How to Let Go of Perfection

By Ann Elliott

Little girl cutting grass with scissors

To the perfectionist, it is a badge of honor to struggle to get everything done exactly right. Being a perfectionist creates stress, frustration, and anxiety. Why do some consider being a perfectionist a positive thing? The rigidity and inflexibility required to create perfection leaves no room to deal with change. Perfection is unattainable yet for those blinded by the need for order the pursuit is endless. 

For example, my friend, an architect who is such a perfectionist that subcontractors will not bid on his projects because he is so difficult to work with. Another strategy, however, is the electrical contractor I encountered a week before the beginning of the bidding process for a large project. I asked if he planned to submit a bid for my friend’s project and he replied, “On any of his projects, I always add 10% to my bid.”

What Can We Celebrate about the Perfectionist?

There are many strengths for a perfectionist. You can rely on a perfectionist to be punctual. They show up to meetings on time or early with their appropriate documents with them. You can bet their electronic devices have a fully charged battery, too. Do not expect a perfectionist to make it up as they go because they thrive on predictability. A precise methodology makes them comfortable. When others do not meet their exacting standards, perfectionists harshly judge them and themselves as well. It is hard being a perfectionist. Nothing is ever good enough. When these strengths are taken too far, they become a weakness.

Because the perfectionist is adamant about the correct way to do something, they demonstrate a strong opinion and often sarcastically. Have you noticed that perfectionists are tense? 

Organization and structure provide a level of comfort for the perfectionist. When others do not operate at this level of organization, the perfectionist works overtime to make up for this. Not only is the perfectionist doing their work but that of others to make up for the messiness.

A common refrain is “If you can’t do it right, just don’t do it at all.”  If you are leading a team, this mindset creates an environment where it is not safe to make a mistake. Learning occurs when you discover what does not work through a mistake. 

The Root of the Problem

The thinking of the perfectionist is to be beyond the judgment and reproach of others by doing things perfectly. It is understandable to use a sense of order in the middle of the dynamics of a chaotic family experience. A method of gaining acceptance from demanding or emotionally distant parents is to be the perfect child. Who could be unhappy with a kid who got excellent grades, kept their room neat, willingly helped with the family chores, and used good table manners? Being the perfect child is a method of control in an uncontrollable circumstance. 

Perfectionists go to great lengths to defend themselves from the criticism of others. They use self-control to make certain they are not in the cross hairs of others who judge them. You can see why they are on edge and waiting for the other shoe to drop.

First steps to let go of perfectionism

Recognize the problem.

You are using negative emotions to propel your action. You have learned to rely on beliefs that do not serve you. Early in life you kept yourself feeling safe by making no mistakes. You removed yourself from the possible anger and judgment of a parent with your perfect behavior, at least temporarily.

Identify the cost of the problem.

How much do you invest in the most minute details that make no difference in the big picture. The cost of sleepless nights, too many changes to a project, frayed tempers, lost productivity, or missed deadlines is too high. 

Determine if you are willing to develop new thinking and behaving.

Change begins with a decision to do something differently. Albert Einstein said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Understand that it took you a long time to develop this way of thinking. It will take time to create new mental pathways to a healthy way of thinking. Once you begin developing the mental muscles, you experience a difference. In as little as 21 days your brain will show dramatic change.

Learn the situations most likely to spark the “perfectionist.”

Starting a new project that you are deeply interested in, triggers your need to have everything perfect. If your promotion depends on the results of the outcome of your team’s performance, you resort to making everything perfect. 

Use blameless discernment to choose what action requires precision.

Everything does not require precision. Keep an eye on the big picture. There is a point of diminishing returns. How much difference will it make to the final proposal to continue to edit, tweak, and change the nuances? 

Act with clear-eyed focus on what is most important.

Small steps in the right direction produce better outcomes. This requires discipline to know what is necessary for the success of your project. Consider the possibility that perfection is impossible. Excellence is good enough.

Take the saboteur assessment at Positive Intelligence (PQ).

Discover which mental saboteurs are responsible for your stress and impeding your productivity. This free assessment gives insight into how your strength becomes a detriment when taken to extremes. 

A dyed-in-the-wool perfectionist knows the drill

It is hard for a dyed-in-the-wool perfectionist to start something. The pressure to produce something perfect is daunting. This is particularly true when you are not an expert on the subject. I recall when I was considering the possibility of a monthly newsletter. People I respected advised me to do it and be sure to provide something of value to the reader. For someone not well versed in technology, graphics, mass mailing, building an email list it was overwhelming. And something of value, too! The impetus that got me into action was when I promised to add the audience where I was giving a presentation to my list of subscribers. I felt compelled to admit I had not sent out the first newsletter. However, I promised to put them on the list of recipients for the inaugural edition of “The Leadership Strategist.” The first edition came to life just weeks later and has been published since 2010. I am a recovering perfectionist and have learned to put my attention on the most important things. Even with an occasional relapse, I do not judge myself so harshly. 

The wrap up

Sarah Ban Breathnach, author of Simple Abundance, quotes the writer, Ann Lamott in the chapter titled, “Little Miss Perfect.” Lamott says, “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life.” 

The price is too high, and the return is not worth it. Striving for perfection is stressful not only for the perfectionist but those around them. It is not achievable, and others do not notice the attention to the minutiae that is all consuming. 

If you recognize these thinking patterns in yourself, think how life would be different to operate in easy and flow. The seven-week course developed by Shirzad Chamine with Positive Intelligence methodology has helped thousands of successful people create success without stress. 

Discover your saboteurs by investing five minutes to take this free assessment

My invitation to you. Reach out to me at [email protected]. I will help you discover how to take your insights from discovering your saboteurs, the perfectionist (Stickler) and others, to better relationships, confidence, higher productivity, and peace of mind. You may qualify for the next POD to develop your mental fitness. We will explore how this seven-week program benefits you.

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Ann Elliott

Ann Elliott, founder of The Berkana Company, excels at leadership strategy

An expert at helping business leaders enjoy more profits and improved productivity with less stress, she blends fun and excitement with executive coaching and training to yield results for her clients.

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