfect as any other type-A meal-planning, gotta be a billionaire by 40, am nothing unless I disrupt the world with my new app, trap. Right now the world is screaming at us. I don’t have to tell you the topics, they’re unavoidable. So is the anxiety they push. So what do we have to do?

First thing to do, and not in any heavily defined way according to this guru or that, is breathe. No joke, if you take a second and just breathe in as long as you can, and then breathe it all out, just a few times, you’ll realize you’ve probably been shallow breathing for a while. That does all sorts of crazy things to the human body, including your brain. Deep slow breath, in through your nose, out through your mouth, and just FEEL your heart rate downshift a little. One more. Yeah! 

Next, embrace the best advice I ever got. Mrs. Miracle, my first grade teacher (Martin Luther King Elementary School, Louisville, KY), after telling me to stop talking in class, told me to keep my eyes on my own paper. Eyes on my own paper. No, not to not copy someone else’s work because I was lazy, but to stop worrying about everyone else, how they were doing, and what they thought, if I was “doing it right”. All she wanted me to do was to look at my own paper, ready just for me, right next to my crayons and pencils. Just draw the picture from my own heart, write the words for myself, and feel my own feelings. We are told what to do, think, want, feel, believe, see, and know. Big news: they’re all OPTIONS. Take back the choice to look inward! It’s just choosing quiet, a minute at time, until you tip the scales back to being in control of what you choose to think about.  A minute, an hour, a day, until it becomes more natural to think of all the incoming stuff as potential input, rather than a firehose we either consume or drown in.

Now that we can cut down the noise, we have to take stock of reality. It’s time to recalibrate our truths about ourselves. There’s a wide range of options how to do that (no one right way!) but choosing to do that with an eye for what we have, not what we don’t, is critical. If you want a fast lesson in that, just listen to/read lyrics for Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors. Or if you have more time and are so inclined, you can re-read Maslow on the hierarchy of needs. Odds are good, if you’re reading this, you have a lot going on for you. So look at it. Map out what you already have that is aiming you toward what you do want. Here’s the fun part. There has always been a part of you that knows all this, and you probably have in your life relationships, memories, and things that are waiting to be rediscovered as true keepers, just waiting for you to come back to the wonderful, real, imperfect you.

I’m avoiding that word, you know the one, the humble, genuine sister to the extroverted, Goop-ready “mindfulness”. The one that has us thinking of yoga instead of boxing and tea instead of coffee…Yes, that’s the one, gratitude. Perfection teaches us to not respect what we have in service to pushing us to get more. Let’s unlearn that one. Gratitude reminds us to find comfort in what we do have, how we got it, and the opportunities to make more use of it. Still watching ourselves for perfectionist extremes, we are not going from daily Amazon packages to eco-warrior in one step. We use gratitude to right-size reality. Enough is not a bad word. Enough food, enough stuff, enough money, enough time. Perfection says there’s never too much. We know better. If we listen without the panic, we know darned well that we do need to reassess what enough means to take care of each other for the long haul. So let’s start with our own reality and a dose of gratitude to deescalate.

It takes a loop or two of cutting the noise and taking grateful stock of reality to house-keep properly. With gratitude to Marie Kondo, for sure, “sparking joy” can be another hefty perfectionist trap. We’ve all probably done a few rounds already, and after the first offloading felt good, the malaise that remained reminded us that getting rid of the five extra ugly Christmas sweaters did not solve the feeling that it was time to look for more challenges at work. And the minute our sock drawer doesn’t look like a California Closets ad, we’re a failure at all of it. That’s where we have to reframe what we’re doing. Paraphrasing a lot of quotes, this is a journey, not a destination

We need progress more than we need to attain perfection, because the pace of our journey really defines to how much we enjoy it! Our housekeeping needs to be in service to the type of life we’d like to build, realizing a spark of joy isn’t fireworks in the living room. Your spark of joy may just be a smile as you find your drawing journal from sixth grade or a grin as you decide to pull your old Legos out from the closet and keep them in a cool box on your coffee table! Simplifying your access to what you want, including expressing your creativity, that’s perfection-busting tidying.

