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3 Simple Steps to Calm Your Inner Perfectionist

Posted May 26 2011 7:00am

Just about once or twice a day, my tendency toward perfectionism rears its head. It’s a trait I’ve had from birth, according to my mother. I’ve become well-acquainted both with its usefulness and how it often gets in my way.

When I first read Dr. John Sarno’s book, The Mindbody Prescription , I recognized myself in his personality traits list – the list that describes those of us who have a tendency toward mind-body pain syndromes (or what he calls TMS). It immediately made sense to me that perfectionism only increases my internal stress. With all that self-pressure, it’s not a big leap to make from loads of stress to physical tension to pain.

Since that moment, I have been exploring perfectionism, both to release self-pressure and to help my clients with the same issue. I knew it would benefit me to learn how to slack off, but I couldn’t quite release my perfectionism. It’s very well ingrained in myself and my clients. What can we do about this? How can we deal with this trait without perfectionism itself popping in and saying we need to handle perfectionism perfectly? See the challenge here?

The good news is, I’ve learned a lot about perfectionism. I’ve come up with a few tactics to deal with it so that we can enjoy freedom from pain, less stress, and more creative flow. I’ll explain one tactic today, and then I’d love to hear your feedback on how it works for you.

First, it’s important to recognize that perfectionism helps just as much as it hinders. Like everything, it’s all about balance. Too much perfectionism, or using it on everything in your life, creates blocked creativity, inability to move forward, and piles of stress. No perfectionism, however, creates slipshod work, missed details, and frustration.

Of course, it is important to remember that things actually can’t be done perfectly. It’s just the innate human experience – there will be little flaws. Your version of perfect is someone else’s version of flawed, and vice-versa. It’s a very subjective thing, perfection.

The Three Steps to Calm Your Inner Perfectionist

your mind’s desire to make something perfect. This takes a bit of practice.

Notice when you feel stressed throughout the day. Each time to notice stress show up or increase, ask yourself the question: Am I trying to do something perfectly? Really look closely. Peek into the corners of your mind. Your mind might say, “Oh, no, I’m not trying to do it perfectly. I just want to get it right.” Er… That’s just a sneaky version of perfectionism. I often notice I like to increase my stress by trying to do things both perfectly and in a rush. Gack!

The more you simply observe yourself, the more you will learn. You’ll begin to see patterns – areas in your life where you do put a lot of pressure on yourself to do it perfectly, or specific repeated perfection patterns. Don’t underestimate the power of simple observation. It’s not necessary to observe perfectly, of course. Simply do it as much or as little as you want. You can write your observations down in a notebook, if that helps.

Once you’re aware of perfectionism in this moment, you can employ step two. Since real perfection does not exist, you get to decide how perfectly you actually want to do whatever you’re doing right now. First, remind yourself that real perfection is impossible. (Even if your mind disagrees with this, it helps to say it to yourself.) Second, decide if this is a moment where you’d really like to give it your all, or if this is a moment where you could get by with anywhere between 40-60% effort. (Or less!) It is important to prioritize your perfectionism. Not everything really needs every ounce of your effort and your very best skills. Save the big guns for when you really need them, or when you’ll enjoy tweaking and playing with something until it’s perfect – in your opinion, of course. Saving your energy for when it’s really needed allows you to be far more productive.

You only need step three if you’ve decided to go ahead and give it your all. This is a really useful way to relax your perfectionism, which will actually allow you to do your best work without getting stymied by the desire to do it perfectly.

Break your project into two parts. For the first part, decide that you are going to use 80% of your skills/talents/effort. The first part may be broken down into smaller parts, too, such as drafts or separate pieces of your project. However you do it, only use 80% of your abilities, and shoot for 80% perfection.

For the second part of your project, you can allow yourself to go back and tweak, if you think it’s necessary. This is where you can employ the beneficial side of your perfectionism skills. For this last part of your project, you get to look through it and decide if you’d like to shoot for 95% anywhere. Look to see if you want to add to it, edit it, change it, or improve it. However, before you actually make these changes, really do the assessment piece. Can you get by with your 80% work? Does it get the job done? Are you spending more time on this project than you’d like, which means maybe 80% is going to have to do? Get external feedback, if you want. Do others think it’s great, and can’t see why you’d change it? This will help you find that sweet spot between not enough and over the top as far as effort and time spent goes.

By allowing yourself that final piece of perfectionism, you can relax while you’re doing your 80% work. This is an important element, because shooting for 150% is practically guaranteed to create stress, stop your creative flow, and stop you in your tracks. 80%, on the other hand, gets it done. However, I’ve worked with enough clients to know that sometimes it’s terrifying to shoot for 80% after a lifetime of trying to nail 150%. This is why you can give yourself the leeway of the two-step plan.

So, to recap, it’s 1) Observe 2) Decide whether or not you need your perfectionism skills in this moment 3) Break your project down into two parts – 80% and then the final check.

This plan will help you to create balance. You’re not trying to eradicate your perfectionism. Instead, you are trying to allow it to help you when it can and calm it down when it can’t. In the end, you’ll find much stress relief as you prioritize your perfectionism instead of working really hard and using tons of mental energy on every single thing you do.

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