I can say that I am a recovering perfectionist. I actually don’t remember a time in my life that I wasn’t aware of this trait that I had. I would often make a joke that I had OCD as a kid. I don’t really know if I did have an official form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder but I was aware of my behaviors enough to recognize when it would show up throughout my life. 

With the new white space I had created in my life over the last 2 years I had been facing the areas that needed the most improvement in my life head on. One of my first that I focused on was an addiction to work. My journey of discovery on why I overwork enlightened me to discover a root cause of why I was overworking.  And that was the desire for perfection.  

I was able to recognize it, evaluate it and ultimately change it over time. So my level pf perfectionism really looks completely different today. 

There are many contributing factors as to why someone may have a perfectionist trait. I’ll go into that as well as sharing the concerns of letting perfectionism go unaddressed in your career and personal life. I know where my perfectionist tendencies came from and I would hope that you could pinpoint those as well. 

The most common signs of perfectionism can be:

  • obsessing over the small stuff
  • trouble getting started or completing a project
  • stressing about receiving validation or approval
  • extremely high standards
  • stressed about your results
  • overachievement 
  • fear of failing
  • being self-critical of yourself and others
  • the belief it has to be this way

I think if you thought about that list and you could relate to a few of them that may not necessarily indicate that you have an unhealthy amount of perfectionism. But if you relate to a majority of them, most likely you will already have a sense that perfectionism does have an impact on your quality of life. You could recollect numerous examples in your life pretty easily. 

So where does it come from? The root of perfectionism is believing that your self worth is attached to your accomplishments. The truth is that we are all 100% worthy. From birth we are all created to be absolutely worthy and nothing takes that away from us. However, as we are exposed to the world we live in, our minds begin to create a story around what we should accomplish that makes us feel worthy. It can stem from early childhood experiences. Having parents or loved ones around us that have a very high standard or expectation can play a part. Once started it can be cemented by a fear of judgment or disapproval from others. And what do we know about a belief system that continues without a balanced look at it? It continues to grow stronger and stronger to the point that you believe this so wholeheartedly and it becomes very difficult to change the neural pathway in your brain that has been created. 

What are the downsides to perfectionism? Like anything there are many but here are a few key ones I’ll share 

Chronic Stress – perfectionism drives us to take on more, accomplish more and so we overdo it and this can lead to stress and burnout. 

Lost opportunity – when we are focused on perfection we lose precious time that we could accomplish something and move on to the next area for growth in our life. We could spend that wasted time on new experiences or more fulfilling opportunities. But when we are laser focused on the way our brain tells us we need to be, we often miss seeing this entirely.

Procrastination and Inefficiency – those that are focused on perfection often struggle with being inefficient and procrastinating. The focus is on doing it right and so sometimes getting started can be a struggle. The overthinking and over worrying that takes place before you even get started is a motivation stealer. 

Negative Self View – for a perfectionist the internal voice in your head can be non stop. That voice is there constantly telling you what you need to do better and then laying on the guilt when you don’t hit that bar. This leads to an overall dissatisfaction with life and frustration on a regular basis that is unhealthy over time. You just can’t enjoy where you are.

Passing it down – I find this one of the most compelling reasons to change your behaviors. I know that I inherited my tendencies from example and I could already see where the perfectionist tendencies I had for myself were being placed on my children. I had a hard time not wanting perfection for them. And let me tell you that crap does not work. You will be inviting in a whole new set of issues if you place your perfectionistic tendencies on your kids. Trust me on this!

So how do you Push Past Perfectionism?

For me, the biggest step forward has been to be more mindful and recognize when my perfectionist tendencies are at work. When something is so second nature it can be difficult to pause and process what is happening. Being more in the moment and hyper-aware has helped me with this. Once I can recognize what I am doing, I am then able to reason with myself why I am doing it this way. Then I can bring in a side of reality to question myself on my choices and validate whether or not they are warranted. 

I have a personal story I wanted to share with you as to why perfectionism can plague you in your personal and professional life and how to know when the level of perfectionism you have is unhealthy.

