A perfectly imperfect month

I spent this month reading and thinking about perfectionism. I have made some major insights into where it shows up in my life and have learned some strategies and new ways of thinking to help let go of my perfectionist tendencies.

Overall, perfectionism plays a pretty big role in my life. However, it doesn’t impact me in all of the ways I thought.

While February was my month to focus on perfectionism, I realized that one month was only enough time to scratch the surface of it. Still, I picked up three important lessons.

Lesson #1: Go to therapy

This is pretty obvious, but if you find yourself engaging in perfectionist thinking (and you are able), I highly recommend working with a mental health professional. I had been on a waiting list to see a therapist and was able to schedule my first appointment in early February.

With her help, I have started to understand the roots of my perfectionism and how it manifests in my life. I am recognizing that the coping mechanisms I picked up in childhood and adolescence are not working for me anymore and am working to develop a healthier relationship with myself and with achievement.

Lesson #2: Conduct small experiments to gradually tackle your perfectionism

At the start of the month, I tried to think of ways that I could challenge my perfectionism. Since I thought mainly of my perfectionism as something that shows up at work, I tried to think of ways I could practice being less of a perfectionist at work… send off an email without reading it several times or going into a meeting unprepared…? The smaller ones might work, but it still seemed like too big a jump.

Then I read about trying small stakes experiments. For example, I challenged my perfectionism as it manifests as social anxiety (read lesson #3 for more on this). My therapist suggested experimenting at the grocery store or a café. When I was out at lunch, I changed a few details in my order even after I perceived that the waitress was a little impatient. It was stressful at first, but of course it turned out to be no big deal and helped me realize I can handle a slightly awkward social exchange.

I also plan to try some anti-perfectionism experiments unrelated to social situations. One suggested area is trying out a new creative hobby, such as painting. Since it is only for fun, you know that the goal is not to be “perfect” and you can practice being non-judgmental towards yourself. Other ideas that I like are to try improv or a sport that you have never done. In fact, maybe the farther the activity is from what you think you are good at, the better! The idea is to give yourself permission to be imperfect—as you build up this feeling, you can transfer it into other areas of your life.

Lesson #3: Perfectionism fuels social anxiety and vice versa

As I wrote about in my last post, one of the big ways that perfectionism shows up in my life is through social anxiety. I obsess over every detail of every social interaction, blaming myself for being awkward or not confident enough or rambling. Since I have been having a hard hitting it off with my coworkers, I blamed myself for not being more interesting and fitting in better. I am trying to accept that it is okay to not get along with everyone. And it is completely unrealistic to expect every Zoom meeting to go flawlessly when they are almost guaranteed by design to be awkward.

On the other hand, I have also been thinking about how my social anxiety fuels perfectionism. In high school and college, I was so anxious that there was no way I could speak up in class. Still, I needed to get an A. My perfectionism kicked in, and I obsessed over every written assignment and studied like crazy for tests to make up for my poor participation. I still feel like this sometimes, like I have to make up for not being the most outgoing one on the team by doing better work.

And now for March…

This month was challenging, but really rewarding. Letting go of perfectionism will be a life-long endeavor. But for now, it is time to move on to a new area.

I decided to go a little lighter for March and focus on building community. Most of my friends, family, and coworkers are very career focused. I don’t have many people to talk to about my desire to work less and to generally be less ambitious. Since we are in the middle of a pandemic, this may be a bit of a struggle, but I feel it is what I need right now. So, I am going to step out of my comfort zone and try to make connections online (and maybe in person if it is safe). Wish me luck!

-M

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