Completion Not Perfection

For the past week I’ve barely slept through the night – I had a malicious virus. Not in my computer, in my body. I’ll call it “the flu” to save time describing each nasty symptom. In my mind it was a multi-headed dragon that knocked me down each time I thought I was getting better.

I’m hacking away, I have chills, I’ve lost my voice, and I’m exhausted because coughing keeps me up all night and there’s nothing to be done. Just surrender.

I did take a peek at my calendar. I had a lot on it. Not only meetings, clients and projects. I had a couple of large volunteer commitments. Then there’s the endless house remodeling. And getting ready for my stepdaughter’s wedding in 5 weeks.

Looking at my calendar was a bad idea. I immediately got overwhelmed. How would I get this done? Then I realized I would just do the best I could. Somewhere in the last decade someone convinced me that “completion not perfection” is what we are going for!

Perfectionism Is A Disease

For most of my life, I didn’t know it was OK to just get something finished. Deep inside of me I believed that I wasn’t enough and that to compensate for that I had to do everything perfectly – whether it was at my job, taking care of things in the house, or volunteering my time at the food bank or on a board, that if I didn’t do it perfectly it wasn’t OK. I wasn’t OK. It took me a long time to learn that perfectionism is a disease, that I had it, but unlike the flu I was not going to surrender to it.

I knew perfectionism from the inside out. I lived with it and its debilitating side effects for many years. First, perfectionism makes you feel like your work is never good enough. Second, perfectionism keeps you working within your comfort zone as a way of managing your anxiety about screwing up, so you keep yourself limited to work you’ve already mastered. Third, not only are you overly critical of yourself, you also judge others harshly and quickly label anyone whose work doesn’t meet your impossible standards as incompetent, worthless and lazy, leaving you either alone or with partners who are equally judgmental.

Perfectionism, unlike striving for excellence, comes with companions: fear of failure, procrastination and risk aversion.

  • Procrastination stops you from starting – whatever your goal or vision, you can’t begin. You may have the entire project worked out in your head but you’ll never put pen to paper, nail to wood, because procrastination won’t let you move forward.
  • Fear of failure prevents you from posting your blog, starting your book or talking about your great idea with colleagues, even when you’ve done a lot of the groundwork already, because you know someone is going to find the mistakes. You can’t bear the shame, criticism or failure associated with mistakes, even minor ones.
  • Risk aversion keeps you stuck because you can’t try new things, test your limits, or go where you’ve never gone before.

A perfectionist is never good enough, feels like an imposter, and hides out to avoid being criticized. Perfectionism differs from striving for excellence because you:

  • Frantically seek approval from others instead of finding that approval within yourself.
  • Believe that you’re not good enough.
  • Feel shame so you cannot be authentic with others and continue to hide behind the mask of perfection.

Freedom from Perfectionism

If any of this sounds like you, you can get out from under its control.

Perfectionism is an addiction, a little like alcoholism. With alcoholism, you can stop drinking as a way of managing your addiction. With perfectionism – well, you can’t stop thinking so you must learn to manage it. Perfectionism is more like an eating disorder. Everyone needs to eat; you can’t avoid food.

Here are two quick tips that help my clients break away from perfectionism:

  1. Stay away from the people, even old friends, who constantly judge and criticize other people.
  2. Learn to believe that mistakes are part of being human and provide opportunities to learn more about yourself. Mistakes sometimes open the door for new and surprising outcomes.

Perfectionism is not a goal. Perfectionism is a self-sabotaging pattern that keeps you from knowing the value you already bring to the work you are currently doing.

If you can lessen the grip perfectionism has on your life, you can begin to bring into balance all things you value: work, relationships, friends, love, spiritual connection, pets, leisure. We all know people who work 16 hours a day. They’re really not getting that much more done than you are – they’re redoing things that were pretty good to start with, they’re often judging themselves harshly for not being faster, quicker, smarter than they are so they’re using a lot of their energy beating themselves up. They have no fresh ideas. And they’re really not pleasant to be around so they find themselves isolated and caught in a terrible cycle of work, work, work.

Things don’t change on the outside – you change on the inside. That’s how change happens. Dealing with perfectionism is an inside job. Don’t put it off.




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