How Do I Stop Being a Perfectionist?

“How do I stop being a perfectionist? How do you move away from perfectionism?”

These are the questions you ask, and on one level the answers are simple.

We shift out of perfectionism through daily, real-world action, rewriting our old patterns of behavior and belief.

But you’re not just asking for the how-to. You’re asking for the hope. You’re asking, “Is it really possible for us to change?”

Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time at a business event, I met a fellow coach who spoke my language. Within about a minute, I knew that I wanted to hire her.

This was in part because I needed help in her area of expertise: personal style. I’d even written down, “Dress better! Ask for help with this!” on my list.

In packing for the business trip, I’d realized that I had exactly one outfit that made me feel professional and prepared. The rest were cobbled-together, not-quite-right. Plus, I didn’t have proper luggage, just a worn backpack.

Even after my epiphany about the power of dressing better, I’d fallen into old patterns of scarcity and self-sacrifice.

Change Is a Spiral, Not a Straight Line

This is what we do, right?

We learn a profound lesson, and then later we re-encounter that SAME lesson at a deeper level. In real life, change is a spiral, rather than a straight line.

We tend to think of progress as linear: Look, I moved from point A to point B!

But the truth is that we revisit our significant lessons many times … and this doesn’t mean that we’ve failed!

Rather, it means that we’ve moved up a level on the change spiral, so we’re ready to re-encounter old issues in a new way.

The Perfectionism Trap

That was the deeper reason I felt sure about hiring that coach: When I told her about my “spiral” struggle with perfectionism, she got it.

She asked the right questions, such as, “Do you have trouble ordering food at restaurants?”

“Yes!” I exclaimed. “Yes. I am getting better, but it has been a struggle. I’ll over-analyze the whole menu, trying to choose the ‘right’ thing.”

“I get it,” she said. “And you get to shift that.”

We started our work together, and it helped. Over the course of several months, I grew increasingly confident in day-to-day decisions. I was ordering food without agonizing, wearing nicer clothes, and feeling good.

Stop Being A Perfectionist … Or Not

But then …

One weekend afternoon, I was feeling increasingly tense for no obvious reason. As I prepared food and did laundry, I remembered these lyrics from a Dido song:

“If you’re feeling low and lost today / You’re probably doing too much again.”

With that in mind, I set aside the chores to relax.

But then old patterns of pressure kicked in. What was the “right” way to spend this free time? After some deliberation, I decided to watch a movie.

But which movie would be the best to watch? I read through my list of favorite movies (yes, I have a list), but then I thought I should watch something new.

I paged through Netflix. Then I started watching trailers and reading reviews and turning the whole thing into a research project.

The try-hard trance had me hooked. I spent close to an hour working on what to watch, frustration mounting.

Finally I turned on a ballet movie, but the acting was awful. I skipped to the dance scenes while berating myself for making the “wrong” choice.

Cue another round of Internet research before I turned on an old favorite, Sense and Sensibility. The story swept me up, and the familiar lines of dialogue felt soothing.

But the drumbeat in my mind sounded like this: You wasted so much time! You could have watched the entire movie had you started an hour ago – but now you’ll have to turn it off.

And there it was, the shaming whisper: Why can’t you choose a movie like a normal person? You are so messed up. What the $%^& is wrong with you?!

The Shame Spiral

Have you ever gone into a shame spiral like this? Have you been mean to yourself and felt like you couldn’t stop?

If so, then you know that the way out isn’t staying inside your own head. The way out is to connect with someone who can show you the way back to compassion.

Fortunately, I tuned in to Martha Beck while I washed dishes. Martha has brought me back to sanity more times than I can count, and this was no exception.

In her video, she talked about self-forgiveness as the key to getting out of overwhelm. She shared an example of how she had planned to work out that afternoon … and then she’d forgotten to do it.

She’d felt frustrated and discouraged. But instead of beating herself up, she chose to forgive herself.

It was an immense relief for me to hear this. It reminded me of the truth that I’d forgotten.

See, you don’t need to stop being a perfectionist.

Why? Because what you actually want is to feel safe and loved even in the MIDST of the perfectionism.

And forgiveness is the way to do that.

How do you do self-forgiveness? It sounds like this …

I forgive myself for spending an hour researching movies.
I forgive myself for judging myself as messed-up … and the truth is that I’m learning, and I’m doing the best that I can.

Whatever it is that you’re beating yourself up for …
You get a pass.
You’re off the hook.
You get out of jail free.

That’s what forgiveness is. It’s a choice to drop the judgment and just be kind.

And it’s yours, free for the taking.

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What are you forgiving yourself for today? Join the conversation and leave a comment below!

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4 thoughts on “How Do I Stop Being a Perfectionist?

  1. Thank you for clarity and forgiveness for us perfectionists who continue to make baby steps to improve. One of my goals for this year is to spend less time looking at my phone. I quantified that goal to be “spend less than 3 hours/day looking at my phone.” The first week I completely failed. I kept the goal anyways. The second week I got two days of less than 3 hours/day. Instead of looking at that as failure and giving it up completely, I set myself a challenge to get 3 days the following week. This past week I got 4 days in a row before blowing it yesterday. It’s not perfect, but it’s progress 🙂 And yes, I will forgive myself on those days when I sit there and zone out on Facebook all day.

    • Jennie, I’m so glad to hear that this resonated with you! Oh my goodness, I hear you on the technology challenge – and you are definitely making progress! It’s so tempting for us as perfectionists to give up when we don’t get a “perfect” result right away – but when we stay in the game, we make the kind of strides you’re making now!

      If you haven’t already, definitely head over to my friend and mentor Rachel Macy Stafford’s blog, HandsFreeMama.com. Rachel writes so gracefully about her “hands free” journey to put down the phone and focus on being present to herself and the people around her. Or you can pick up one of her books to start – one good way for me to put down the phone is to have a great book on hand. 😉

  2. Caryn says:

    Ooh yes! I can so relate to the movie dilemma. This happens so often. I will have to try this next time instead of beating myself up about it!

    • Caryn, it’s a relief to know that I’m not the only one. 😉 In all seriousness, I’m grateful to hear that this gave you a new way forward for next time. I’m learning that for many of us in this community, having fun and letting ourselves enjoy life is a big challenge … but we are up to the task!

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