Nobody’s Perfect: Are You Judging Yourself Too Harshly?

Are you a perfectionist? Did you know that a ‘to do’ list is the signature of a perfectionist? Guilty as charged. (A ‘to do’ list is great for getting things out of your head so you can relax, and I often recommend it, provided the list is realistic and manageable rather than overwhelming). Overusing the word ‘should’ is also a sign of a perfectionist: “I should be cleaning the floor instead of reading this romance novel.”

“Perfectionism is the highest form of self abuse” – Tao Te Ching

I have a confession to make, and I’m sure it won’t be startling for those who know me. I am a recovering perfectionist. As an only child who was raised by perfectionist parents, it’s no surprise that I was a ‘good girl’. My expectations for myself were set very high. I felt out of control when I wasn’t able to control everything. Can you relate?

Perfectionism can be crippling. It can cause loneliness, anxiety, depression, low self worth, unhealthy body image, guilt, pessimism, controlling behaviour, OCD, rigidity, procrastination, burn-out and isolation. It can strain relationships and cause illness. For me, it was causing stress. The pressure to perform manifested in the form of debilitating headaches during most of my high school years. I fell into the trap of measuring my worth by how well I did in school. And I was rewarded with excellent report cards and approval from my well-meaning parents and teachers. What we are rewarded for becomes habit.

Unlike other addictions like alcohol, drugs and eating disorders, perfectionism is actually accepted and even encouraged in our society. Thinking back to my first job interview, when asked what my greatest strength was, I said perfectionism. Then I spent the next 20 years trying to overcome that so-called strength.

Some will argue that there are benefits to being a perfectionist, but the high costs outweigh the advantages. There is a fine line between the desire to excel vs. striving to accomplish goals that are beyond reach and reason. Perfectionism diminishes our ability to be productive because a task expands to fill the time we have allowed for it. If you find your perfectionistic tendencies coming out during certain tasks or projects, put a time limit on them. Resist spending an inappropriate amount of time attempting to achieve perfection.  Ask what the return is on your time investment. If the return is limited, then limit your time; the payoff should match the time invested in it. Set priorities and boundaries carefully, so you’re spending the most time on the things that yield the highest returns.

It’s so much more liberating on the other side of perfectionism. What was really helpful for me was when I learned to pay attention to my inner critic (that judgemental voice we all have inside our heads). I was horrified at the defeating things it was saying to me. I worked very hard at detaching from the negative thoughts and reprogramming that voice so it was nicer to me. It’s called ‘L.V.M.’ (Little Voice Management). Another thing that really helped was getting a dog. It’s pretty hard to be a perfectionist when there’s a new puppy in the house! I’ve released the need to control the uncontrollable; I’ve detached from the outcome of situations and projects I use to obsess about and now I just trust that everything is happening as it should. Journaling at the end of the day has also been extremely helpful; it allows me to get out of my head and connect with my wise self.

An exercise recommended by Life Strategist Lesley Sardo, who teaches a workshop called Perfektionizm, is to get still for 15 minutes at the beginning of every day rather than jumping into tasks right away. It gives you the chance to turn off the chatter and connect to your inner guidance.

Needless to say, I no longer see perfectionism as strength.  Occasionally, I find myself reverting to some of my old habits, especially when I’m having a dinner party or preparing for an important speaking event. But for the most part, I am free from the inner critic that tries to tell me my best is not good enough. I accept myself for who I am, flaws and all. How about you?

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This post has 14 comments

  • Bethany says:

    This was especially meaningful to me. I have battled perfectionism all my life. Have it so bad sometimes that I literally cannot even start the projects for fear I will not begin it in the best way possible. I am conquering this “demon” (drilled into my head since childhood by my family) head-on with journalling and lots of prayer. I’ve even realized, lately, that there are things I am actually really good at that for years I put off doing thinking I’d ruin them! Thank you for sharing what you wrote, hope it will help others.

  • Adele Chatelain says:

    Loved this revelation about yourself! The best thing I ever did, when I was about 25, was to learn and practice meditation techniques; I quickly experienced the hard, cold fact that even tho I was generally a ‘perfectionist’, I couldn’t sit still for 3 minutes!; and it took me forever to learn how to sit still for ONE minute. A truly humbling experience. After years and years of slowwwww practice, I now enjoy sitting still–and love to do so for hours, while watching nature (birds, animals). It got me out of my Perfectionist State of Mind.

  • Sherryb says:

    OMG. I can totally related to this article. Hellen, you are so right. I have battled this. It is driving my spouse crazy too. I have to make the bed a certain way every morning…meditation isn’t something I have considered (due to my impatience) but I am going to try this. I have a hard time sitting without thinking about what I should be doing…

    • Hellen says:

      Thanks for sharing Sherry. Clearly, you are not alone! I know what you mean about meditation, because I struggled with it to. I’ve found that listening to a guided meditation tape/CD makes it easier for me. Even if it’s just for 15 minutes, it makes a big difference and pays off in so many (unexpected) ways. I am currently using the “Intuition Development Meditations” (purchase at http://torontopsychicsservices.com) and I really like them.

