Living Life in Gray: Learning to Overcome Perfectionism
I've been there before, a lot actually. Sometimes I still struggle with it. And I'm willing to bet you have too if the title of this post is what drew you in.
You start out with big plans- a plan to finally go through that messy closet or an important project that needs to be completed. Maybe it's just the workday- you plan to accomplish x, y, and z within a particular time (faster than last time) and in a particular order (a better order). Your mind is quickly consumed with all of the ways you'll get it right...and do it perfectly this time.
And if that's where you started, then I'd wager that it's ended something like this: plans don't work out as you had mapped them in your mind. You didn't realize how much crap you had in that closet, and now you're sitting in a mountain of stuff and there isn't enough time to sort, and organize, and make dinner, and do bed time routines. Maybe you run into a scheduling conflict that you had overlooked. Maybe you miscalculated how long...or how difficult, the project would be and now you feel like a complete failure. "That's it," you say to yourself, "if it can't pan out as I had planned, then it's no use."
You throw in the towel, and walk away. You're angry that there isn't time. You're angry that the plan didn't work out. You're angry at yourself for always feeling pressure to work hard, do better, accomplish more...with what feels like nothing to show for it. No one's criticism compares to the way you have criticized yourself.
If this resonates with your story, I want you to know that you are not alone. My time as a therapist has afforded me the opportunity of sitting face-to-face with this story over and over again.
It's so easy to get caught in the trap of "this or that" and "black or white." You believe that if you make a mistake, or if you need help with something, you might as well call yourself a failure. Because in this black-and-white world that you're living in, there are only two options: perfection and failure.
And since, realistically, perfection doesn't happen often, you believe that you're often failing.
Which is interesting, because the people around you would say you've got your shit together. In fact, they would probably describe you as reliable, intelligent, hard-working and successful. And now that we're talking about it, you realize that a lot of people actually come to you with their own "stuff."
You seem to have a lot of wisdom (and grace) for others. Yet, when it comes to your self, there is no room for that. There is always something you should have known or could have done better. It might seem to others like you you're really put together, but inside? You feel like you're undone.
It's a never ending cycle that is eroding your self-esteem, and it's miserable. You want out. You long for a day where you could be happy with yourself for what you accomplished that day, even when you didn't get everything done. You dream of the ability to say "no" to things you don't truly want to do (and feel zero guilt). You want to be able to take in the compliments others give you, the strengths they see in you...and actually believe them to be true!
The good news is that you don't have to stay in this cycle, and you can have what you want. It will take intentional effort, self-awareness, and consistency to remove yourself from the exhaustion of perfectionism into the freedom of authenticity, and you absolutely have the resilience to get there. It's just a matter of directing your energy onto a new path, and below are a few actionable steps to take to begin that journey today.
3 Ways to Start Moving Past Perfection
1. Identify why being perfect has been necessary for you to this point. On the surface, it may seem like perfectionism is just part of who you are- your personality, if you will. But I want to challenge you to dig a little deeper. Often, what we find, is that perfectionism has been "installed" into our operating system for a reason. If you sit with it long enough you might realize that it has been in an effort to be accepted by others. Perhaps it is the only way you've felt seen and acknowledged, and therefore, loved. Maybe it's because you've idealized someone who is successful, and being "perfect" seems like the only way to be like them. There is something that all of these experiences have in common, though. Perfectionism has been used to attempt the impossible; as a way to guarantee security by our effort to control outcomes in the world around us. If we can guarantee outcomes through all of life's risks, we feel safe. This may 'work' for a little while, but it undoubtedly ends in exhaustion and overwhelm.
2. Get comfortable with uncertainty. If perfectionism is our way of gaining some feeling of certainty, then it makes sense that we must step out of this cycle by learning to embrace the inevitable uncertainty in life. How? Notice what is happening when you observe yourself leaning into "perfectionist mode." How are your actions making you feel safe right now. Why do you feel the need to "do more" or "be more" in this moment. What is this costing you? For example, if you notice yourself frantically trying to keep the house clean before visitors arrive, consider why cleaning might be helping you feel secure. Is it because you want to appear "put together"? Do you think your visitors will not be accepting of your home, just as it is? Do you think they won't accept you just as you are, for that matter? And what is the cost in that moment? Often, there is an emotional cost- the pressure we put on ourselves to "be good enough" and the let down we feel if we don't meet the imaginary standards. There might also be a cost of the ability to enjoy your time with others. Our perfectionism often costs us what we desire most: authentic connection to others. Our desire to be fully seen, known, and understood isn't possible when we can't allow that to happen.
3. Live life in "the gray". Rather than remaining invested in the black-and-white patterns of "either this or that," try settling into the gray of "both this and that." All it takes is re-writing the script. For example, saying something like, "I can both make mistakes, and be successful at what I do" or "I can both show up imperfectly, and be fully accepted as I am." Try it with smaller things too, "I can both do the dishes, and give myself a well deserved break from cleaning the rest of the kitchen today" or, "I can both need a break, and be a reliable [friend, coworker, parent, etc.]" This may be difficult at first, but the more you practice it, the more natural it will become. In other words, you can both expect this to feel unnatural, and trust the process of growth at the same time. (See what I did there?)
If you're tired of feeling like you're stuck on the hamster wheel of perfectionism, I can help. Let's start working towards the life of authenticity you want. We'll do it together. Call for your free consultation today.
How does your perfectionism show up in your life? What purpose does it serve? In what ways has it cost you something? Now that you're aware of this, try "re-writing the script" for some of your own experiences. Use the examples in number 3 above.
As always, I would love to hear how this information has impacted you, what you learned about yourself, and what you'd like to know more about. Don't hesitate to email me. I read every response.