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What I’ve learned as a recovering perfectionist

November 15, 2022, 9:33 PM UTC
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Just because it isn’t perfect doesn’t mean it’s a failure.
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I used to convince myself perfectionism was equivalent to striving for excellence. 

Throughout school and my early career, this level of conscientiousness was rewarded. People knew they could count on me to get things done and exceed expectations. 

I internalized that what people valued about me was my diligence and precision. The recognition fueled me. 

Outwardly, I seemed to be thriving. Inside, I struggled with how to keep up with other people’s expectations (and my own). I agonized over making the perfect decision for everything, including how to start a project, what to write in an email, what to wear, and which item to buy. 

Perfectionism is a mask for vulnerability. It keeps us from showing others what we fear they will see about us. In my case, I was afraid others would see I didn’t have it all together, after all. (As if anyone does!)

It took me many years to learn what I thought was driving me to be successful was actually holding me back. The biggest motivator to finally make a change was when I stepped into a significant leadership role—I wanted to be a better role model for my team. Through conscious efforts to understand my behaviors and trying new approaches, over time I’ve transitioned from perfectionist to recovering perfectionist to joyfully living in enough.

You may be stepping into a new leadership role or looking to reclaim your energy and time from the unattainable standards you’ve set for yourself. Giving up on being a perfectionist doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It creates a new opportunity for you to commit to growth and learning as your desired outcomes.

Here’s how to get started.

Try these strategies to reduce your need for perfection

1. Develop an aphorism

As a perfectionist, you may be a pro at self-talk, but it may be a negative voice in your head. Channel that skill into positive reinforcement for yourself by developing an aphorism you can rely on. Here’s one I used through my post-perfectionism growth: Remember you’re making the best decision you can with the information you have at the time.

This phrase allowed me to honor that I did the best I could, rather than feeling not good enough. It also helped me to stay present in the moment instead of worrying about the future.

2. Try something new

When you put yourself into a new situation, it requires you to be a beginner. This environment may feel uncomfortable at first, because it’s unfamiliar. A beginner’s mindset allows you to focus more on learning, rather than performance. It might result in a mistake or failure, or it just might lead to an outcome even better than you had expected. Either way, it will lead to your growth.

3. Recognize your strengths

When you’re pursuing perfection, it feels like no other results are worth recognizing. After all, there’s still more that can be done. To begin to separate your worth from your accomplishments, take some time to consider what you’re good at and what you enjoy doing. You may even choose to write these things down and look back at them when you want to remind yourself. Here’s the thing: You can value what you do well and still work toward developing other aspects of yourself. The goal, though, is to show appreciation to yourself.

4. Celebrate progress

Oftentimes perfectionists are so focused on achieving their goals that they forget to acknowledge when they reach them and move on to the next project. I know this personally. In my book, One Bold Move a Day: Meaningful Actions Women Can Take to Fulfill Their Leadership and Career Potential, one of the foundational mindsets for growth is the Progress Mindset. When I started honoring how far I’ve come and the wins I had along the way, I found the journey was as important as the outcomes. 

In driving for perfection, your work is never enough—you are never enough. Instead, you can focus on what you’ve learned and how you’ve grown, which is a continual process. Though these strategies will take effort and time, being less of a perfectionist will lead to more fully living your life.

Shanna A. Hocking is principal of Hocking Leadership, which helps companies and nonprofit organizations build stronger workplace cultures, develop leaders to reach their potential, and support women to thrive at work. She is the author of One Bold Move a Day

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