Confessions of a Recovering Perfectionist

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

I used to be a perfectionist. Actually, it would be more accurate to say I was a black-belt perfectionist! Not that I ever came close to being perfect, but I had an internal program that told me I should be. My quest for perfection didn’t make me perfect, but it did bring me a whole lot of misery. Every time I did or said something that I thought I shouldn’t have, I beat myself up: I can’t believe I said that! How can I ever let this go? What will they think of me now? I think I really blew it this time!

I know now that I was not alone. Perfectionism is rampant in our image-obsessed, achievement-driven culture. Those of us who buy into the notion that we should constantly be doing more and achieving more tend to believe we’ve failed when our efforts are anything less than exemplary. I have nothing against self-improvement, but when we don’t deprogram ourselves from perfectionism, it doesn’t matter how many improvements we make. It will never be enough. This is because perfect is not only impossible, it’s un-human.

A lot of my clients tell me, “I’m not a perfectionist! I am far from perfect.” To me, the definition of a perfectionist is not someone who does everything perfectly. (If that were the case it would rule out, umm… everyone!) I define a perfectionist as someone who thinks they should be doing everything perfectly.

Now that I’m on the other side of perfectionism (many years and tears later), I can’t exactly say I’m thrilled when I make a mistake, but I no longer expect myself not to. These days, I refer to myself as a recovering perfectionist and I have the honor of helping my clients put down their internal whips and embrace the notion of being perfectly imperfect.

Not only does perfectionism make us miserable on the inside, it also it makes it hard to live life on the outside. How satisfying is it to be a student when nothing less than an A is acceptable? How hard is it to enjoy a sport or a hobby when nothing less than a perfect score or outcome will do? And how hard is it to be in relationships when we are unable to receive feedback without crumbling or getting defensive?

When we’re in perfectionist mode, it certainly doesn’t make our relationships perfect. In fact, it makes them very difficult since our standards are so unrealistic. But when we allow ourselves to be imperfect, others can speak their truth without worrying that we will be crushed or retaliate. When someone tells us that something we did felt hurtful or hard for them, we can hear it, take it in, and either apologize or discuss it without thinking we (or they) are unacceptable. And when we let go of perfection in ourselves and we don’t expect or demand it from others, it makes life a whole lot sweeter for everyone.

I remember the first time I realized I was no longer a perfectionist. I was spending the day with a friend and she told me that something I’d said had hurt her feelings. My immediate thought was not the usual, Uh, oh! I’ve ruined the friendship! And I didn’t experience the usual pit in my stomach caused by my feelings of inadequacy and anxiety. Instead, I thought, It’s okay. I don’t have to be perfect. I calmly told my friend that I was so sorry that I hurt her feelings. I even thanked her for telling me.

Whew! What a relief. Life is so much easier without having to strive for unattainable goals. For you Eagles fans out there, you might remember their classic song, called Already Gone. One line from the song has stuck with me for decades because it highlights a truth that is so… dare I say, perfect in its wisdom. Even if you’ve never heard the song, the line is still profound (cue electric guitar here): “So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains, and we never even know we have the key.”

One key to feeling free is to break loose from the chains of perfectionism. Our culture, families, teachers, coaches, or innate drive may have instilled the need to be perfect, but it is within our power to let go of that need. We hold the key.

So here are some tested guidelines from a recovering perfectionist:

• Let go of the notion that you need to be perfect and instead strive for making peace with imperfection.
• Acknowledge that letting go of perfection does not mean you’re a slacker. You can motivate yourself with kindness, joy, passion, creativity, responsibility, and devotion — rather than a self-defeating obsession with being perfect.
• Learn to see yourself as having innate value as a person, regardless of what you accomplish.
• Notice how you can love others, even though they are imperfect, and see if you can begin to do the same for yourself.

Try this exercise:

First, repeat the following sentence a few times and notice how it feels: I need to be perfect.

What thoughts or feelings come up? How does it feel in your body to repeat that sentence?

Now, try repeating I don’t have to be perfect.

How do you feel when you say that?

When we walk around all day telling ourselves we blew it or are not good enough or that we should be perfect, we are reciting what I call nah-firmations (the unhealthy alternative to affirmations). It’s like trying to grow a plant by feeding it poison. How about feeding yourself some human Miracle-Gro and uploading a new message that will truly set you free. As the Eagles sang so beautifully, we have the key!

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