Perfectionism. For years I denied struggling with this mindset. I mean, yes… I was particular, enjoyed a well-organized pantry, and spent way too many hours looking at closet organization on Pinterest, but none of this made me a “perfectionist”.
I had this romantic idea of what a perfectionist looked like... and I did NOT fit that narrative. In my mind, a perfectionist would have it all together; like Grace to Frankie or Monica to Rachel. I felt that I had so many “imperfect” habits, that I couldn’t possibly struggle with perfectionism because I was SO IMPERFECT! I fought against procrastination, motivation, self-sabotage... and I definitely didn’t need everything to be perfect. Surely, a perfectionist would not do any of these things! Right?! Oof, well, apparently I was not right. Apparently, this is exactly the kind of things that a lot of perfectionists do (more on that later).
My Gateway to Healing Perfectionism
One of my first steps toward realizing my struggle with perfectionism came soon after I began bingeing Brené Brown's books (yes, we have a VERY similar name, no we have no relation.... sadly). I'd already plowed through Daring Greatly and Dare to Lead in a few days, so when Audible recommended The Gifts of Imperfection to me as well, I jumped on it! While I didn't consider myself a perfectionist at the time, it had amazing reviews and other friends of mine were talking about how great it was (I mean, it was Brené after all...). I hit play and found myself on a journey that validated so many of my internal struggles and the shame associated with them. AND, I finally admitted that maybe I struggled with perfectionism, after all, but only maybe. ;)
Not only did this book make me aware of what perfectionism is, but it also helped me name my toxic habits and identify the source of my issues. Brené's book allowed me to take a step back and re-evaluate my relationships, my career, my health, my stress levels, and my life as a whole. Throughout the book, I realized how much perfectionism was showing up and interfering with my life. It permeated EVERYWHERE: procrastinating business development at work, people pleasing my boss (or, everyone), passive aggressive tone with my partner, self deprecation, inability to delegate as the Chair of a non-profit. I was so ashamed of these habits that I'd assumed they were just a personality defect of mine, "Why can't I be more [fill in the blank]?". I guilted myself for all the things I “should have” done differently: be more motivated, procrastinate less, check my e-mails more often, workout longer, wake up earlier, do ALL THE THINGS!
What changed for me as I read this book? Awareness. Awareness of what perfectionism actually is and how it shows up for us. As Sherly Sandberg said in Lean In:
“We cannot change what we are not aware of, and once we are aware, we cannot help but change.”
Thankfully, I (now) consider myself to be a recovering perfectionist. I've spent hours reading books, listening to podcasts, watching Ted Talks, working with a therapist, and speaking with life coaches to help me identify where perfectionism shows up for me, so I could overcome this negative habit.
This awareness has changed my life for the better and I hope you will find some takeaways from this post to help you better manage yours as well.
Let's get into it!
What is Perfectionism?
Perfectionism is a controlling mindset or behavior pattern that is intended to protect us from experiencing shame or rejection. We adopt perfectionistic tendencies as a tool (or shield) to separate us from our 'failures'. Often, our younger selves hoped that this shield would protect us from our (subconscious) fears that we don't have enough of something: intellect, athleticism, talent, good looks, like-ability, love-ability, etc.
When we struggle with any feeling of “not-enoughness”, we engage our protection (perfectionism) which can manifest as things like over-attention to detail, inability to delegate, a need to control, micromanagement, judgement, black-and-white thinking, an "all or nothing" mindset, procrastination, withholding effort, anxiety, people pleasing, and so much more.
While some traits that stem from perfectionism are seen as valuable by society, they're often coupled with traits that are considered "undesirable". Unfortunately, this catch 22 means that perfectionism tends to create highly functioning, but very anxious (and imperfect) people.
How Do I know If I'm a Perfectionist?
