Do You Have a Toxic Relationship With Perfectionism?

Photo by Leigh Patrick from Pexels

Welcome, all my beautiful, work-in-process perfectionists. Gather ’round, gather ’round.

Do you ever get down on yourself for making a mistake?

I do. And more often than I’d like to admit.

I take a lot of pride in my work, and it is part of my job to be highly critical of the work I produce. 

But, I’m human. I make mistakes. And unfortunately, I hold onto them, letting the stress fester in me for longer than it should.

A Quick Story About My Perfectionist Past

When I was a child, I had what one might call, “acute perfectionism.” (To be clear, this was a family diagnosis.) It was a mixture of learned behavior from close family members and a dash of my innate type-A personality traits.

My perfectionism came out most frequently in academia. I had to answer every math question. I had to complete all my school work perfectly, even if it meant staying up all night.

My dad and mom told me to back off, but I couldn’t. I had to get it done, even if it meant tears from exhaustion. I didn’t know how to stop. Not completing it perfectly was not an option.

Perfectionism stemmed from anxiety, and together they collided to form the perfect emotional serial.

In high school, I managed to control and quiet my perfectionism. But by college, it arose in new ways, namely in pursuing internships and jobs. But to be clear, pursuing career opportunities was out of pure financial necessity. And during my junior and senior years, I threw myself into gigs that paid and career-focused internships that could support me until I crossed the stage.

Lessons Learned

“Acute perfectionism,” in its many forms, will be an ongoing battle for me to conquer. However, it’s crucial to have a healthy relationship with perfectionism — you need some of it to be qualified for your job, but you can’t let it keep you down when you fail (and you will fail) to be perfect.

These are the steps I’m taking that give me a balanced relationship with perfectionism: 

1. Not Ruminating on My Mistakes

I’ve discussed rumination in a past post, and it’s something I continue to struggle with again and again.

While I’m still trying to learn how to “let it go”, the first step is to realize that I’m ruminating on a mistake or issue.

Learning to be mindful is a process, and I’m realizing it takes time to mentally train your brain to focus.

When I was younger, I had a friend tell me his preferred way to get rid of unhelpful, negative thoughts: He would imagine the thought as a piece of paper. He would then crumple up it up and kick it away.

I find that visualization techniques work well for me. Other people swear by them too.

2. Learning to Forgive 

I tend to want to forgo this step and jump right into step 3, but this step is just as important.

I (unfortunately) love to hold onto past mistakes, and then use them against myself in a moment of self-doubt/self-hatred.

My brain goes, “You made this mistake? How dare you! And just last week you made that other mistake!”

My mind nitpicks at itself constantly. It’s an old pastime that I’m trying to nix.

Forgiving myself usually helps when I talk it out. I talk to George, my fiancé, about the mistakes I made and he — as a reasonable, level-headed third-party — never fails to talk me down.

They say that you’re your own worst critic (and “they” would be correct), so discussing with someone helps me in this stage. Getting out of my own head is key. And having someone who loves you, cares about your well-being, and can keep you grounded is best for self-forgiveness.

3. Don’t Make the Same Mistake Twice!

Ah finally. Now we’re at my favorite part: solution time. This part is simple, really. It’s about course-correcting for the future. The big questions I ask myself are, “How do I avoid not making this mistake again? What did I forget to do? Was I unaware of something? Could I’ve done this better?”

These big questions, combined with action, help me to dodge another misstep. Because we all want to learn from our mistakes, right? 

Now I ask you: Do you have any solutions for any of the above-mentioned steps?

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