Getting Things Done: Confessions of a Recovering Perfectionist

My cousin has written about this a few times in the past months, and I think it’s a worthy topic.  Perfectionism is crippling and paralyzing and for a long time it kept me from accomplishing many of the things that I really wanted to get done.  Over the last few years, I’ve really committed myself to getting control of it and living beyond it.

I don’t know if it’s a gene, or a result of some component of my upbringing, but I am an absolute professional at finding, analyzing, and then agonizing over anything in my life that I think can be better, more perfect, more efficient, or more refined.

In school as a 4th grader this resulted in a stress-related stomach ulcer.  I was so wound-up over making sure that I got straight A’s that I literally made myself sick.

This is no way to live.

As an adult in my early 20′s, the effect was different, but no less debilitating.  What happened is that instead of trying something that I wanted to do, or taking a risk, I opted out, fearing that I might not be "the best" or that I might fail to live up to my own standards.

Here’s the funny thing about perfectionism.  It’s impossible to be a perfect perfectionist.  You are always going to fuck up and miss.  Perfect is some fairy-tale place in your head and you are going to spin your wheels over and over again trying to get to a place that doesn’t really exist.  That blows.

Furthermore, it leads to paralysis.  Instead of doing something as well as you can, you do nothing.  Sure, you do nothing perfectly, but you aren’t actually doing what you really want to do, so who cares?

Alternately, you do things that you really don’t care about because it’s easy to say, "I’m not doing this perfectly because I don’t really care about it."  I did this in my professional life for a few years before realizing that if you spend your life doing things that you don’t really believe in, because you are too chicken-shit to risk failure at something you do believe in, you are going to end up a very bitter, very dissatisfied human being.

Again, no way to live.

So, gradually, over the past few years, I began recognizing the perfectionist voice in my head and telling it to Shut the Fuck Up.  Pardon my language, but that is literally the phrase I used.  I sometimes even uttered it quietly out loud, in order to hear myself say it.  I said it that way because I meant it and I didn’t see any reason to sugar-coat it.

I blogged privately for years because I was petrified to own my writing publicly.  I was terrified of judgment, because I knew that my writing was not perfect, my thoughts not fully baked, my musings irrelevant or insignificant.  I wrote myself off before anyone else had a chance to.  I beat them to the punch. 

That’s a cop-out.

I started realizing a lot of this after I took my first self-defense class in 2001.  One of the key components to self-defense is emotional: you must truly believe that you are worth defending.  That sounds simple when you read it here, but you would be surprised when you get a room full of 15 vulnerable adult women and start listening to the way that they think about themselves.

When I became a self-defense instructor and started teaching, the point became more and more apparent.

We are hard on ourselves.  Too hard. 

I realized that as I started giving myself permission to try and fail, or to produce something (writing, art, a photograph) imperfect, I opened up a whole new world of possibility for myself.

If it was ok to fail, that meant it was ok to try! 

I also began to realize that I was my own worst critic.  For every photograph I made that I found mediocre, there were a line of people who hadn’t noticed the long list of things that I perceived as wrong with it.  For every month that went by that I did not increase my fitness or batting average as much as I would have hoped, there were a whole bunch of people standing beside me saying, "Wow!  Look what you’re doing!"  For every blog entry that I would have liked to refined more or edited more thoroughly, there were people who read it (who I’d never met in my life) who said, "This is powerful. This is meaningful to me."

As soon as I started dealing with that perfectionist voice in my head, my production shot through the roof.  Someone recently asked me how I am able to produce so much content (I have three active blogs, and am a freelance copywriter and marketing consultant).  I responded that sometimes it’s just about getting it out the door.  I give myself an hour, or an hour and a half, and what I have at the end is what goes up.

Some topics require more research or planning, but some only require a little focus, dedicated time, thought, and a deadline.  Sometimes I wish I could do more on a subject, sometimes I don’t catch a typo, or I omit a word – when I decide it’s go-time, I move my mind away from all those little things and just execute. (By the way, here’s a good chance for me to thank all my readers for dealing with my occasional typo or word omission…thank you!)

In my active life, giving myself permission to fail has infinitely increased the joy that I get out of what I do.  Had I listened to my perfectionist voice, I would have never tried cyclocross (let’s face it, I sucked at first!  That’s how it works!).  My biggest heroes are the people who get out there despite the odds and flail while they try something new. 

