When To Let Go As A Perfectionist

Yoga does not transform the way we see things it transforms the person who sees. 

B.K.S Iyengar

Perfectionism is a personality trait associated with striving for flawlessness and setting high performance standards, accompanied by critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others’ evaluations.  It is likely we have all worked with a perfectionist or have one close to us in our lives therefore have direct experience or exposure to them and the way in which they operate, heck you might even be one yourself and that is why you are here reading this.  A perfectionist will be the first person to tell you they are a perfectionist so I assure you if there is one around you will likely know it. 

They are usually brutally honest with themselves about this trait because it is near impossible for them to turn it off or to ignore what an impact it has on everything they do, not to mention its transparency to others means it has probably been the topic of conversation more than anyone is willing to admit.  Perfectionist typically are aware there is a time and a place for their exuberant efforts but because it is a personality trait they unfortunately have a tendency to apply it to everything they do and it is hard for them to tone it down.  You may have even heard them refer to themselves as a recovering perfectionist when they have made a conscious effort to ditch their inherent habits because to them they are addicted and the havoc is wreaks is a constant battle.

Nearly 30% of our population is considered to be a perfectionist.  What is more troubling is that this percentage seems to be rising with each generation, ranging anywhere from 10%-33% since the 1980s.  This may not seem like a huge problem at the surface as we need people who are on point and work tirelessly to do great though work however, as you dip below the surface you realize this subset of folks among us also has an increased rate of anxiety and other detrimental behaviors which is not the direction anyone, let alone our youth should be headed.  I know all too well as I too have lived it firsthand. 

Not only has my inability of letting go of perfectionism impacted me directly, it has also impacted those around me.  It is very true that for some it cannot be turned off.  My perfectionism at times I would consider obsessive as it could pop up in something as simple as matching my outfit even if I am not leaving the house or spending hours writing a 1-page paper or creating a simple table.  I have been called a mother hen since I was 5 years old because I tried to control the way others did things because it bothered me if they did not do them the way I would have.  I have also been called Mrs. Semantics by my husband when I ask for clarity over a word used in a mundane comment he has made.  I did not want to confess to my family that I was categorized as a ESTJ (supervisor) after taking the Myers Briggs test because I knew they would laugh and say everyone does not need to be overseen to ensure they do things as perfectly as you think they should be done.   I say way too often after tasking someone else with something that I knew I should have just done it myself if I wanted it done the right way (sometimes it is something as insignificant being upset that my husband picked unripe fruit from the grocery store).   

So yes, it has penetrated every aspect of my life but there is hope, as I have come a long way since putting in the effort it deserves and because of that I continue to grow as a person and although the journey is never ending I now embrace it.

We may be most frustrated familiar with the negative connotations with being a perfectionist such as health related pitfalls however, the positive aspects are perfectionists have higher levels of motivation and conscientiousness than non-perfectionists plus according to a meta-analysis of 95 studies conducted by HBR it was determined that perfectionism is not in any way related to performance or effectiveness in the workplace, meaning it does not help or hinder us which is contrary to what most of us might assume; that perfectionism is a weakness because it slows us down.  If we can aim to channel the positive elements and learn to let go of the detrimental ones, we should be able to see progress and even break the molds. 

Photo by Donald Tong from Prexel

What I have learned from the research, explanations and personal experience is don’t completely change who you are, there is a place for perfectionism, rather alter or focus these abilities into the areas of our lives that matter.  By doing this you can encourage the positive aspects that have a big impact on your life and discourage the detrimental aspects that provide no added benefit.  A quick way to rule out what you should focus your perfection skills on is does it impact any of these 3 areas of your life. 

Self development.  If I do this task whole heartedly will I learn something about myself and will it make me either a better version of myself or feel genuinely satisfied afterwards?  If there is even a small inclination you will not feel as though the effort going in is greater than or equal to the impact of the output let it go.

Societal Contributions.  If I go the extra mile in this personal or professional endeavor will it benefit the world at large? Does the effort I put in equal the impact this will have on others, is the impact positive?  If the answer is yes tackle it with the best intentions and if not let it go.   

