Thoughts On Overcoming Perfectionism
it seems like the more time goes by, the more our culture values and rewards the idea of ‘perfectionism.’ “I’m a total perfectionist“ is one of those things that people say about themselves that they hope comes off as self-deprecating, but in reality sounds a lot more like a humble-brag. it’s basically written within our code to strive to be perfectionists and to believe that’s the best way to be, and I have pretty much spent my entire life trying to unlearn that.
my parents love to tell me over and over that when i was a kid, i used to break down crying if i ever colored outside the lines in my coloring book. i haven’t yet had the pleasure of unpacking all of what that means with the right therapist, but i’m sure that when i do it will probably explain a lot.
clearly my obsession with being a ‘high achiever’ started young, and as i grew up it only continued to build on itself. it was a toxic way of life, but it was tricky to identify it when everyone seemed to be rewarding me for the good grades and things i achieved as a result of my perfectionism. it’s one thing to have to try to live up to other people’s unrealistic expectations your whole life, but it’s something entirely different and potentially worse when you have to try to live up to your own.
so when did i hit my breaking point? i’m not sure if there was a specific event that i can point to, but i know that things changed when i started writing music and playing shows on weekends in high school. until that point, life seemed somewhat simple and transactional - study hard and pay attention, and you get good grades. doing well in school was the only real ‘success’ anyone expected of me, so all i had to do was work really hard, do decently well, and i’d feel good about myself. boom. there wasn’t a whole lot of room for ambiguity.
but as soon as i started actually ‘working’ in the real world, i learned pretty fast that A) REAL success in life is not linear - one month i’d have 5 shows booked and the next month it would be crickets, and B) you can work incredibly hard and do all of the ‘right’ things and still get rejected. that was news to me.
after a few years of battling really hard with this new reality, i had to face the fact that i had lived my entire life holding myself to an impossible standard. and i was exhausted.
i’m very much still a work in progress when it comes to overcoming perfectionism, but these are the tools that have helped me the most in my journey to accept myself right where i’m at:
Focus On What You Want to “Do,” Not What You Want To “Be”
i learned this mindset shift from my friend Ken Black when i went through his Pivot workshop, and it’s been a huge one for me.
when you focus on what you want to “be” - whether that’s famous, rich, successful, or popular - you’re thinking in terms of outward perception and achievements, and end up comparing yourself against others. it’s a total beat down and you’ll never ‘measure up.’
on the other hand, when you focus on what you want to “do” - make music, write songs, paint, travel, make a living doing something creative - you’re thinking in terms of action and how you want to spend your time on this planet. HUGE difference.
Define Success Your Own Way
this might sound a little cliché, but i never really tried to define the term until recently. it takes some time to land on exactly what your definition is, but it’s totally worth it.
here are my work in progress measures of success:
create every day
approach work and life courageously
carve out time to travel
live gratefully and purposefully
use failures as fuel
make a living joyfully creating and iterating
now, if something happens and it doesn’t go the way i wanted it to - a meeting, a show, an idea, or whatever - i try to look at this list and ask myself: did i approach it courageously? was i coming from a grateful and purposeful place? etc etc. if the answer is yes, then it was a success - even if it didn’t ‘work out’ in the conventional sense (which many things don’t!)
Know That Self-Worth Does Not Come From Achievements
this is probably the most important one for me. for so long, i looked for validation in my achievements - my GPA, what schools i got into, what record labels wanted to sign me, how many good reviews my album got - all of that. and the main thing i learned is that no matter how many ‘wins’ you get in life, big or small, it will never be enough to validate you if you look to your achievements to define your self-worth.
how do i know this? because if achievements truly validated me, then i would STILL feel validated from getting into that school, or getting that record deal, or that great album review. but the crazy thing is that most of these achievements are temporary highs, and when we’re obsessed with perfectionism we move right on to chasing the next one.
now, i’m definitely not saying you shouldn’t be super proud of your achievements and hitting your goals. i’m extremely proud of everything i’ve accomplished in work and life, but there’s a huge difference between being proud of an achievement and seeking validation in it.
as i said before, i’m definitely still a huge work in progress and i have to remind myself of all of this over and over again, but talking about it and knowing a lot of people struggle with the same thing helps.
do you have any favorite tricks for letting yourself off the hook when it comes to perfectionism??