Most perfectionists report an eagerness to perform at a high level, achieve success, and earn recognition. The biggest difference between someone who is a perfectionist versus someone who isn’t, is how they respond to falling short of their goals. If you generally react to a ‘perceived failure’ in a way such as: quitting when you’re not instantly good at something, beating yourself up over an average grade, lashing out at someone who made you look bad, or if you vow to “never fail like that again”…. You might be a perfectionist (you're in good company here). ;)
Perfectionists have a tendency to internalize failure and lash out as a response (at themselves or at others).
How Do We Become Perfectionists?
Perfectionism shows up for thousands of reasons, but the most common causes are moments where we felt humiliated, disappointed, or rejected by someone(s) and decided the shame was so great that we, “will never allow that to happen again”. Usually this will happen with a parent, teacher, guardian, sibling, or caretaker in a vulnerable setting (usually at school). Oddly enough, most of us probably won’t remember when the decision was made to protect ourselves. And honestly? It doesn't matter. We don’t need to remember to make change; we can make change regardless.
Once the (subconscious) choice is made to protect ourselves, our 'perfect shield' is there to protect us from future shame (or, so we think). This choice causes us to adopt what is called a Fixed Mindset.
Fixed vs. Growth Mindset
The biggest difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset is how a person responds to stress, challenges, and failures. A person with a fixed mindset will often feel overwhelmed, incapable, or resistant to hard things while a person with a growth mindset will feel excited, stimulated, or encouraged by them. These different reactions usually determine whether a person has a mindset that embraces risk (growth) or avoids it (fixed).
A Fixed Mindset is the belief that we have fixed traits, qualities, and abilities (like intelligence or a skill set) that are pre-determined and immovable (hence the word 'fixed'). Because this mindset predicates that our natural traits are fixed, we spend a lot of time trying to 'prove' our enough-ness by seeking validation through awards, recognition, and accolades instead of finding ways to improve or develop. In other words, the perception or the performance of success, matters more than cultivating the actual ability to be successful.
People with a fixed mindset have an adverse response to stress and challenges because these are potential threats, a possibility of exposure. To that end, a person with a fixed mindset will only go after a goal if they know they will excel before they even start. Otherwise, they risk "exposing their innate not enough-ness" and that risk is too great for many.
Unsurprisingly, this mindset is also synonymous with perfectionism. Believing that skills, capabilities, and our potential have an upper limit, a person with a fixed mindset might say things like:
I’m just not good at math
I can’t draw
I’m not athletic
I‘m not naturally good at….
I wish I had [insert skill]
I’m just not good at school
Yes, I was successful, but I just got lucky
Let me wait until I know everything before I start
I get good grades BUT I have to really study hard to get them. Good grades don’t come naturally to me like they would for someone smart….
But I have to try so hard to achieve ______, so it doesn’t count.
Yes, I achieved ________, but it doesn’t count because _________.
All of these statements help reinforce the shield of perfectionism by providing excuses for our "partial" successes, or by giving our future selves an "out". If you already said, "I'm just not good at math", and then you fail a test, it is much less damaging to our sense of self. Getting in front of failure, in order to reduce its blow to our ego, is a large part of perfectionism.
To that end, perfectionists often give up very quickly if they're not good at something because it can be safer to admit defeat quickly and move on, than it is to keep trying and failing. This leads to fewer and fewer people willing to take risks to start new things that challenge them (new companies, products, policies, hobbies, industries, etc.).
A growth mindset is the belief that you can improve any skill or ability with proper development and training (even IQ, talent, athleticism, and personality). In other words, a person's capability can be honed because it is not set in stone. Because of this belief, people with a growth mindset have a much healthier response to stress and challenges because they view this as an opportunity to learn and grow from the experience (hence the 'growth' mindset).
Unsurprisingly, by this point, a growth mindset is the opposite of someone who struggles with perfectionism. People who learn to cultivate a growth mindset are more emotionally resilient, comfortable with who they are, and confident about exploring unknown opportunities. People with this belief have learned to accept failure as a part of the learning process, as opposed to a judgement upon their skills.
