Most everyone struggles with some level of perfectionism. If you’re reading this, you’re likely a self-proclaimed perfectionist, or others have described you as a perfectionist at some point.
But, if you’re still not sure, you may struggle with perfectionism if you:
For perfectionists, achieving and doing well become the way of life. Every interaction, project, and conversation becomes a performance that they could possibly fail at, and so they are obsessed with “getting it all right.” Perfectionists want to avoid all mistakes, meet all expectations, and execute everything perfectly.
In my coaching work, I find that perfectionism is mostly driven by a core story that we are not okay as we are. This can come in many different flavors (I’m not enough, I’m not good enough, I’m not worthy, etc.), but underlying all of them is a belief that something is inherently wrong with us. You may even feel like an imposter, or that you don't deserve all of your accomplishments.
This core belief is something that we usually pick up in our earlier years when we were growing up and learning about the world. Perfectionism can be caused by something as serious as mental or physical abuse, or simply formed over time as a result of feeling like you didn’t fit into your family or community.
To compensate for this belief that we are not okay as we are, we decide that the way to get what we want is to overachieve. We think that if we can just get through everything perfectly, and never make mistakes, then we’ll get the unconditional love and attention and acknowledgment we crave.
In this way, perfectionism becomes a survival strategy and control mechanism we use to limit the risk of creating situations where our original story (I’m not okay as I am, I’m not enough, etc.) would be confirmed.
There is a high cost to perfectionism. Being on high alert all the time and trying to control everything quickly begins to take its toll on our health, on our relationships, and on our overall life.
It can be said that anxiety is the body’s manifestation of worrying.
With perfectionism, we are hypervigilant while thinking about what could go wrong, and we are constantly on the lookout to avoid situations that might trigger our “not okay” belief.
This anxiety not only is uncomfortable, but also expends energy that could be put to more productive uses, like deepening our relationships or pursuing creative endeavors.
When we are driven by perfectionism, we want to control the outcome of every situation we’re in. This means we usually take on the brunt of the work and don’t ask for support because we want to handle everything ourselves.
Taking on everything leads to overwhelm in the short term, and burnout in the long term.
The top priority in perfectionism is getting everything right, looking good, and controlling outcomes.
We are so afraid of being seen as imperfect that we do everything we can to keep that side of ourselves from other people. This results in shallow relationships built on niceties and pleasantness, instead of relationships built on intimacy, vulnerability, and shared humanity (the stuff we’re actually craving).
Perfectionism keeps us lonely, anxious, and overwhelmed. And although we might know that logically, actually breaking up our perfectionism can be quite difficult.
The counterintuitive part of perfectionism is that, in some ways, it’s actually useful.
By always preparing, analyzing, and controlling, we tend to produce high-quality work, and come across as put-together in our interactions with people.
We see that, if we can cause no problems and ruffle no feathers, life is generally “pleasant,” and when we receive positive feedback and acceptance in response to our perfectionism, we double down on it.
We incorporate it into our identity, build it into our relationships, and orient our life around it:
Perfectionism becomes so much a piece of us that we don’t know who we are without it. We know we’d like to slow down and stop feeling so anxious and overwhelmed, but we’re afraid that, if we give up our perfectionistic tendencies, our lives will fall apart.
It’s important to remember that, just like rebuilding the foundation of a house, removing perfectionism from our identity and replacing it with a more empowered way to navigate life is absolutely possible.
Our overarching goal is to let go of our perfectionism, face the core stories driving our behavior, and heal ourselves over time.
When you’re not afraid of new situations triggering your “I’m not okay” story, you begin to move through the world with much more confidence, creativity, and personal power.
Without perfectionism, you’re free to be your truest self, and to live a more present life.
Breaking up with perfectionism isn’t easy, but it’s absolutely worth it. Here are some practical steps I use with my coaching clients that you can use to break up your perfectionism and replace it with personal power:
The first step in any personal change is to notice, notice, notice. Until you are aware of the factors at play, they remain unconscious, and therefore unchangeable.
With perfectionism, you want to create awareness of all the different ways it shows up and impacts your life.
My invitation is to make noticing a daily practice. You could:
Regardless of what you choose, I encourage you to pick one method and start as soon as possible. The more quickly you build awareness, the more quickly you can break up your perfectionism.
As we build awareness of our perfectionism, we may uncover stories or behavioral patterns that we don’t like.
Our tendency is to judge these stories and patterns through a perfectionist lens - “Why do I keep doing this?”, “Why is this so hard for me?”, “Why am I so XYZ?”
In this step, the invitation is to give yourself what you’re secretly hoping to get from everyone else - unconditional love and acceptance. Although these stories may be painful or disempowering, they are just as much a part of you as everything else and integrating them is necessary to moving past them.
To practice this step, consider activities like:
The more you practice accepting all parts of yourself, the easier it will be to replace your perfectionism with more personal power.
After learning to integrate your stories and fears, the next step is to create how you would like your life to go instead. In this step, you’re moving away from the predictable or routine and into a new vision of your life that is by your own design.
A great way to start this visioning is to answer the following prompt:
If I were able to wipe the slate clean, and completely remove all of my perfectionist patterns and stories, what would be possible? Who would I become in that scenario? What would I create?
Notice that we’re starting from a fresh slate, and re-imagining the future without your perfectionism. The clearer you are on what you want instead of perfectionism, the easier it will be to create it.
This is a longer-term strategy, but it’s by far the most effective. Breaking up core behaviors like perfectionism requires consistent, concerted effort and the willingness to get out of your comfort zone to create something new.
Our own sense of commitment is powerful. However, left to our own devices, we’re more likely to take the safe way out instead of diving headfirst into what we fear most.
Working with a coach can support you in rapidly generating awareness around where perfectionism is getting in your way. It can help you implement practices and exercises that will have you stepping out of your comfort zone consistently and powerfully, and hold you accountable to getting what you truly want in your life and in your career.
My sincerest encouragement is to take on at least one of the steps listed above. Life without perfectionism is calmer, freer, more connected and more joyful. All it takes is practice.
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Hayden Humphrey is an Uplifter, out to help people craft unscripted lives.
As a Coach, Hayden empowers people to break up with the scripts they were given so they can build careers and businesses that are aligned, authentic, and joyful.
Outside of his coaching practice, he consults with leaders in the personal development and healing industries to cultivate their authority and thought leadership.
He also founded Lift Apparel, a conscious clothing company that spreads love and supports mental health by donating 10% of profits to mental health advocacy organizations (www.WearLift.com).
Learn more about Hayden: www.HaydenHumphrey.com