Recently, I rediscovered my love of twinkle lights! What typically was a Christmas season-only delight is now bringing me joy all year long! I found some very cost-effective, minimalistic, and low maintenance solar lights that I have been able to place around the outside of the house and leave them up all year through all seasons. Since I have been at home more than previous years, I have begun adding a few more lights to enjoy. 

It was a weeknight and I had worked quite a bit that day (see blog #1) and I thought I would head out for a soak in the hot tub to take away the stress of the day, some knots in my neck and reset with some quiet meditation. It was about 9:30 pm. As I headed over to the hot tub, I remembered that I have this one remaining strand of twinkle lights and I really wanted to add them to the decking around the hot tub. Yes! I said to myself, I can do this quickly and then my experience in the hot tub will be perfect.

I went back inside and grabbed my new strand of lights and thought to myself, “remember Carisa, if you aren’t careful, these can very easily get a knot in them since they are fragile copper wire and it takes so long to fix.” Yes, I had already had this happen a couple of times prior. So, I started placing the wire and I knew that I would have just enough to encompass the entire area I had envisioned. As I was halfway in about 10 minutes later, it began to rain. Ugh, I really wanted to get in the hot tub. Why did I start this project? It could have waited. Oh well, it’s not pouring, I will just finish this quickly and then still get in for the soak. A little rain won’t scare me away. As you can probably guess, my focus most likely shifted to moving quickly and less on the caution of a knot. 

Sure enough, moments later I have a knot. Just what I wanted to avoid. “It’s ok, I can get this one out just like all the others,” I said to myself out loud. But…it’s raining and all I wanted to do was get in the hot tub I thought to myself. So, I sat there in the light rain shower next to the hot tub working on this knot. I methodically worked with it so much that now I had it down to a little loop of a knot. Before I knew it, over 30 minutes had passed. There was a moment of awareness where I said to myself…”Carisa, you wanted to get in the tub, you still have time for a quick soak, finish putting this on tomorrow.” But, that would require me to be ok with leaving something half-finished. No, that is not an option here. Then I thought, well…is anyone going to see this little knot, just keep going and finish. No one will even see it. 

Well, here is how the story ended. I couldn’t let it go. I kept messing and messing until “SNAP”. I broke the wire in half and now the last 15 feet that I needed to finish putting on the railing went dark. No more lights. Now the problem shifted from the pesky knot to only having 10 feet of lights and will have to stop short. Half done, unfinished. Then comes the self-critical talk. Why couldn’t you just do it the next day in the daylight? Why couldn’t you just finish putting it up with a little knot? As I walked in the house defeated because I don’t have any new light sets and I have been banned from purchasing anymore…LOL…I look at the clock. It is 10:45!  For 1 hour and 15 minutes, this little project consumed and kept me from the relaxing plan I had for myself. 

This may seem like such a silly situation, but for me, it prompted a self-reflection process. Because this isn’t the first time this has happened and sometimes the story can involve others and that is where perfectionism can be harmful. The days that followed, I recognized where I got off track, I obsessed over the small stuff, I stressed about getting the project done, I focused on this belief that it had to be done and it had to be perfect. 

Looking back, I would have been happy with the knot being there and the rest of the railing twinkling away in the dark night. But instead, now I see an incomplete picture in front of me, not what I had mapped out in my head. But I decided to keep it, just as a reminder that people, life, plans, things….they don’t have to be PERFECT!! And there is an empowerment that comes with being able to accept things as they are and find the gratitude in it. 

By the way, I kept the broken section of the copper wire and shaped it in to a heart to remind myself that there is still beauty in imperfection. I just have to open my eyes to see it. 

Ok, so that is all I have to share for now about perfectionism. I hope that anyone out there that struggles with it, you will make yourself a list of action items you want to focus on. Just start somewhere and then build on your progress. You can overcome it just like I have. It has not gone away completely for me, but I am in the drivers seat making the conscious decisions which is so empowering.

“Strive for continuous improvement, instead of perfection.”

– Kim Collins