  • Suzanne says:

    “Perfectionism is the highest form of self abuse” – Tao Te Ching

    Thank you for sharing this profound quote, Hellen. I never thought I “deserved” the perfectionist label because I never felt I achieved enough. Perfectionists were the type A personalities that got things done. I had a lot of things to do (lists, anyone?) but never got enough of them done or done well enough to feel “accomplished”. I wasn’t living up to my potential. I couldn’t be a perfectionist. I had perfectionist tendencies, for sure, but I wasn’t a “real” perfectionist. Wouldn’t I feel on top of things if I were?

    The light bulb went on when I read that quote. The irony, it bites.

  • Michael W says:

    Thanks for this insightful article. I recognized myself throughout. For some reason I was reminded of Canadian comedian and contractor, Mag Ruffman (toolgirl.com), who often says, when doing a home reno or craft project, that at some point it is “good enough”. That little phrase is very freeing. She also approaches projects with the attitude of “how hard can it be?” Sometimes she encounters unexpected challenges along the way, but at least she BEGINS, and the results are usually great!
    Anyway, from one recovering perfekshunyst to another…thanks!

  • Liz says:

    As an only child of a single parent with fairly high expectations (top of the list was to be seen and not heard), I definitely developed perfectionism early on. And I completely agree with Hellen- trying to live up to the “p” word makes for a rather miserable existence. I was like this about housework (never clean or well-decorated enough), my physique (never thin or firm enough), my makeup (never beautiful enough)- you name it, I never thought what I had, what I did or who I knew that I was good enough. Never mind that my friends and family thought I was beautiful, intelligent and successful.

    That lifestyle eats you alive. I found that, when I started simplifying my life four years ago, letting go of perfectionsim was truly the biggest step to cleaning up my life. Now “good enough” is good enough. The size I am, the cleanliness of my home and the way I look right now is just fine. I enjoy each day and that is because I don’t aim for perfection anymore.

  • Peter M. says:

    Hi Helen

    It was reassuring to hear that other people besised me are suffering from this sometimes very unpleasant illness.

    I try to be mindful of it to alleviate the debilitating effects of it. Thanks for sharing.

    Peter M.

  • Syl says:

    Hi my name is Sylvie and I am a perfectionholic

    wow that felt great!!!

    Thanks Helen and everyone for sharing. I finally have answers to what had been a long time battle for me and thanks to all of you… for the first time I don’t feel alone. I’ve copy/pasted some of your great thoughts and hints including that amazing quote – I will print it and leave it where I can see it often. I know I’m not out of the woods yet… but I’m on the road to recovery… and that is “good enough” for me. 🙂

  • Helene M. says:

    I realized just a little while ago that I was a perfectionnist! I feel the same as Suzanne: I procrastinate a lot and do not accomplish much because I never feel I am prepared enough to act! – and I thought I was just lazy…
    Now I need to fight and win that battle because I am starting a new career and I don’t want this perfectionism to make me postpone that project indefinitely!
    Thank you for sharing!

  • Tracy :) says:

    This is amazing to hear someone put this into words..lol I was just talking about this recently with my husband. He was cleaning out his parents garage and his sisters came and kinda took over.. he just continued to work away with them and i was like??? I said, why are you not able you do things like this with me? His response was that I try to control and take over..apparently im too bossy;) lol (This is so true..I want everything just so!!) Even when I read the word, “Perfektionizm”..lol I automatically wanted to fix the spelling!!! hahahaha Which is silly, as this is an excellent title but the urge is so strong..lol Have recently decided that I am not going to continue this way and this article was an amazing eye opener..most of this fits me to a “T” lol Shall read this article over a few times to make sure I got it all!!!

  • Marianne says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I too was a perfectionist. The perfect little girl. If I couldn’t do it perfect it didn’t get done. When my kids were little the house was vacuumed 3 times a week. When I physically couldn’t do it any more I went the other way and everything became a real mess. Now I am recovering and good enough is good enough. I enjoy reading your articles and am slowly getting my home in shape to sell it. I too will read your article over a few more times to make sure I have got it all and probably bookmark it too! Thanks!

  • G,G, says:

    Loved this article… I saw myself as well…Everything I did had to be all or nothing, and I am still so jealous of the people who finish projects….In the last few years I’ve been trying to live with the motto “Done is better than perfect”

  • susan bliley says:

    Now I say I am passionate about mastery! It helps. We are who we are. Sometimes reframing is enough! I give my all to making great artisan bread. Passionate or perfectionist?