Confessions of a Perfectionist

As I make my final preparations for my perfectionism workshop this Saturday I have been noticing my inner perfectionist voice getting louder and louder, growing from a whisper to a shout…the workshop isn’t good enough…you don’t know what you’re talking about…everyone’s going to laugh at you…you should probably cancel and make this better before putting it out there to the world. There have been moments where I have wanted nothing more than to cancel the perfectionist workshop…because it’s not perfect. I can have a little laugh at myself about the irony of that thought, but to be honest the humor doesn’t really lessen the pain all that much. Despite how much I think about and work on perfectionism — mine and my clients’ — I can still get squeezed in its grip at times, and suffer mightily.

I share this because I want my clients to know I’ve been where they are, and I know the pain that perfectionism can cause. I share this because I want my clients to know that personal growth is a bumpy process, and even as we improve overall there are still setbacks and moments of distress. As much as we might like to, we can’t surgically remove our perfectionist voices — or any other bothersome parts of our personality. My perfectionist voice shows up less frequently than it used to and is usually quieter, but it is still there. And it can still summon the strength to shout pretty loud sometimes, like it has this week.

While time and effort has changed my perfectionist voice slightly, the much bigger shift has been the way I respond to the voice. For a long time my default response was to believe its judgments (this project is not good enough, I’m not good enough) and then work extra hard (pulling all nighters, depriving myself of any fun) to prove it wrong. Of course, no matter how hard I worked or how well I did, the perfectionist in me could always find something that wasn’t good enough, and so I was never able to prove it wrong. I just stayed trapped in a cycle of working super hard and still feeling crappy about myself. Sometimes I achieved my goals this way, but I was never able to enjoy my successes. And just as often I gave up on my goals because I was so emotionally exhausted from beating myself up that I couldn’t accomplish what I set out to do.

After a lot of personal work, I now have a handful of other ways I respond to that critical voice. Sometimes my response comes from my gut, a powerful “knock it off” like I’m telling a schoolyard bully to back off. Sometimes I review the evidence against the perfectionist’s beliefs, get in touch with a less distorted version of the truth, using my head to talk myself out of the criticisms and judgments. These are sometimes helpful, but by and large the most effective response is response is one that comes from my heart, rather than my head or gut. For me, finding real empathy and compassion for what that perfectionist is trying to do for me is the key to getting out of the cycle of working hard and feeling shitty. I recognize that the perfectionist voice is trying — in its own weird, mean way — to prevent me from failing, to help me feel safe and strong. When I remember that the voice is trying to help, not hurt, I feel a little tender towards the perfectionist. I thank it for it’s efforts and remind it that I have some better ways of making myself feel safe and strong these days. Nine times out of ten, the perfectionist quiets down after this response… and without all my energy tied up in battling this voice, I have more inner resources available to work on my actual goal (like getting this workshop ready!).

What’s your default way of responding to your perfectionist? Would you benefit from a head-centered approach instead, or would a reply from the heart be more effective for you as it is for me? If my story of perfectionist struggles resonates with you, come to my workshop this Saturday and experiment with new ways of responding to that voice in your head. If what you’ve been doing isn’t working for you, what have you got to lose?