Perfectionism is not a quest for the best. It is a pursuit of the worst in ourselves, the part that tells us that nothing we do will ever be good enough - that we should try again. ~Julia Cameron
I have worked with countless people who find themselves in the grips of Perfectionism.
I love helping them learn to accept themselves as they are and embrace “good enough.” I love witnessing them discover how this allows them to live more fully, freely, and authentically. It’s exciting, nourishing, and inspiring work.
But it can be hard to make this shift. It takes practice. And like every other bad habit we try to kick, there is the inevitable relapse. I know this because I have lived it.
Correction: I am living it.
“My name is Fara and I’m a (Recovering) Perfectionist.”
Not too long ago, I was getting ready to teach a class. I did a lot of preparation going into this situation to keep my Perfectionist at bay because I knew this situation was ripe for her arrival.*
*It was my first time teaching it. It was something I created (read: no one else could be blamed for its failure). In this class were going to be some people I already knew--people whose opinions of me I cared about, colleagues I respect and and admire. Not only colleagues, but fellow teachers (!!!). There would also be people who didn't know me. If I failed, their opinion of me would be shaped around this one event.
I cringe at the level of self-involvement.
So, I did a few things...
I put the situation in perspective.
"No one is going to judge this as harshly as me. No one will know what I forgot to say. No one will compare it to all the ways it could have been better. They will take it at face value.
No one will die if this class isn't amazing.
There is no script so I can't fail. "
I put myself in perspective.
"I've have taught for many years. I know some stuff. I know how to connect with people and facilitate a conversation. I believe in what I am teaching."
I offered myself empathy and compassion.
"It's hard to do something for the first time. It's scary to share your creation with an audience. I care about my work and want to make something valuable for people. I respect people's time and money and want it to matter. Those are qualities I like about myself. I'm proud of myself for taking this risk.
It's scary because I care."
I reminded myself what was at stake.
"Striving for perfection almost always leads to poorer quality. I can't possibly be an effective teacher or create a meaningful learning experience if I am caught up in self-doubt and trying to impress." (Remember how self-involved I sounded before? That's what perfectionism breeds and is fueled by.)
So instead, I focused on preparing myself to show up and be present.
I knew this would be essential if I wanted to make a real connection, bring my unique spirit, have fun, be spontaneous, creative, and responsive to the group's needs in the moment. These things are not possible when Perfectionism is running the show.
How does it feel to say this out loud and share this publicly, you wonder? How do you think it feels? Aren’t you worried about how people will view this self-disclosure? Of course I am.
I’ve given it a lot of thought. I’ve doubted. I've second guessed. And yet, I keep coming back to feeling like this is important to share.
1. Perfectionism kills creativity.
Work with clients needs to be creative and engaged or it becomes uninspired and ineffective (at best) and unethical or harmful (at worst).
Sometimes I get this image of my perfectionist self as a mad scientist. She's alone in her lab frantically adding a touch more of this and a bit more of that. She knows that if she just keeps tinkering, it will be just right!
She doesn't realize that she will never leave the lab.
The world will never see her creation, will never benefit from the gifts she has to share, because there is always one more tweak to make. And that's just sad.
Take this blog for instance. This is my first blog post. Ever.
For a (recovering) perfectionist, this is really high stakes territory, people!
My perfectionist (who is very good at telling me lies) warns:
Your whole self is on the line!
And by posting this, I am saying that I think it’s good enough to be “out there.” And because it’s the first time that means it automatically has to be even more important and even more…well, perfect.
But here’s the thing about striving for perfection: It’s a trap. A trick. A lie.
Perfection does not exist.
There is no perfect first blog post. It is always possible to revise it more (different title? new font? shorter? longer?), or wait until a better time, or a topic that is more potentially useful or interesting.
This never ends.
Perfectionism is just a clever way of avoiding ever putting ourselves out there.
So what could be more (ahem) perfect for my first post than to explore the way perfectionism keeps us from putting our work out in the world and doing our best to serve our clients?
In a way, it would be good for my recovering perfectionist if this post has a typo. I mean, I don’t really want that to happen of course…but in theory it would be good for her.
But in all seriousness, none of this even matters.
No one cares that much about what I (we) say or how I (we) say it or whether I (we) make a small or big mistake.
The perfectionist is terrified of screwing it up, but the mistakes she is so afraid of making would most likely not even be on anyone else’s radar.
"Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it." -Anne Lamott
2. Perfectionism leads to burnout.
What happens when we are constantly trying to achieve a state that does not exist? We get tired. Really, really tired.
We work hard to contort ourselves into a shape that is impossible to form and exhaust and deplete ourselves in the process.
It dampens our spirits, prevents us from taking risks, and keeps us feeling terrible about ourselves. Not only does this not serve us, but it does not serve our clients.
Our clients need us to be refreshed, energized and available. Which brings me to my next point…
3. Perfectionism is an enemy of presence.
Client-centered presence is a building block of therapeutic work and an ethical commitment we make to our clients.
If we are trying to be perfect and are caught up in our own egos and fears we have lost sight of our clients.
When we fixate on getting things right, we are not present and we may miss something really important.
4. We cannot ask our clients to do what we are unwilling to do ourselves.
Really and truly and this is a hard one to swallow sometimes.
How can we expect our clients to be vulnerable, to be ok with their “good enoughness” while we simultaneously try to be perfect therapists?
And if we do, how do we sleep at night? And yet…this is common, and oh so human.
Fellow (Recovering) Perfectionists of the World: What do we do when our Perfectionist Selves show up?
We notice when our Perfectionist story comes on line.
We choose not to believe what she is saying.
We put the situation in perspective.
We put ourselves in perspective.
We thank her for her concern, but ask her to kindly sit over there in the corner until she has solved this 5000 piece jigsaw puzzle.
We see our therapist (or bodyworker, shamen, acupuncturist, etc.).
We feel the feelings under the habit.
We offer ourselves compassion.
We get curious.
We investigate this voice and ask if it's true.
We notice our triggers.
We practice small acts of bravery.
We take care of ourselves.
We take a breath (or twelve).
We take a tiny step toward our goal.
We ask our perfectionist self what it needs, or what it needs to hear.
We practice accepting and loving our Good Enough selves.
This important work will help us live more fully and freely and improve our work with clients.
Do we need more reasons than that?
The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself. -Anna Quindlen
fara tucker, lcsw
therapist and teacher in Portland, Oregon