People with a growth mindset might say things like:
I worked really hard for this
I've come so far
This failure does not say anything about me personally
I’d rather be challenged than accept an easy win
Challenges are exciting
I'll keep practicing until I get better
Effort beats reward
When I fail, I learn
It's all about the process and progress
Let me get started and see where I can learn along the way
The unknown can be exciting
I choose to see failure as a positive experience
While it will take time to break the habits, a growth mindset can be cultivated. A person with a fixed mindset can learn to adopt a growth mindset with awareness and a willingness to change their internal monologue.
We need to have the courage, the bravery, and the boldness, to let go of our past narratives so we can freely chase our dreams. It starts with awareness and active change.
Habits to Become Aware of
A (now) recovering perfectionist likely has many habits that need to be recognized and addressed. In order to make change, we need to understand how perfectionism is showing up and why we decided to rely on our shield in the first place, so we can learn that it’s safe to put it down.
While the below habits won’t apply to ALL perfectionists, they will appear as themes for many of us:
1. All or Nothing Mindset
This habit is one of the biggest tell-tale signs of perfectionism. An "all or nothing" or "black and white" mindset is the belief that there are only two choices at any given time, for everything. In addition to the two choices, there is also an inherent CORRECT choice, and an INCORRECT choice which puts a lot of pressure on the perfectionist to 'choose correctly'.
Ever cheat on your diet and decide you will ”start over again on Monday”? Have you given up on a New Year's resolution after a few weeks because you missed a day? Have you put off a decision because you were anxious about choosing "wrong"? These are all indicative of a person who struggles with this habit.
Many perfectionists believe that there is no room for the 'in-between' or the grey area. We are either 110% in, or we are 0% in. We love to say we do this because we don't do anything 'half-assed', but the reality is that we can't help that we do this. Most of us are constantly cycling between being overwhelmed or burnt out, and then shaming ourselves into productivity, repeat. We lose ourselves on this hamster wheel seeking the motivation we once felt when we first started.
Perfectionists often rely on procrastination as a way to protect our identity, or our ego. If we wait until the last minute, one of two things happens: 1. we do well, so we get to imagine how much better we could have done if we had more time (ego boost) OR 2. we do poorly, so we get to blame our lack of time instead of our ability (ego protection).
Procrastination can get us addicted to the chaos of waiting until time is running out, to the ego boost that occurs when we do well, and to the protection when we don't do well. Knowing this, why would someone with a fixed mindset ever give this up? After all, by this point, procrastination is kind of exciting! Right?! Unfortunately, it might be exciting, but it also perpetuates an addiction to chaos and control. Procrastination can be a way to insert control over your life in a very effed up way. This is why so many people who procrastinate struggle to end the cycle.
While thinking about procrastination, it's also important to lookout for its sneaky cousin, the 'productive procrastinator. This is the socially acceptable kind of procrastination that takes place as 'I'll start my homework after I clean this room so I can focus', or 'I'll get on the road just as soon as I finish this playlist', or 'I'll start my paper in a second, I just need to research a little more', or 'I need to read 'one more' book before I start my company, etc. Productive procrastination has a way of making us feel like it's not really procrastination because it's more acceptable and FEELS better. This can create a scenario where you never feel ready to start, so it's 'not your fault'. If you find yourself in the cycle of productive procrastination, remind yourself of your priorities and redirect your actions.
3. Performance Over Progress
Perfectionists may feel as though they're not enough in some way, so they can adopt and project a 'preferred persona' with better qualities to appear smarter, prettier, wealthier, funnier, etc. Unfortunately, this performance will often be more important than progress itself.
As an example, a perfectionist may value staying in a job they know they're good at because they're mastered their performance of it, as opposed to trying for a position that would challenge their abilities and could make them look bad (or what we perceive as looking bad).
