Perfectionism is a surprisingly common ailment among both procrastinators who don't get stuff done, and high performers who get a LOT done. With just a few tweaks you can go from the former to the latter. While perfectionism is quite complicated, a useful simplification is to break it down into two categories:
1. Perfectionism for others - done to gain praise, avoid punishment, or be accepted.
2. Perfectionism for self - done to satisfy taste, identity, or goals.
Quite often, both types are present in a person, but one is a shadow value. People will hide that they care what others think, and pretend it's only about their work. Others will hide that it's a bit "selfish", and pretend it's only for others.
Acknowledging the Shadow
The first step to dealing with your perfectionism is acknowledging the shadow side of it. If you think it's purely about your work, ask yourself if it's even a little about others. If you think it's purely about others ask if it's even a little about your own taste/identity. Once you've broken it into it's component parts, you can deal with each side separately. And when I say "deal with," I don't mean necessarily "get rid of." Remember, perfectionism can be functional! Our job is to work with the perfectionism instead of fighting against it.
Perfectionism for Others
So, starting with the portion of your perfectionism that's about others: Ask yourself: Who am I being perfect for? And what does that do for me? There are many possible answers here, none right or wrong.
- "I'm being perfect for my parents, so they'll love me."
- "I'm being perfect for my boss, so I'll get a raise."
- "I'm being perfect for god, so I can be worthy of his/her love."
Exploration and Questioning
Once you've acknowledged this answer, it can be much easier to work with the intention of your perfectionism. So ask yourself: Is being perfect here the best way to get that? If not, what is?
Oftentimes, when we acknowledge our shadow values, we find that our strategies for getting them were horrible because we never actually examined them! Sometimes, we find that we don't actually know how to get our needs met, and need to spend some time thinking about them.
Other times, we find that this is in fact the best way to get what we want (putting as much effort as possible to this project will actually help our boss see us as competent) so we allow ourselves to be perfectionistic (the perfectionism is functional).
No matter the strategy you've decided on for this need, it' s smart to look at how you're relating to this desire. Are you thinking" I should be perfect for my parents?" Or "I must be perfect for god?" Musts and shoulds are unskillful, they allow for no nuance.
You'll want to question if it's really true that you "should" or "must" do this, or are there actually tradeoffs and choices to be made? My favorite tool for this is Byron Katie's The Work.
It's four questions you ask yourself in relation to a belief:
1. Is that true?
2. Can I be sure?
3. How do I react believing it's true?
4. Who would I be without the belief?
Asking these questions (and being open to both yes and no) in relation to your "should" or "must" is the last step in dealing with perfectionism related to others.
Perfectionism for Self
Now lets talk about perfectionism related to ourselves. Related to achieving our goals, meeting our own taste and identity.
And here's the trick (cribbed from Nate Soares and his excellent replacing Guilt sequence at mindingourway.com/guilt/): You're going to allow yourself to be hold as much perfectionism internally as you desire - but direct it towards your high level goals.
Just like with perfectionism for others, perfectionism for yourself starts with asking the question why. Why am I doing this project? What's my ultimate aim?
There's no right or wrong answer:
- "I'm trying to make money for my business."
- "I'm trying to make some beautiful."
- "I'm trying to enjoy myself."
Sometimes, there's 3 or 4 or 12 things, that's ok too! Is this the best way to get them met?
But, the question you want to ask yourself related to perfectionism is: "What level of effort do I need to reach those aims? What standards do I need to hold for myself in this area to reach my ultimate goal?" Oftentimes, you'll find your perfectionistic standards are WAY higher than you need to achieve your aims - they're based on your own internal sense of identity or aesthetics.
So here's the cool part: You're going to allow yourself to maintain that sense of aesthetics and identity - but apply it to your actions themselves, and their ability to reach your goal. You're going to allow yourself to put in the *Perfect* effort to reach your goal. You get to be perfect, but on the meta level - putting in the perfect effort to reach those aims, no more and no less. (of course, if there's some uncertainty, you need to leave yourself a little buffer room).
This is great because you get to still be exacting, AND you get to apply heroic effort when needed - otherwise, you're being exacting about NOT putting in unnecessary effort.
Finally, it's always good idea to check your relationship to these goals. Do you NEED to get the higher level goal met, or do you have nuance and flexiblity. Use @byronkaties The Work to explore.
Life is so much better when you work with your perfectionism rather than against it!