Relationships. If I devote time and energy into aspects of my relationships or to events related to my relationships (mind you its necessary to refrain from correcting everyone as a perfectionist likes to do) will the relationships grow and will I be able to be my most authentic self with these people through the experience?  This one requires personal judgement as relationships are complex.  This is a perfect opportunity to learn as you navigate how and when you apply your perfectionism.  I can assure you more often than not the answer is that relationships are sensitive to perfection and you should use these situations as a chance to let go of your perfectionism and practice your chill factor.

Anything that does not fall into these 3 parameters, work to let go of with as much effort as you put into being perfect.  In these aspects of your life perfectionism can be an incredible skill and tool, and the attention to detail and dedication will pay off.  If we prioritize the things that benefit from perfectionism and limit our application to only those that require it and learn to let go of the things that do not fall on this list we may be able to reverse the negative connotations that come with the definition of the trait as well as increase our threshold for happiness while living with this trait.

As I mentioned before I have come a long way in my ability to manage my perfectionism but I still have room to improve, I can chalk my success to date up to what I have learned through yoga and formal education.  Learning how to let go and practicing non-attachment coupled with my openness to never stop learning have changed the game for me.   I leave you with these thoughts and mechanisms I have extracted from what has worked for me in the event you want to explore for yourself.  

Use critical thinking to your advantage.  As a perfectionist we are great at analyzing what we are doing and even ourselves.  Shift that ability into thinking critically about whether or not what you are about to spend way too much time perfecting is worth the effort. Think downstream, are there ill effects of it not being perfect? If there are how can you evaluate the anticipated outcome to reduce the amount of time and resources needed and still achieve a desirable outcome?

Put in the effort to alter or redirect your typical behavior more productively.  Perfectionist are known for putting in more effort than others, take this skill and use it to make a conscious effort to decider when perfection is needed for the task at hand and moreover keep that effort in hand to get over the decision you’ve made to not perfect the task you decided to let go.  It may seem easier to put the effort into the task and be done with it but if you continue to put effort in overtime on letting it go eventually you will not need to and you will get better at not dwelling on the imperfect outcome rather allocating your energy, time and dedication to the most important things rather than everything. Find something you can do that does not have to be perfect in order to practice and observe how the outcome is not detrimental.

Reflect on the progress of your actions not the outcome and do it often.  When you complete something whether you decided to put in a lot of effort to perfect it or not consider the journey to get there, what could be improved to make your efforts more efficient, how did the task or endeavor make you feel depending on the effort you put in.

Whatever you do don’t stop practicing non-attachment or the ability to let go.  A routine yoga practice has given me the opportunity practice letting go, letting go of the perfect shape, letting go of thoughts that do not serve me and letting go of expectations.  Attending class more frequently means it takes less effort for me to practice non-attachment to an outcome in my everyday life because it becomes a part of who I am all day not just the time I am on my mat.  If you do not have a yoga practice, pick one up or do it at home and when you do, practice non-attachment to the shape and thoughts. When you finish take a moment to remind yourself to take that ability with you acknowledging there will only be progress over time.  I spent nearly 4 months diving deep into the teachings of yoga and at least half of that time was spent learning about who I was, evaluating myself, reflecting, adjusting, and practicing by applying many of the tools I had learned.  I came a long way in a short amount of time because I ensured there was no space to dodge myself. If you do not want a yoga practice you can find another activity that allows you to let go, gardening, working out, or cooking for example.   

Understand that not only are you perfect the way you are but everything you do ends up in a perfect state. Everything happens in the way it is supposed to, whether you put in more or less effort. Each thing has it’s place regardless of your influence and the world will keep moving and you will have more chances and opportunities to do things differently int he future.  

Photo by Jonathan Haxmark on Unsplash

Try not to put yourself into a mold.  Just because the textbook definition says we set high standards and are critical does not mean we have to do that all the time, just the most appropriate times.  The truth always lies somewhere in the middle and for most of us our behavior probably lands somewhere in-between the extremes of this definition.  We may even land in different places along the line at any given time or phase of our lives.  Use those aspects of how you are not 100% true to the term to realize you might actually be more chill than you thought and give yourself a pat on the back on occasion.  Maybe let the chillness you do achieve spill over into all aspects of your life over time.  

I hope my experience is of value to you fellow perfectionists or those of you with one in your life.  If it is or if you have stories to share on how you deal with it, I would love to hear so we can all take away the information.


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