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No Need to be Perfect, You are Already Whole: A Guide to Ditching Perfectionism

Updated: May 1

Picture this: You are rushing to get an assignment done because you’re experiencing a lot of stress in your personal life. Because you didn’t have adequate time, you didn’t proofread your work and turned in what turned out to be some solid ideas, but with a lot of typos and mistakes. Instead of an A, you get a B. When you see your grade, your heart sinks: “I knew it. I’m an idiot. I can’t do anything right. I should just give up if all I can manage is this level of drivel. My professor would probably thank me if I dropped the class.”

If this sounds familiar, you’ve probably struggled with perfectionism at some point in your life.

Perfectionism can lead to all-or-nothing thinking, which can put us in quite a bind. Think of the difference in thinking “I feel embarrassed I didn’t turn in my best work” vs. “I’m an idiot.” One of those statements expresses a specific feeling based on one specific performance; the other expresses a universal condemnation of who we are as a person, regardless of the setting. As Brene Brown famously stated, “Guilt deals with behavior. Shame says I am wrong.” It’s ok to want to push ourselves to do our best, but we can get caught in shame and paralysis if we expect to be perfect.

So, how do we counteract perfectionistic tendencies? Here’s a quick list of some behaviors that help us embrace ourselves as we are:

  • Connect to your self-worth– Repeat after me: You are already whole. You are worthy of love. You have what you need. You don’t have to earn self-love, you don’t have to earn the “right” to be happy. Poet Mary Oliver says it best in her poem ‘Wild Geese.’ You don’t have to work so hard; you already belong.

  • Learn from Mistakes Instead of fearing failure, embrace it as an opportunity for growth and learning. Analyze what went wrong, make necessary adjustments, and apply the lessons learned. This kind of thinking is empowering for future efforts. So, maybe the paper you wrote wasn’t your best work. That’s ok. Now is a fertile time to figure out how to get the help you need to do your best next time. Remember, stay curious about yourself; it’s more fun to experiment getting to know how you work best than to condemn yourself for not getting it right.

  • Offer Yourself Compassion: Speaking of condemnation, it doesn’t help when we punish ourselves for not being perfect. Negative self-talk can damage our esteem and sense of worth. Try talking to yourself the way you would to a good friend who is feeling insecure about getting a B on their paper. Would you tell them they’re an idiot? No way! You would remind them of their excellent qualities and help them reframe the experience as something to learn from, not to suffer over.

  • Self-Care: This doesn’t mean putting scented lotion on (but if that makes you feel loved, go for it!) but instead means recognizing and soothing the pain we feel when we fail to be “perfect.” By soothing ourselves, we feel the feeling and can process our experience in a way that lets us move on. Things like going for a walk, listening to a favorite song, eating a favorite meal are all ways in which we can comfort ourselves when we’re feeling the sting of not measuring up to perfectionistic standards.

  • Celebrate: Acknowledge what’s working in your life, what’s going well, no matter how small it is. Stayed on top of the laundry this week? You deserve a gold star!

Though social media can often make us feel as if everyone else has life figured out, make no mistake: the human experience is painful and everyone feels broken sometimes. Remember we are connected in our humanness. You may not get an A on every assignment, but as a human being, you are a permanent A+. As James Baldwin said “Your crown has already been bought and paid for.. All you have to do is wear it. “

*This post owes its existence to Katherine Morgan Schafler’s brilliant and funny book “The Perfectionist’s Guide to Losing Control: A Path to Peace and Power.”

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