Perfection is constantly stabbing us to get more and figuring out the maximum we can get out of every single situation. What is the minimum to that maximum? What is our definition of success and how can we get there with the right level of effort, emotion and connection? Defining what we need can sound like a totally different conversation if we ask again what enough is, what our minimum viable product is, to steal a term from Agile. And while milestones and key achievements are fuel to our motivational engine, respecting the journey means we value our time on the road. 

What in each situation propels us forward enough to meet our goals in style? It’s a hugely different question than holding yourself accountable for delivering the final showstopping-pinnacle-nobody-will-ever-top-this-ever-in-the-history-of-the-universe...thing. Not everything needs that level of investment, and frankly, many times when we aim that high, it’s a miss and wasn’t what served best in that situation anyway. Perfection attacked and we probably not only didn’t hit what we were aiming for, but we alienated a lot of folks along the way. Double win for the enemy.

You’re battle ready when….

You’re battle-ready when you see perfection coming. You’re battle-ready when you can think about self-respect and self-confidence without smirking at yourself. You’re getting there when you can hear old tapes playing perfectionist earworms and you have a song ready to blast that right out of your head. From Aretha’s “Respect” to Adam Lambert’s “Superpower”, or maybe it’s John Denver’s “Thank G-d I’m a Country Boy”, you have an anthem that says no, thank you, I’ll not have some of that. A sense of humor is the bullet-proof vest for this war, keeping a mindset of healthy awareness of proportion. And sometimes that’s singing at the top of your lungs that “It’s not easy being green” because you just need a dose of Kermit the Frog (or Ray Charles) to do battle with the voice of that one manager who said that one crushing thing that one time…nope, don’t need a replay of that.

Weapons against perfection hit it where it hurts us most, and one of the biggest hurts is isolation. We are isolated in the search for it, and we can be isolated in a group that doesn't serve us because of it. This means one of our biggest weapons against perfectionism is our tribe. And I don’t mean the people who have ended up around us because of genetics, geography, or demographics. I mean the tribe we choose to build, our chosen family, our fellow travelers on the road, aligned enough to support but not so much that we’re in an echo-chamber. These are quest partners, so we pick them well. If we don’t have them yet, then we find them by going where they might be, venues, gatherings, experiences, watching out for perfection snipers telling us to over-join, over-commit, and divert us from our path with expectations we didn’t intend to assume. Finding your tribe means being, being curious, being authentic, and being present. That’s the perfect ammunition against perfectionist illusions, and also how you make your journey anyway.  Be where you need to be and see who’s there too. Kind of the positive spin to what my mom always used to say. “If you go looking for men at a bar, you’ll find a drunk.” Kombucha, anyone?

Your tribe may be you and your best friend. Your tribe may be you and your dog, at first. Your tribe could also be your gaming buddies, your writing group, your PhD cohort, or your meet-up group regulars. Your tribe is floodlight that blast away a perfectionist shame shadow like a vampire in noonday sun. They are the lifeline that confirms what you already know, that what you are doing is honorable, good, enough, and serves your goals. They are the sounding board to call you on your blindspots, including the all the great things you’re doing and not giving yourself credit for. They cheer you on, support and comfort you, and become that trusted quiet voice that drowns out the toxic noise. And you probably already figured out that all our weapons against perfection are both offensive and defensive. Your tribe will naturally repel perfectionist impulses because they just aren’t welcome!

Your own sense of purpose and your own approach to charting forward are two other huge weapons against perfectionism. You may need some time to build these up, but the benefit is in the doing, part of the journey. Going back often to what you want, you really, really want, and tidying up to aim true, that’s a habit to build that happens on the cadence you need it to, supported by your tribe.

The trap of infinite future    

A blank planner. Ready to house your perfect plans for the next year, all perfectly laid out, then achieved with beautiful dot lined precision. That hope, dread, exhilaration and desperate promise that next year will somehow operate magically differently than every year before, that’s perfectionism banging you on the head. Lashing out at work in response to an unreasonable request that proves next year is going to be exactly the same as today unless a miracle happens is also perfectionism at work. If failure is so absolute, then there’s no difference between not working out 7 days a week and treating a colleague badly.  If failure is so absolute, then we don’t have to assume best intention, because the outcome is all that matters, not how we got there.

See that? An annual trap ready to be sprung. An engine of destruction that hits again and again and again. And all from an innocuous blank book. We have trained ourselves to see that as a reset, a chance to ignore everything we know about our real world and make an unfulfillable promise that we’ll be someone else.  Wow! We went from putting in people’s birthdays to deciding to change ourselves completely. 

