Mind & Body

    Making Peace with Perfectionism


    Perfectionism isn’t anything new for me. I’ve been my own worst critic for as long as I can remember. As a perfectionist professor, leaving a class and thinking things didn’t go as well as they might have is rough. But when I leave a class feeling things went as badly as they possibly could have? That’s unbearable. Somehow, I lose track of the fact that not everything that happens during a class period is under my control.

    This is just one of the many lies perfectionism tells us–that we are solely responsible for our own success, and that failure (by which I mean human imperfection) is hard evidence of a mediocre effort. Never mind that, sometimes, all the effort you can muster up won’t change a thing.

    The bigger problem with perfectionism, though, is that it gets in the way of improvement. It demoralizes and discourages us. It can do this to such an extent that we’d rather give up than try to improve, because a better outcome seems impossible.

    Teaching isn’t the only part of my life that suffers from my perfectionism, either. Parenting? Check. Art? Check. Virtually everything I do suffers from my desire to not mess it up. Or, at the very least, to mess up only in private.

    But you’ll note that the title of this post is about making peace with perfectionism, not overcoming it. That’s because I think perfectionism actually has its place. Doing your best is a good thing. Believing in your ability to do well? That’s important, too. Perfectionism becomes a problem only when it actually gets in the way of accomplishing something, rather than improving your performance.

    With that in mind, here are some things I’ve considered as I try to make peace with perfectionism–to use it in ways that benefit, not hinder me.

    Remember that not all perfectionism is unhealthy.

    If you believe your performance on any task reflects who you are–and that a less-than-perfect performance means you’re a less worthy human being–that’s obviously a problem. On the other hand, if your perfectionism is driving you to spend an extra half hour on a project because you’re confident it’s possible to do better, your perfectionism is actually empowering.

    Think of it this way: if you’re always dissatisfied with what you’ve done, then you’re dealing with an unhealthy level of self-criticism. If you can celebrate small victories–and if you know when you’ve done your best, whether or not it’s perfect–then perfectionism is a motivator. The key is to acknowledge unhealthy perfectionism when you encounter it–and then talk back to your inner critic.

    Work against the “all or nothing” lie.

    Not long after I started art journaling, I bought myself a lovely new journal. I was all excited to make beautiful art in this beautiful book. However, because the abstract pattern on the front and back covers was basically the same, I didn’t notice that I’d set the journal face-down on my desk. So the first drawing in my beautiful new journal was on the wrong side of the back page, upside down. In other words, it could not have been more imperfect.

    I very nearly threw my journal away. It‘s ruined. You wrecked it. Might as well just toss it in the trash. I briefly considered just using the journal backward, to hide my mistake. No one else would even be able to tell.

    Except for me, of course. I would know. Every time I opened the back cover that was masquerading as a front cover, I would know.

    But I managed to keep myself from throwing away that journal. (Frugality won out over perfectionism.) I flipped it over and just started using it the right way. I try not to think about that drawing lurking upside-down beneath the back cover. And now, every time I see this journal, it actually reminds me that being imperfect is okay. Beautiful things can happen even in the immediate vicinity of my mistakes. “All or nothing” is a perfectionist lie, too.

    Give yourself credit for doing what you’ve done–however imperfect it may be.

    When I was a kid, my dad often said “There’s no such thing as ‘good enough.’ There’s done, and there’s not done yet.” I don’t know why this is so much easier to remember than the fact that, in his much later years, I also heard my dad say “That’s good enough” dozens of times. Even he made peace with his inner perfectionist.

    Most of us know when we’ve done what we can in a particular situation. We might resist that knowledge, but we recognize that point when we get to it. In that moment, I try to switch gears: I give myself credit for what I have done rather than dwelling on what I couldn’t manage. That requires a conscious effort on my part, because I’m far too willing to beat myself up. But I do try to stop when I can see that it won’t do any good.

    In teaching, my mantra is I’m just the sower of seeds. Whenever I have a bad day, I try to remind myself that at least I’ve tossed the seeds of ideas around–whether or not I saw them take root really isn’t the point. Most of the time, I’m not going to be around when a seed starts to sprout. And I know that some of those seeds will never germinate, but I also know that I’m not in charge of that part of the process anyway.

    I think that mantra applies pretty widely: most of the time, all you can do is get going and take your best shot. That’s a hard thing to keep in mind, especially when you’re prone to questioning what “your best shot” means. But if we can learn to think of just taking that shot as our best effort, in and of itself–then maybe perfectionism isn’t really such a terrible thing.

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