I’ve spent the last seven years learning how to undo perfectionism.
Or more accurately, it was brought to my attention seven years ago that my perfectionism was holding me back, and I didn’t like that.
Perfectionism is keeping me from being… perfect!
So I decided to change. I can neither confirm nor deny if I’m doing a good job.
Unfortunately, this anti-perfectionist journey didn’t turn out the way I wanted. Apparently it’s more of a lifelong quest rather than something I can achieve and win; therefore, my inner perfectionist hates it.
If perfectionism is holding me back, I will rid myself of it!
I’ve been an artist and creator my entire life, but I don’t remember struggling with perfecting my work all the time. I think I gradually developed this trait as I moved through high school and tried harder and harder to win the approval of people around me.
This didn’t necessarily have anything to do with my art. But in general, I would say I never felt enough — good enough, smart enough, strong enough — for the people who mattered most to me.
My idea of success was doing things well and doing them right. Everything was about being right…
(In fact, my husband will tell you that not much has changed!)
And I was rewarded for this. Over and over again. When I pushed myself to “succeed” and achieved excellence, I received positive reinforcement for my worth, my value.
But this compulsion to be right, to do it right, and to know what’s right can only be broken by doing things wrong.
This is easily one of the most frustrating lessons I’ve learned.
Success and excellence became so much a part of my being that I forgot how to enjoy learning and creating and playing.
So instead of trying to amass the perfect anti-perfectionist strategies — which is in itself perfectionist — I’m learning how to learn again. Grow again. Create again. Play again.
I’m learning how to do things imperfectly.
Here’s how I’m doing it. Maybe you can try it, too.
Learning How to Grow Again
I had never heard the phrase “growth mindset” until a few months ago thanks to this article, I realized I’ve been straddling a “fixed” vs. “growth” mindset for much of my life.
I often believed I had to live up to expectations surrounding my intelligence and abilities, yet I had a deep desire to be more open and free — I always wanted to discover, imagine, and innovate. Many times I did. And many times I didn’t.
It’s difficult for me to quiet the negative inner voice.
But remember how I mentioned that conversation from seven years ago when I realized my perfectionism was a serious problem? It marked the first time I started to intentionally become a lifelong learner and grow myself.
Since then, I’ve done these three things to help foster humility and learn how to grow again:
Ask for feedback
Asking for feedback from supervisors, coworkers, family, and friends has been an incredible experience for me. It’s often uncomfortable, but learning how to be humble and communicate clearly has helped me remember that continual growth is the end goal, not continual achievement.
Invest in coaching
In September 2016, I invested in my first coach. I was nervous as heck, but I immediately became a fan and wondered why I was always so afraid.
It was easily the best decision I made at the time, and since then I’ve worked with four other coaches (and a therapist) to help me continue growing and live my best life.
I’ve even became a coach myself. Definitely didn’t see that coming!
I decided to keep doing things that make me uncomfortable, bring up feelings of fear, or require me to do something I’ve never done.
It’s terrifying. It’s also incredibly effective.
It’s the quite possibly worst and best thing to ever happen to me.
Learning How to Create Again
Serious question — since when did creativity get so hard? Gone are the times when I can create and experiment with art for hours, with no expectations, and enjoy every minute of it.
I definitely mourn the loss of those childhood days sometimes.
But for me, it’s not just about playing with paint or writing new songs.
My creativity has become my source of income, and there are real, tangible expectations and deadlines placed on my art. I need to consider quality, performance, and results before, during, and after my attempts at being creative. That’s not always very easy.
(And it’s also a trigger for my perfectionism. Geez, this is exhausting…)
So here are the ways I’m learning to create again without the demands of making it perfect:
Leave it unfinished
Seriously, just stop working on it. I have realized several key shifts occur when I leave something unfinished:
It gives my mind a break, which frees me to be more creative again later
I ask for feedback early and often, which reminds me to be humble and invites clearer communication into client relationships
I can detach my person-hood and my value from the outcome of the project
Go on a walk. Do something different.
To keep creating and innovating, I like to change environments and move my body. It increases my energy, clarifies my focus, and helps me think from a new point of view.
More importantly, it frees me from creative block and allows me to get a project done.
In my last office position, I became known as the woman who took walks around the buildings several times a day. People would ask me what I was doing, then why I was doing it. Eventually they joined me. :)
How sad that I’m admitting — publicly, no less — that I’m learning to have fun again. What is this, the plot from Hook?
But honestly, I’ve decided there is nothing fun or spontaneous about something that’s perfect. The fun, spontaneous, and hilarious things in life get those descriptions precisely because they are imperfect.
And sometimes, when we take something we love and turn it into our work, it’s not that fun anymore. We spend so many hours practicing and honing and perfecting that we forget how to have fun doing it.
I remind myself to create not for work, but for fun.
Learning How to Play* Again
*As I’m writing this, I’m realizing the topic of “play” really isn’t that different from the section on fun. Oh well.
My toddler reminds of this lesson all the time as we make pancakes with Play-Doh, color outside the lines, turn Lego castles into Lego ice cream sundaes, and destroy block towers seconds after creating them.
But for some reason I continue to find myself trying really hard not to lose it when I’m getting blue Play-Doh out of her nose, or literally digging for cheerios in the white Play-Doh, or trying to make sure my 4 month-old doesn’t get Play-Doh bits in her mouth during tummy time. (Wow, clearly there’s a Play-Doh theme here…)
Sure, I’m tired. I’m a parent of small children. I’m trying to run a business from home. I probably need a break. I could take them to the park more often. I need a girls’ night out. I could be easier on myself as a mom.
But you know what I really need? To learn how to play again. So here’s how I’m doing it — it’s simple and to-the-point:
Ignore the to-do list
Because playing is more important than productivity.
Be silly and dance
Because playing is more important than keeping up appearances.
Speak in made-up accents
Because playing is more important than feeling like a serious adult.
P.S. I have this gut feeling I’m going to look back on my life 10 years from now and laugh at myself for getting stressed over whether or not I’m doing things right and rebuilding foam block towers over, and over, and over...