Nope. That’s not how this works, Perfection Monster!  We already anchored on what we want as values. We are clarifying our own reality, with gratitude, and are on a journey that didn’t start yesterday and won’t restart somewhere else on January 1. So how do we look forward without this trap? 

Simple. By adding “for now” mentally to everything

Wait! Are we saying we don’t have to commit to anything at all? No, but we do reserve the right to learn and adapt. We do reserve the right to change our minds and change direction. That is another major weapon against perfectionism--adaptability. While it might appear that a moving goalpost is the ultimate perfectionist trap, that’s only true if it’s linear. We are global! I reserve the right to access the sphere of 360 potential around me! So if for the next four months I’m focusing hard on financial tidying up so I can take the following four months to investigate graduate program in other cities as a career sabbatical, I’m going to plan on the financial stuff now, and use the graduate degree idea as an inspiration, not a promise. I might get there four months from now and decide that photography road trip to dabble in a blogging lifestyle is a better option and I can totally afford to do it…in Europe! 

Pause for a minute. Don’t you know or know of someone who did this recently? They just up and…whatever it was. What did you think at the time? How did you feel? A little jealous, a little incredulous, and a little self-righteous at being more "responsible", but somehow feeling like they did it better...

But how do you think they did it? Master plan coming to fruition or somehow being ready to go when the opportunity arose? Can you now reflect back on that with different eyes? Look at you already slaying the perfectionist demons in just how you’re thinking about what’s possible!

Okay, so what does this mean? What am I supposed to do now to be ready for all that amazing I don’t know what? Uh-oh, you’re feeling it. That pressure that you should be doing this already. You should be better at this not being perfect thing….that’s perfectionism talking! You are doing it. You’re reading this. (You’re still reading this.) You’re already working, and your first job is to give yourself a break as a striving human being.

Getting started…again

Yes, again! You have started new paths before. You have so many beginnings in your past that you’re a pro at it! From first days at school to new jobs to first dates to everything else you’ve done for the first time, you know how to start. And you know that each new first builds on the previous, so we have to do a little housekeeping here too, checking our defense perimeter against perfectionism incursions.  We know from all those beginnings that once you’re in it things change, and nothing is ever exactly as you expected. 

So here we go again. And let’s get battle-ready. Clear the noise, check our reality with gratitude, and be open to the possibilities. This big start, whether it’s planning the year, starting a new business, beginning a venture, or any other decision to pivot, is actually more like setting back out on the road after a night’s rest. Before we head out, we check our course, assess the environment around us and adjust accordingly to aim true but travel well. Adjust accordingly. Them’s powerful words. What’s your AQ, or adaptability quotient, according to startup investor Natalie Fratto? She hits on "what ifs", unlearning, and exploring as the criteria. How well we imagine, unlearn, repoint, redeploy, or any other open, present and aware response we apply to what is real around us is the key to perfectionism immunity. If our enemy goes viral, as it will on the daily, we need vaccines. Adaptability is a perfectionist inoculation. The enemy’s biggest weapon, paralysis, is also its biggest weakness. Perfectionists can’t adjust. The target is too rigid and definitions too tight. It’s your adaptability, based in optimism and curiosity, that makes you the most ready to take best advantage of opportunities.

Winning the war

Perfectionism is never truly dead. It will rear its head often as part of the human social condition. That being said, you win this war by putting perfectionism in its place as an optional input that may or may not be of service in a particular situation. We win when we reject perfectionism as a part of our personality, as an excuse for bad behavior, or as a way to define our value. We win when those behaviors just don’t even fit in with how we operate. 

This is a radical change. It may not feel like it, it may feel like what you’ve been trying to do all along. It’s the approach that’s radical. Instead of beating yourself up for not meditating every morning for twenty minutes, how about grabbing a cup of coffee and find a rooftop, park bench or a window looking outside and stare at birds, water, trees, something living, for as long as it takes to drink your coffee. And breathe. And you may just find that after you do that, you’ll be able to say that little break was just…perfect.

Jennifer Diamond, coach, writer and mentor, is building her tribe of fellow explorers, one meaningful connection at a time.

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