Do you constantly seek approval from people around you?
Is it incredibly difficult for you to accept being second best?
Do you too often sacrifice your own well-being in order to complete a task perfectly?
Are you consistently stressed and anxious?
If you’ve answered YES to more than three of the questions above, chances are that you’re a perfectionist.
I feel your pain.
Although perfectionism is sometimes viewed as a positive quality, it can be devastatingly self-destructive.
I know all too well the anguish that quietly lurks beneath the polished veneer of perfectionism. Have you just spent countless hours on your last task or project? I know this because I’m a reformed perfectionist.
After years of trying to be perfect and living in a constant state of anxiety, I came to a startling conclusion: trying to be perfect all the time was making me a deeply unhappy human.
My level of perfectionism peaked in art school where I would spend far too much time on projects. Long hours, turned into days which bled into my weekends. I was unrealistic with the time frame and was blind to the toll all of this was taking on me both mentally and physically.
I can vividly remember one assignment — a simple CD cover design which required visually interpreting I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor by The Arctic Monkeys.
Simple enough, right?
Not for perfectionist Sarah.
I decided to take the unconventional route of stitching together fabric from a pair of shiny hot pants and material from a pair of jeans. This would not only form the outer case of the radical CD cover which would open by means of a zipper but also perfectly communicated the essence of the song.
There was one slight issue: I had no idea how to sew.
I spent one weekend wailing over a sewing machine, cursing my design concept, perfectionist nature and snapping ferociously at my poor family who found the whole sorry saga hilarious.
Luckily I enlisted the help of my fashion designer friend who came to the rescue with her magnificent sewing skills.
As you can guess navigating art school with perfectionism in tow led to many zany creations in addition to utter disasters.
Perfectionism does not understand “good enough.”
Yet perfection is unattainable.
Nothing is perfect.
Hence the search for perfection will never lead to a true sense of fulfillment.
Thankfully, I am no longer a slave to my perfectionist nature. It does arise occasionally and is sometimes even helpful.
But it no longer dictates my life.
There are simple steps you too can take to move past the need to be perfect and into a space of creativity and exploration.
1. Create a jar of awesome
Yes, this is indeed as awesome as it sounds. This is an idea I learned from number one New York Times best-selling author Tim Ferriss.
Perfectionists tend to neglect to give themselves praise they deserve or create the space to enjoy the little wins or victories.
The jar of awesome seeks to celebrate all of your achievements, big or small.
To create your own jaw of awesome, simply:
- Find a suitable vessel for your awesomeness (think: mason jar, shoebox or whatever your heart desires)
- Create a bright and inspiring label for your jar clearly stating that this is indeed a jar of awesome. Think glitter!
- Each time you experience a win (i.e.: meeting a deadline, trying out a new tool or technique, receiving positive feedback from a colleague or client, adhering to a regimen of self-care, etc.) write it down on a piece of paper and pop it into the amazing jar you have created.
- Remember to take a moment to bask in the glow of what you have created. As you see the wins and victories accumulate you can begin to feel a sense of accomplishment. The invisible has now been made visible.
The next time you have a bad day or you sense perfectionism looming — this can manifest itself as harsh criticism of self-doubt — go to your jar of awesomeness and remember what you have created. A bad day or feeling uninspired is just a bump in the road.
2. Take a step back
When a deadline is closing in, I can feel my stress level rise a few degrees.
What is the best thing to do?
Taking a break of pausing may seem counterproductive, but it can be truly effective.
Take a step back. Breathe.
Go for a walk, head to the gym, read a book or play or listen to music. Choose an activity which jolts you out of work mode. Once you return you will no longer be stressed and be even more productive.
For example, while writing this article I decided to press pause. The next morning while running on the treadmill, words began to pulse through my mind as if suddenly awakened by the rhythm of the machine.
After my session, I began furiously scribbling in my notebook. (I carry it with me everywhere — even the gym).
Like me, my creative endeavours need a chance to breathe.
Productivity and creativity do not reside in cramped, stressful quarters. And neither should you.
3. Become a time management ninja
A perfectionist will work tirelessly on a project until it is perfect.
This is unrealistic, or at the very least unsustainable. Eventually, something will have to give.
Time-blocking encourages you to create work within a certain time frame. This limits the time that you are allowed to spend on any given project and helps to resist that age-old perfectionist tendency to tinker and tweak a project right up and until the ninth hour.
4. Stay focused on the big picture
This one is connected to number 3, with additional emphasis on retaining focus on the end goal.
It is easy to get lost in the many details of a creative project and lose sight of the big picture.
If you get caught up in the details and keep tweaking all the little details then the project will never be completed.
Yet this is the most important thing — that the project is completed even if it is not perfect.
When I first began working as a designer I was very much guilty of losing my focus. I spent far too much time getting lost in meticulous details.
This type of behaviour can hurt a project.
A project can always be edited or made a little bit better.
It will never be perfect.
A deadline saves your sanity — and the project — by giving you a time limit.
Embrace it and agree to do the very best that you can within this time frame.
5. Don’t be afraid to fail (i.e. fail spectacularly!)
I am a big fan of the great stoic masters like Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and Greek philosopher Epictetus.
I have learnt so much from reading their writing, and in particular, their advice to overcoming perfectionism.
They view perfectionism as an extreme way of thinking which can lead to depression and frustration —but never satisfaction or happiness.
In order to overcome perfectionism, they suggest embracing pragmatism.
Pragmatism encourages action, the very thing perfectionism interrupts.
Epictetus emphasizes this by saying:
We’re never going to be perfect — if there is even such a thing. We’re human, after all. Our pursuits should be aimed at progress, no matter how much it’s possible for us to make.
6. Cultivate self-acceptance
I will let you in on a little secret: you’re not perfect.
Neither am I.
Once I accepted this fact, it freed me.
I was no longer a vehicle for my perfectionism. I felt uninhibited and that I could finally create authentic work. I rediscovered the joy of creating free from the lingering shadow of perfectionism.
The root of perfectionism lies in the belief that we are not good enough.
Self-acceptance is a key step to moving beyond the need to be perfect and embarking on a happier path.
Go forth and be your wonderful imperfect self!
Have you struggled with perfectionism? I would love to read your comments below or if you would like to share your tips for moving past perfectionism.