The more we're praised for our 'good' work, the more our performance is reinforced. This keeps us perpetuating an image or an identity, even if we believe it's "fake". We will lean into our perfectionism as a way to generate praise, awards, recognition, etc. This can cause us to become obsessive about our reputation and how we're perceived by others. This need to perform leads to things like micromanagement, inability to delegate, and difficulty with criticism.
Unfortunately, this habit, more than any others, is a reason why so many perfectionists experience imposter syndrome. If you're always putting on a show to appear a certain way, especially when you do not believe you possess the qualities you're projecting, it is no wonder why you would feel like you're an imposter. Your performance is the imposter, but we have to realize that the projections we're displaying couldn't be possible if we didn't possess these qualities within us somewhere. To overcome this habit, we have to give ourselves credit where it is due and acknowledge the progress we make without phrases like "good" or "bad".
How to Stop Being a Perfectionist?
Perfectionism can easily come up for us when we get overwhelmed, feel shame, or find ourselves in an uncomfortable position; however, there is hope for you as a recovering perfectionist. As you learn to embrace imperfection, you can work towards creating habits that reinforce a growth mindset.
Thankfully by the end of this post you've already done the best thing you can do on your journey to becoming a recovering perfectionist that can be productive AF—becoming aware. Now that you're aware of the issue, you can use the below tips to help manage and detox from your inner perfectionist:
1. Be kind to yourself as you adopt a growth mindset
Everyone struggles with perfectionism to some extent. As you go through the process of unlearning your habits and recognizing your patterns, remember that your progress will be extremely imperfect. This is a great time to start accepting more imperfection within your life.
Allow yourself to make mistakes and do not beat yourself up mentally over them. Be kind as you remind yourself that everyone experiences failure and mistakes. Approach everything from the perspective of "this doesn't have to be perfect, but can I do a little better than the last time?".
Embrace challenges and work to accept "failure" as an exciting opportunity to grow and expand what you can learn.
2. Fail forward
Practice failing. Yes, you heard me correctly. Sweating yet? Good. ;) Try to fail at least once every day. This practice will help you become desensitized to the idea of failure so that it no longer feels like this scary unknown thing. Over time, you will start to see evidence of times when taking a risk and "intentionally practicing failure" pans out and results in an unexpected success. This programs your brain to feel differently about risks AND failure.
As you practice failing, remember that our first iteration of something is just a draft; people are not expected to create a final draft of anything in their first attempt! As Brene Brown says, let your "shitty first draft" flow. Get it out so that you can move forward. Whatever you're practicing or working on, shut the blinds and let the imperfect crap come out first. Know that you will have the time to tweak whatever it is until it is imperfectly finished.
3. Throw away the to-do lists for good
How many times have you beat yourself because you didn't cross everything off of your to-do list? How many times have you shamed yourself for "not being more productive" even though you worked your butt off? This is the downfall of a to-do list. We have a tendency to overestimate how many things we can do in a day, so we usually put more on our to-do list than is feasible. Then, we shame ourselves for not meeting these unrealistic expectations when we don't check everything off.
How can we get around this? Time blocking. Instead of creating an arbitrary to-do list, think through your daily needs and priorities. Mark off times for breaks, lunch, meditations, workouts, calls, and anything else you already have planned. Once you know what your basic needs and priorities are, block off how long each task will take on your calendar (and leave space for overlap!). When you first begin this process, you will likely underestimate how long each task will take. That's okay! You will learn as you go and become better at time blocking with practice. After all, progress over perfection, right?
Over time, time blocking will help you get out of the habit of shaming yourself for lack of productivity and instead see how intentionally your time was spent each day.
Wrapping it up
The biggest take away from this post is this—awareness is half the battle. You have everything within you that you need to overcome the overwhelm and rewire your brain. If enough people can become aware of this issue and work to make personal change, perhaps one day this positive mindset shift will allow more people to take control of their mental health and their lives. I hope this helps you in your journey to be a more productive, recovering perfectionist.
-- Bre Brown
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