How do you get over perfectionism?
January 7, 2013 4:54 PM   Subscribe

How do you get over perfectionism?

I was sort of reflecting on broad trends in my life today, and I realized that ever since high school I've been saddled with this sort of dogged perfectionism. It hasn't really carried over into every single area of my life, but it has been a very consistent theme. I think I was really unhealthy in high school because I'd run myself into the ground with papers and taking all the right classes and devoting way too much time to school work and I noticeably got way too little sleep. In my job now (teaching), I end up feeling so committed to my students and making every lesson great, which I like in a way, but my life gets really out of balance at some points. Like I'll work 70 hour weeks sometimes and just feel so tired after a while. I have this feeling sometimes that whatever I do, it's just not enough. I'll stay late to plan math, then during writing, I feel I'm letting my students down because I haven't planned something good enough. Then I play a musical instrument and I see myself going over the same passages over and over and feeling continually frustrated even if I work really really hard. It's like I am always striving towards something elusive that's just out of reach, and it gets exhausting. It's quite hard even to consider just letting things go, because it seems like the instances of success in my life are somehow tied to having completely burned myself out to achieve them if that makes sense. I sort of want to understand why I am like this, and how to continue to engage in my passions (music, teaching) without being consumed by them to the extent that they make me sort of hate my life. I guess I'm looking for either books or general words of wisdom.
posted by mermily to Health & Fitness (14 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
It's quite hard even to consider just letting things go, because it seems like the instances of success in my life are somehow tied to having completely burned myself out to achieve them if that makes sense.

I think the answer to why you are like this is in the above statement. Can you prove this wrong? Can you recall any times you've succeeded without running yourself into the ground?
posted by michelle lightning at 5:15 PM on January 7, 2013

Start failing intentionally, and see what happens. For instance, misspell a word of several in things you write, and notice that nobody seems to care (or that those that do are actually quite annoying in their insistence on perfection.) Start improvising music instead of practicing written pieces, and listen to the recordings of yourself improvising badly and realize the world is still a better place for having played. Things like that.

Meanwhile, reduce the size of your goals, so that when you do aim for perfection, it is on a smaller scale and so less likely to burn you out.
posted by davejay at 5:22 PM on January 7, 2013 [6 favorites]

Remind yourself that you're not so perfect; you probably make a ton of mistakes that nobody notices or even cares about. My friend is a perfectionist housekeeper and frets along the same lines you do. Once when she bemoaned the fact that the apartment just wasn't clean enough, I told her that even if it approached total cleanliness, there was still crud in the pulleys and ropes of the window casings, and lots of fuzzy crapola behind the baseboards and outlet covers. She got a horrified look on her face, that I must admit, was most gratifying.

Your lesson plans and music practice have crud in their pulley and ropes, but it hasn't bothered you up till now, because you didn't know about it. You can't make every molecule of "not good enough" vanish, so relax if you can.
posted by BostonTerrier at 5:40 PM on January 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

I don't know how YOU get over perfectionism, but how I've [almost] gotten over it has been through the theater.

I run a little nonprofit theater - I'm a project manager, so I'm the producer when I've got that hat on - I plan and coordinate everything, more or less. I am not sure when the perfectionism started to fall away, but for me, it was connected to the fact that I had to finish something - I had to finish that costume, the props had to all be there, no matter what they were, etc. There was no chance of perfection because I could not, as it were, play that passage over and over again. Being forced to complete something that was "Good enough" or "awesome at 30 feet" and then GETTING COMPLIMENTS ON IT is really a great example of perfectionism's limitations.

I was the only one who knew that not everything was right about all these costumes. Seriously. You can't see what I know to be wrong there. I have to force myself to remember that, but I do remember it.
posted by Medieval Maven at 6:23 PM on January 7, 2013

Perfectionism is about your definition of "success" or satisfaction, and the fear of failing to achieve that. Ironically, perfectionists fear failure but make it really easy for themselves to "fail" by their own standards. Success is also all-or-nothing; if you define success as the top 2% possible of your effort, it means that the other 98% is failure.

Think about what you define as a successful lesson plan. What is "good enough"? Chances are your definition is very, very narrow and very difficult to meet. Perhaps even impossible to meet in reality, like "my very best ever!" or "every student will get it!" It actually sounds like you might be comparing yourself to your own best work, which is a very unreasonable standard and, yes, exhausting.

You will need to work to broaden that definition so that "success" is easier to achieve. If you are more forgiving of other people than yourself, it might help to think about how you were define success for a stranger in your position, so that you can be more objective.

Also, what davejay said.
posted by zennie at 6:27 PM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Is your compulsion to be perfect, or is it to demean yourself for not being perfect?
posted by DrGail at 6:40 PM on January 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

For me, I had to realize that being perfect came at the cost of my well-being, and that taking care of me is just as important as having a perfectly clean house or whatever.

