'I think perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it's just terrified.' Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic.
Perfectionism. It's an all-consuming idea that can hold onto us with an iron grip, suffocating the creativity and enjoyment inside that is just itching to get out. It comes with a list of rules and a raised hand ready to strike at the first instance of imperfection. Growing up, it could be schoolwork where it would point an accusing finger at every flaw. Ninety nine out of a hundred was not good enough. Throughout the teenage years, it could spread into everything about us - what we're saying, doing, how we look, our bodies, our clothes, our life choices. Constantly chasing something that didn't exist. Which from experience, I can now wholeheartedly confirm, is a significant waste of time.
If I had to define perfect I don't even know what it'd look like, what words would fit the picture that I was frantic to find. The thing about perfectionism is that it's never enough. Regardless how many of its boxes you tick, more keep rolling out to mock you. It is simply not attainable.
Seeking perfection means seeking the enemy of good, real and fun. Whether it's writing, trying something new or creating, having perfection as a priority can often mean not even being able to start. With an end goal so far out of reach, beginning becomes a challenge in itself. What's the point, it won't even be good enough? It's like censoring language that hasn't even had a chance to be spoken. We put off finishing and even getting started because of the fear that it won't be enough and in doing this, we deprive ourselves and others of the finished product. Not quite the perfect process is it?
When we're sensitive and prone to overthinking, perfectionism is often lingering nearby. It comes in the form of pressure, being hard on ourselves and not feeling good enough. We use it as a whip to try to be better and think it's genuinely going to help - make us more likable, more important, more worthy.
From someone with a past steeped in perfectionism, the only advice I have about it is to completely cut it from your mind.
As with any ingrained thinking, this can take time and persistence so here's some suggestions to help:
Imperfections are unique, they are the messy splashes of colour that separate us from the 'perfect' blank canvas. Instead of being boring and the same, we all have our own beautiful little imperfections. They make us human, they make us approachable and they give us substance. In our work, our relationships, our goals - fearing imperfection will only ever keep us stuck. Being afraid to come across as anything less than perfect stops us from coming across at all. Embracing imperfection means getting real, and putting ourselves out there even if we're not guaranteed an A+ for doing so. Imperfection doesn't make you any less, it actually contributes to what makes you whole.
I've said it once and I'll say it again, I love authenticity. I love the word and the concept and the unshakable real, natural, vulnerable quality that it has. People can connect to authenticity. If you think about it, it'd be pretty hard to connect to 'perfect'. I can only imagine it as being boring, intimidating and pressurrised. But being authentic is much more open to connection. It's an awareness of our imperfections and choosing to own them instead of scrambling to hide them. Trying to hide any part of ourselves is hard and unnecessary and it keeps others at a distance to who we really are. So seek to be real instead of being perfect and learn to laugh at your fabulous flaws, own your quirks and let people see the real you.
Avoiding completing something just because you can see perfectionism's threatening hand poised above you is a disservice to yourself. Of course you want what you're doing to be good, you want it to be liked and you want to avoid criticism. There's nothing wrong with taking pride in what you do, but take the pressure off. If I wanted everything I wrote here to be perfect, I'd never publish anything. Write unedited, try different things, allow yourself to mess up. Allowing perfectionism to dictate whether or not you finish isn't fair, because you miss out and others could miss out too. Forget about being flawless and just get started and get it done. You can't improve if you're afraid of seeing what you need to work on.
Learning From Mistakes
Making mistakes is sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes embarrassing but always key to progression. Without making mistakes, without doing things wrong from time to time, we stay stagnant. Mistakes show us exactly how not to do it. In my own personal journey, I made so many mistakes and I made them multiple times (just to be sure) and I wouldn't change a single one of them. Yes they were cringey, shameful and embarrassing and I don't look back fondly but I can look back and know that they taught me something. I wouldn't know what I know now without the experiences of being incredibly imperfect, especially during my quest for perfection. All you can do is forgive yourself, accept that you're human and seek out the learning.
Forget Other People
What will people think? It's incredible how often we put thoughts in other people's heads, as though we can create the script running through their minds. Unless mind-reading miraculously becomes a thing, we'll never know what others think about us. If they're judging us for being imperfect, well that kind of says way more about them than it does about us. People will find fault with things all the time, because people have opinions. People have different tastes, perspectives and standards. Forget trying to please everybody because no one can or does.
Just approve of yourself, care about what you think about what you do, whether you like it and whether it fulfills you. So many 'successful' people have been told 'no' over and over again. But when they know they're good, they keep at it because it matters to them. Be persistent in figuring it all out and breaking out of your comfort zone. The pretence of perfection is not impressive and it's not what people are looking for from us. More often that not, while we're so worried about what they're thinking, they're not even thinking about us, let alone critiquing our every move.
Exposure to our own imperfections isn't the most pleasant thing to be seeking out but its benefits will largely outweigh the discomfort. Not surprisingly, it comes back down to vulnerability again because being exposed as being flawed means we could incur criticism, we could feel shame or we could find ourselves actually being really real, not protected by the illusion of perfection.
Brené Brown says it so well when she speaks about perfectionism as 'A 20 ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when in fact, it's the thing that's really preventing us from taking flight.'
And I want to take flight way more than I want to lug around a dead weight.