Your perfectionism will tell you that it is your ticket to perfection, your one chance at a flawless existence. This may be true for you. If your brand of perfectionism has created a life free of mistakes or shortcomings, by all means, carry on. But if you're anything like me, perfectionism usually paralyzes you before you begin, stiffens you until you screw up, and sends shame howling through your consciousness even if you do well. It's time to wake up and smell this dark-roasted little truth: Perfectionism never delivers on its promise of perfection. It does not work.
Some psychologists use the phrase "creative hopelessness" to describe the moments when we realize that our psychological strategies are useless or counterproductive. Embracing this hopelessness—in this case, relinquishing the delusional hope that we can or must be flawless—allows us to seek happiness in the only place it can be found: our real, messy, imperfect experience. To arrive at creative hopelessness, write down your reason for maintaining your perfectionism. It'll probably be something like this:
If I try hard enough and I'm very careful and I follow all the rules, everything will go right and everyone will love me and I'll feel good all the time.
Now ask yourself the following question, made famous by our good friend Dr. Phil: So, how's it working for you?
The most common response I get when I ask this question, whether I'm addressing myself or a client, is laughter. Releasing our doomed, anxious hope for perfection opens us to the joy available in our actual lives—especially if we move on to the next exercise.
Exercise Three: Do Something Badly
Gradual, safe exposure to whatever makes us anxious is always the most powerful way of eliminating anxiety. In order not to be cowed by imperfection, you must not only accept the imperfect, but seek it. Take shitty first drafts—please. I never sit down to write an excellent first draft, or even a good one. My goal is always to create something readers wouldn't even want to scrape off their shoes. Adopting this objective gives me permission to do the lousy job I'm sure to do on any initial attempt. It gets me through the excruciating process of going from Nothing to Something, no matter how odious it may be, turning it into Something Better is usually less work, and you may even turn it into Something Good. The first step tward achieving excellence is imperfection.
Try this: Choose something you've always wanted to do—paint, jog, whatever. Now set out to do this thing really badly. Your inner perfectionist may erupt in violent protest. Thank her for sharing, then reward yourself for daring to do a terrible job. An even better option is the buddy system: Commit with a friend that you'll both do something really terribly, then praise each other for following through.
If you have the guts to do this, you'll find that contrary to conventional wisdom, people love you when you're openly imperfect. I discovered this when teaching business school, a task I approached with little preparation, less talent, and all the confidence of a snowball headed for hell. On my desk, I kept a box labeled "Criticisms and Recommendations," in which my students could deposit anonymous suggestions about how I might improve my teaching. I learned so much from the students that my teaching improved rapidly. This is what happens whenever we free ourselves to grow by letting ourselves do something badly.