I had a think about what 'taking care of me' really means. For me, it's not eating healthy and exercising (although those things are important, they too easily become more targets for perfectionism). Often, I take care of myself through something silly, like looking at lolcats for an hour and letting my brain relax!

It took some practice. Setting an allotted 'me time' and reassuring myself that it is OK to take the time to play around online. After a while I didn't feel so guilty. Now, I look at the clutter in my house (I'm probably only like 5% messier than before) and I actually feel satisfied that it's there, because it's proof that I spent time on ME, rather than on stressing.
posted by (F)utility at 10:04 PM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

If something's not worth doing, it's not worth doing well. Words to live by.

Other than that, may I gently suggest that you have a feature, not a bug. Perfectionism is awfully useful as it implies persistence and quality. Can you find a place for that where it's valuable?

I short circuit my tendencies to over work something by stopping. When I can't stop, I postpone or defer completion. After a break, I get clarity on what constitutes 'finished' and eventually get there.

Read Zen Guitar and Art and Fear. Both talk about the process as being more important than milestones. You might find them useful for your mindset.
posted by FauxScot at 1:31 AM on January 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

For me, the major thing was understanding that I am a perfectionist. (How can I be a perfectionist, I thought, nothing I do is ever really done properly! *cough*) This realization, it was like a flower unfolding, and one thing after another started making sense in my life. I'm still discovering ways that I'm sabotaging myself that are, in fact, more and more abstractly-realized meta levels of perfectionism.

However, meditation and therapy helped even more to give me the perspective to recognize my behavior, redirect my thoughts, and choose to act differently. I recommend Turning the Mind into an Ally and Mindfulness in Plain English for meditation. It's up to you to decide whether this is a big enough problem in your life that you should seek therapy. Feeling Good is a nice way to explore cognitive behavior therapy, which, like meditation, will help you develop the mindfulness to see when you're in the grips of perfectionism, and let it go. (Maybe Feeling Good will give you the tools you need on your own. It can also show you how a trained therapist can assist you.)

As FauxScot says, perfectionism is a nice beast to have on a leash. There are times when I tell myself, "Okay, you know what, I am going to rip out the last 20 rows on this sock I'm knitting / proofread this document a third time by reading every word in reverse order / change all the lines on this graph to a better color scheme, because I have the time to do it, it's not going to cause me to sacrifice sleep or other important things in my life, and having it done right is going to feel really freaking good." But I've also learned how to say (and maybe even believe) that eh, it's good enough as it is.
posted by BrashTech at 4:41 AM on January 8, 2013 [5 favorites]

I was listening to a great podcast (here) by screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin just yesterday where they were discussing writer's block, and perfectionism as one aspect of it. Craig said this thing that struck me as very insightful, which I've grabbed from the show transcript below:
Perfectionism isn’t really perfectionism. You are not perfecting anything. Perfectionism is protectionism. You are protecting yourself, or you are attempting to protect yourself from any sling shot or arrow. Tough. They are coming anyway. They are coming in an unfair way. It’s not fair. Somebody may read it and hate it even though it’s great.

Or, what may happen is they might read it and say, “Great. This is a pretty typical first draft. Liked part of it, didn’t like part of it. There’s some big problems.” Meanwhile you have been in the shower practicing your Oscar speech. That’s okay. But just understand that you are not actually perfecting things when you fall into the trap of “perfectionism”.
I love this quote because it flips perfectionism on its head, so it's suddenly not about delay caused by having such amazingly high standards, but rather fear of committing to putting something out in the world, which can have all kinds of sources. So, maybe try coming at it that way - what are you afraid of, and how can you manage and overcome that fear?
posted by Happy Dave at 6:50 AM on January 8, 2013 [6 favorites]

Maybe you won't be able to give up perfectionism. Just do the best you can. It needn't be perfect.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:54 AM on January 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Is your compulsion to be perfect, or is it to demean yourself for not being perfect?

I agree with DrGail here.

I have this problem, and it holds me back in so many ways. Like davejay said, can you make some mistakes intentionally and see what happens? I (unintentionally) misspelled something on Twitter, and it was directed at someone that is semi-famous. Semi-famous person noticed and commented on my error in his reply! So now many of his followers have seen my mistake, and think me to be an idiot (...probably).

I panicked! I was just horrified. The worst part for me was that I didn't even know it was an error (I wasn't sloppy (I read everything about 12 times before I post it), it was a homophone that I didn't realize existed), so I really felt stupid. But.. you know what? No one died, no one visited my home to publicly mock me, the world kept on turning. It really was a lesson for me and I'm almost glad for it.
posted by getawaysticks at 7:22 AM on January 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks so much for the great answers everyone! You are super helpful. They are all the best answer!
posted by mermily at 7:34 AM on January 8, 2013

I'd be surprised if this book is not exactly what you need at the moment. You can watch this TED talk first to see if it's for you. Good luck with it!
posted by Okapi at 12:56 PM on January 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

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