Perfectionism: why it’s time to say goodbye

I went to my new gym for the first time the other day. I didn’t see the very small “i” next to the word Step, indicating that the class I had chosen was an intermediate class. It’s about ten years since I took a step class, and it was in English, my mother tongue, not French, my adopted language of 3 years that, no matter how hard I try, sounds more often than not like gobbledygook through a microphone.

So there was everybody else in the class, whirling and turning and scooting around, over, even under (I could swear!) their steps. And there was me, trying desperately to replicate the moves without face-planting and, when that inevitably failed, moving enthusiastically from right to left step touching like a true pro until the next round started and I could try to get back in sync. I must have looked absolutely ridiculous to the rest of the class and I was aware of this fact. And yet I couldn’t get the grin off my face.


Because I was proud that I was putting myself out there and having a go. I didn’t leave the class, head between my legs. I wasn’t scared of getting it wrong. I was just there, doing my best, learning what I could in the moment. For me, this attitude was nothing short of a remarkable achievement.

Whilst it may be amusing to some of you that doing something so normal could seem like an accomplishment, it’s only those of you who have never spent time in the clutches of perfectionism. For anyone out there who’s suffering from or recovering from perfectionist tendencies, you will recognise how much of a milestone my little foray into aerobic imperfection really was.

Whilst it may not fit the criteria of an illness or a disease, perfectionism can be a debilitating affliction. Highly capable people can render themselves completely incapable of fulfilling their potential, or even a portion thereof, simply because they worry so much about the consequences of what will happen if they get it wrong. And you know what’s the worst part? We only have ourselves to blame.

And do that we usually do! We blame ourselves for not being good enough at every possible opportunity. And if, at a certain point in time, we realise that our perfectionism is holding us back, then we also get to blame ourselves for being so imperfect that we want to be perfect! Perfectionism is a vicious cycle of unmet targets and flagrant self-flagellation.

Desiring excellence is useful. Desiring perfection is not. After all, perfection is an abstract concept that doesn’t actually exist. Especially amongst us humans. I hate to have to break it to you, but a life spent chasing perfection could be just as productively spent chasing a meeting with Santa Claus. Not the one who lives in your local shopping centre in December, but the REAL one who lives in the North Pole and slides down the chimney of EVERY child in the Christian world during the course of one night.

That’s right. It’s never going to happen. We’re never going to be perfect. So we may just as well stop trying.

This, however, is often more easily said than done. Perfectionism can be deep rooted, held near and dear to us in our complex structures of beliefs and values. Sometimes it can even be so deeply ingrained that it forms part of our identity. Ever heard yourself say “I AM a perfectionist”? That’s a belief that goes straight to your core.

Where we picked up the belief that we need to be perfect varies from person to person. Maybe it was our teachers or parents who were always challenging us to achieve more, and our child’s brain heard this as “anything less than perfect isn’t good enough”. Maybe certain people in our lives have actually expected us to be perfect at one point or another. Maybe our culture holds perfectionism as a virtue. Maybe it’s just something we dreamed up all on our own. The possibilities are endless.

Just as there are any number of causes, there are also any number of solutions that can help us to ease up and not be so hard on ourselves. There’s no one-size fits all magical cure. But I want share something with you that really helped me to realise that I had to move on from expecting myself to be 100% perfect 100% of the time. A graph I was shown as a participant in an advanced communication seminar. Its simply this:

Learning curvesWhether or not there is any real science behind this graph or not, I do not know. It may be right. It may be wrong. For me it’s irrelevant, because what it did for me was got me thinking about how I view my mistakes…

Who learns the fastest out of all of us? Kids. And what aren’t they afraid to do? Make mistakes. If we stopped trying the first time we fell over when we were babies, would we have ever learned to walk? Absolutely not. So why, as adults, do we try to protect ourselves from valuable learning experiences? Why do we forget that the word mistake is just another word for lesson?

I first stumbled across this graph when I was starting to learn French. At the time I was tight-lipped and not learning a great deal. My progress was slow. Suddenly a light-bulb went on. I realised that if I ever wanted to speak the language, I had to do exactly that. Speak. Let myself make mistakes. Let myself be ridiculous. Let myself be laughed at. And learn from it.

And so a brave adventure started. There are moments when it is difficult. A few months ago I was nearly in tears when a whole table-load of my collegues burst out laughing at me. But I know with 100% certainty that my progress in learning the French language took a rapid spike upwards, starting the moment I first dared to make a mistake. And so I carry on with the trial and error method of learning, and I have managed to also carry the concept across into other areas of my life. As witnessed by my Step class antics. Lesson learnt there? Well, I have a new level of competence in Step to aspire to… and… you can bet I will be checking the gym program carefully for hidden warning from now on!

Are there moments when I fall back into my wicked, perfection-craving ways? Absolutely! Is this normal? Um, you bet. So what has changed compared to before? Instead of blaming myself for taking a backwards step, I just try to learn from the experience and get myself back onto the path of mistake-making, explorative learning as quickly as possible.

We often have the tendency to feel ridiculous when we make an error. Sometimes those around us, or society in general, contribute, pressuring us to believe that we should feel stupid for everything we do “wrong”. But if we listen to the little devil that sits on our shoulder, whispering perfectionist thoughts lullingly in our ear, we inevitably hold ourselves back from achieving that of which we are truly capable. Freeing yourself from perfectionist tendencies is a truly liberating, not to mention rewarding, experience.


One thought on “Perfectionism: why it’s time to say goodbye

  1. Not thinking about being perfect and getting everything all correct lets us immerse ourselves in the moment and what we’re doing. If we make a mistake, it’s best that we have a laugh at ourselves and then move on to trying again. Being positive in my opinion leads to positive results and a positive life 🙂

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