Perfectionism Slows Us Down In Every Race
Break from being a perfectionist with this science-backed practice of speeding back up and finishing strong
“…And they're off!
The race has begun. And we’re off to a flying start to the formidable ‘Deadline Dash’. Plans are gliding along the track as ideas manifest themselves through fluid wordplay. Yes, team ‘Like A Boss’ was doing fine work yet again.”
“Ah… but what’s this? Out of nowhere has sprung the ‘Perfection Police’ there to try and crash the party by using their opponent’s own weaknesses of fear, low self-esteem, and crippling self-doubt…”
“What will team ‘Like A Boss’ do to fend themselves against the inevitable blockade of the ‘Perfection Police’? How will today’s ‘Deadline Dash’ go down…?”
Who knows what might happen next!?
Well… you should do.
The moment we begin working — whether for ourselves or others — we each start our own ‘Deadline Dash’, where all we want to do is cross the finish line having accomplished all that was required of us — and do it well.
In this tale of good vs evil, we are team ‘Like A Boss’, trying hard to own our personal strengths by navigating through the race without succumbing to the perilous ‘Perfection Police’, notorious for stopping racers in their tracks when making good progress.
For many, our aspirations come with the unwanted guest we call perfectionism. This is how I have learned to avoid its attempts to stop me from getting work done, so I can finish my race with pride in my achievements.
The Problems With Perfectionism
Let’s face it. Our craft is our art form. We want to make sure that each task is completed to the absolute pinnacle of its potential before being put out there for others to see — and judge.
From my four years of writing professionally, the two most recent being a freelancer, I can safely say that the desire to create is often overwhelmed by the delicious temptation to procrastinate.
But when procrastination becomes avoidance, something needs to be resolved in order to break from it.
A common misconception about perfectionism is that adopting it helps us improve and strive for excellence within the things we do. In reality, it can easily kill creativity and actually build barriers between ourselves and our goals.
As Dr Brené Brown, PhD, explains in her revolutionary book, The Gifts of Imperfection:
“Perfection is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect and act perfect, we can minimise or avoid the pain of blame, judgement and shame. It’s a shield. Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking that it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from taking flight.”
The most important thing to realise is that we need to identify the root causes of our problems to work out solutions. Otherwise, we will just be setting ourselves up for more future symptoms to tackle.
How to Overcome Perfectionism — as taught by Brené Brown
The most difficult thing we can do as creators is to accept that just because our creations might not ever turn out the way we envisage them to be, it doesn’t mean they are any less worthy to be brought into existence.
Dr Brown has established her own 4 definitions of perfectionism:
- A self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of blame, judgement, and shame.
- An unattainable goal. It’s more about perception than internal motivation, and there is no way to control perception, no matter how much time and energy is spent trying.
- An addiction. When we invariably do experience shame, judgement and blame, we often believe it’s because we weren’t perfect enough. Rather than questioning the faulty logic of perfectionism, we become even more entrenched in our quest to look and do everything just right.
- Actually sets us up to feel shame, judgement and blame, which then leads to more shame, judgement and blame: It’s my fault. I’m feeling this way because I’m not good enough.
Now Flip These on Their Heads
In doing this we can shift the desire to earn approval from others (and our imaginary ‘Perfection Police’) and start taking actionable steps toward becoming the versions of ourselves we aspire — and deserve — to be.
Here’s how I gradually learned to apply this, and how you can too:
1. Promote yourself to the Editor of your own life story
Rather than be confined to taking the back seat and watching your life unfold through the eyes of a harsh onlooker, try adapting psychiatrist and Harvard Medical School professor, John Sharp’s techniques. By listening to your own inner dialogue, you will likely be able to identify self-destructive and self-deprecating narratives and re-write them into something self-serving and self-appreciating.
2. Set yourself up to achieve attainable goals
By doing this, you will be actively focusing on the parts of your life you can control. Think about what is in your wheelhouse. What do you wish to achieve within the next week, month, quarter, year, or even 5 years? How do you feel you can make your own way there? Soon, your desire to become your perception of ‘perfect’ will be replaced with a list of actionable goals and a greater sense of purpose.
3. Take time to reflect and question your logic
Susan David, PhD, is the visionary who developed the concept of Emotional Agility. It is founded on the belief that by building awareness of our own and others’ emotional nature, learning to face feelings and unhooking ourselves from thoughts that hinder us, we are able to change our actions to match our values. Without being able to immerse yourself in this process, however long it takes, you may be doomed to remain locked in the delusion that you aren’t achieving certain goals because you aren’t ‘perfect’ enough.
4. Celebrate small wins
Just like the minutes we choose to waste thinking about all the things we don’t have to add up, so too do small wins. The more we notice them as milestones rather than insignificant occurrences, the more we can realise just how much we actually do succeed.
Soon it’ll become easier to completely block out the taunting voices of the ‘Perfection Police’. But until then, let’s not let them stop us from smashing that race track and crossing that line.
It’s ok that we all cross the finish line at different speeds. So long as we never stop.
Thanks for reading. Connect for creative writing and to join me on my mental health and self-improvement journey. We’re not always Okay… and that’s Okay.
Originally adapted from my Medium article.