Watching my cycling team leader, Ty, slide around on a cyclocross course was absolutely inspiring in this way.  Here’s a very fast Cat 3 Roadie who just can’t ride in the mud.  This guy is used to hammering people into the ground, and he got his ass handed to him in cyclocross (consistently).  Did that stop him?  No.  He showed up again and again, flashing his $10,000 smile the whole time. 

That’s what it’s about.

Risk something.  Do it for joy, not for prowess.  Love yourself with all of your imperfections.  Go suck at something – it is really kick-ass for the soul, and even better for the ego.

I call myself a Recovering Perfectionist because, much like an Alcoholic, I believe that I will always be a Perfectionist.  I can choose to let is run my life, or I can choose to be in control of  it.

I choose freedom.
And fun.
And productivity.

I choose to kick my inner Perfectionist in the teeth every time it tries to open it’s mouth; to honor my accomplishments, accept my faults, and refuse to let perfectionist paranoia stop me from getting things done and branching out in new directions.



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  1. Wow, WOW. YES.

    “Alternately, you do things that you really don’t care about because it’s easy to say, “I’m not doing this perfectly because I don’t really care about it.”"

    This describes me in so many ways. You’d never know by all the flailing around and last-place finishes, but it is SO HARD for me to fully commit. Cyclocross season was a perfect example for this. I won the first race because I put 100% effort in. Then I got 4th…7th…then I cat’d up and wow, 25th…and then for a few races I just stopped trying. Because I suck anyway, right? Why commit? If I can’t win I might as well not try.

    But I hated that, I felt crap about myself for not going all out. So then I started risking my pride–I risked saying “I went 100% effort and still got last”. Hey guess what? I moved up about 10 places. And felt freaking awesome.

    I do this with work too. I start off with a project, I get really excited about how awesome it’s going to be, and if I start getting worried it’s not going to be up to my unrealistically high standards, I quit. I do an OK job just to get it done, and hope for better next time. Doesn’t matter that it ended up sucking, because I didn’t really try, right? WRONG. It’s funny, but cyclocross totally taught me this: my version of perfect simply means doing something as well as I can given the time frame. If I have 2 days to do something, I going to put in 100% effort for 2 days and that’s all I can do. Sometimes it will be great, sometimes it won’t, but that’s life. I’ll know in the end I gave it my all, and that’s what I can really feel great about.

  2. Ever since I’ve known you, you are always pushing yourself outside your comfort zone, reaching, dreaming, trying, rocking it out, risking and *living.*

    You have always been an inspiration to me.

    Our flaws and scars are what make us so damn pretty anyway.

  3. Heidi
    A belated congratulations on winning in that writing contest.
    And a bigger congrats for identifying and expelling the perfectionistic demon.
    I’m reminded of a quote by Anne Lamott in her book on writing, “Bird by Bird.” “The secret to writing,” she says, “is the courage to write shitty first drafts.”
    Yeah, sometimes for all of us they get made public before they are “polished”, but sometimes the rawness is what gives it its appeal.
    I always look forward to another post by “the everyday athlete!”

    Do you have any thoughts on goal setting this time of year?

  4. It’s so funny that you mention your blogs here, if for no other reason than I hold your blogs up as an example of what a compelling blog should be. There are so few people out there who can write *really good shit* that keeps people coming back. So often it is self-absorbed, whiny crap that IMHO *should* be kept quiet so as to spare the rest of us the agony. But you can write about the most mundane details of your life and really keep it interesting.

    WRT to other aspects of your life that I can apply to myself, I am *so* going to buy a new bike once I have popped this latest baby out.

  5. I love you man! Thank you for lighting the way for those of us who are a little further back on the road.

    I think one of the biggest revelations about perfectionism is that it will never be fixed (then we would have perfected it, right?).

    Keep kicking!

  6. Wow! You pegged it. I never think of myself as a perfectionist, because if you look around me, everything is sloppy and disorganized, and I act very relaxed. But I’ve got that tape playing in my head, going 24/7 “You suck!” So thanks, I’ll tell it to fuck off, and try to do something I suck at, and care deeply about (Ouch, that part sounds hard). Thanks for writing from your soul.

    P.S. I wouldn’t have written this, and certainly would never have submitted this, unless you’d called me on it, because, well, this reply kind of sucks. Thanks!

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