Most people realize that perfectionism, as Lamott puts it in her book Bird by Bird, "is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life." But seriously unwell people such as me run into trouble when we try to let go of perfectionism. We end up getting perfectionistic about our attempts to stop being perfectionists. I began finding my way out of this psychological morass when I heard the Buddhist saying "To be enlightened is to be without anxiety over imperfection." Years after adopting this perspective, I'm still a perfectionist, but here's the thing: I don't care.
I've found some reliable ways to reduce my anxiety about my imperfections, including my imperfection at ridding myself of perfectionism. I encourage you to try doing the following exercises—imperfectly.
Exercise One: Personify Your Inner Perfectionist
I've been using the term perfectionist as though it's something you can be. Actually, I think it's something people have, like brain damage. Separating your innate personality from your perfectionsim frees you to confront it, rather than get lost in it. To that end, I recommend giving your perfectionism its own name and face.
Can't picture this inner critic? Start by thinking about a mistake you've made recently. Let the voice of the oppressor berate you ("You dumb, clumsy, fat, boring..." etc.). Listen: Does that voice sound familiar? Does it belong to your wicked stepmother, your boss, your ex-spouse, an amalgam of your least-favorite movie critics? Try to summon a visual image of the tyrant. Scribble a picture of it, and do something insulting to this picture whenever your perfectionist acts up. In time, as you neutralize the destructive power inherent in this aspect of yourself, you may well lose all fear of it. By just externalizing and rejecting your inner critic, you can decrease your anxiety considerably.
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.
"Ninety percent of staying in shape," says one of my professional-athlete clients, "is getting to the gym." I've heard high-achieving people say the same thing about pretty much every human enterprise: Successful musicians just show up, day after day, to practice their instruments. Successful businessmen show up for their customers. Successful writers show up at the blank page. Ask any of them and they'll tell you that most days, they come nowhere near perfection. What makes them winners is not instant excellence but the sheer dumb repetition of showing up.
The same is true of the even more significant task of sustaining human relationships. Consider the people who have most blessed your life—are they the folks you remember as perfect or those who were simply, consistently there for you? You don't have to be perfect for your friends, your children, or your beloved; you just have to show up.
You may have noticed that this article, though edited since its initial shitty-first-draft incarnation, is still far from perfect. Do I wish this were not the case? You bet your ass I do. My inner perfectionist (an immaculately dressed socialite who carries an arrest warrant, a flamethrower, and a bad case of rabies) is outraged by my literary shortcomings. But I have learned to let her fuss without succumbing to the anxiety she encourages. Long experience as a profoundly flawed person has taught me this unexpected truth: that welcoming imperfection is the way to accomplish what perfectionism promises but never delivers. It gives us our best performance, and genuine acceptance in the family of human—and by that I mean imperfect—beings.
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