Letter to a Recovering Perfectionist

Striving for perfectionism is a common trope, even though we often find greater success when we release those expectations. Here’s how to do it.

Anxiety and depression are two serious mental health issues. But there’s a less-discussed third we’d like to consider: perfectionism. A perfectionist outlook is no fun. We perfectionists tend to live in the future, dance with indecision, and rank our value by accomplishments. We procrastinate, criticize, and overanalyze. And the truth is, perfectionism doesn’t lead to the goals we set for ourselves—rather it often leaves us unhappy and overworked. So why do we allow ourselves to be our own worst critics?

“Perfectionism is a form of survival,” says Kerri Kelly, founder of CTZNWELL, an emerging movement to mobilize people into a powerful force for wellbeing for all. “We believe that being perfect is necessary for us to maintain connection.” From one perfectionist to another, unpacking this thought feels frighteningly accurate. Deep, deep down, our desire for success is often tied to our desire for love. We feel that love is conditional; that it is something that needs to be earned.

Perfectionism doesn’t just apply to our jobs—it can apply to our health and relationships. We fast in order to punish ourselves for breaking a diet, or criticize our partner for their messy kitchens. (Probably because we’re self-conscious of our own messes.) We allow any sort of achievement to define our self-worth, dictate the amount of love we are to receive, and create ridiculous standards that cause more harm than good.

Find beauty in the mess.

Instagram and other forms of social media have created a picture perfect world where we see everyone’s highlight reel. You scroll through your phone to see so-and-so’s perfectly clean and immaculately decorated living room, only to spin your head and start criticizing your laundry-laden home. Most Instagram influencers are actually pretty candid about their lives, admitting that their photos are staged advertisements, and should not be used as any basis of comparison.

Real life isn’t perfect—it’s messy and cluttered. That doesn’t mean beauty is absent. Mistakes, failures, messes, and shortcomings are all part of the epic adventure of life.

Celebrate small victories.

Oftentimes, perfectionists gloss over the good in their lives because they start fixating on the next goal. Even when we do make a solid effort and achieve something awesome, we quickly move on to the next thing and take essentially no time to congratulate ourselves. But this is where you can find gratitude for all that good stuff you’ve done—because you’re likely pretty awesome.

“Start organizing with whatever is already whole within you,” Kerri says. In other words, notice that you are doing a pretty amazing job at being a human. If you need even more of a reminder, at the end of the night before you go to bed, make a physical or mental list of three accomplishments you achieved that day. (Sort of like a to-do list, but in reverse.) They can be big or small, having to do with work, health, relationships, or whatever else you choose. Just make them known and thank yourself.

Reframe your relationship to mistakes.

There is no “successful” person who has not experienced their own share of failure. Athletes struggle in training. Yogis fall out of poses and skip class. Writers spend hours crafting chapters on their latest novel, only to throw it all away because it won’t work. The idea isn’t to eliminate failure—it’s going to happen. Mistakes are going to happen. And when they do, you can use the lessons you’ve learned during these instances to make different choices in the long run. Entrepreneurs often share their own failures because those instances were valuable teaching moments for them that helped propel them onto the next exciting, rewarding endeavor.

This doesn’t just apply to work, but also to parenting, relationships, and health. Eliminate all-or-nothing thinking from this area of your life. Allow yourself and those you love to do things imperfectly. Think about the overall journey. Ultimately, these mistakes will have aided you in ways you couldn’t have imagined.

Return to empathy.

Oftentimes our perfectionism tends to steamroll us over the feelings of others. This occurs when we’re so preoccupied with work that we’re short with a co-worker. Or if we’re caught up with our partner’s flaws, we’re quick to criticize their smallest shortcomings. In the moments where you can feel your perfectionism taking over, stop and take a deep breath. Where are these goals coming from? Realistically, can you take slow down? What’s the bigger picture here? These questions should help you create pause and connect. Our relationships to our loved ones are so important, and should never need to suffer because of our perfectionism.

Respect and love yourself.

Perfectionism’s best friend is the inner critic. The inner critic, or more scientifically, the pre-frontal cortex, is the voice in our head that controls thoughts… And it can be a harsh tyrant. Negative self-talk often comes up when things don’t go according to plan. We question ourselves and our choices. We begin to regret or tell ourselves things like “you’re lazy” or “you could have tried harder.”

By opting for self-love and self-respect, we flip the switch on our inner dialogue. When things don’t go your away, avoid blaming yourself and recognize that you tried your best. Have compassion for your past self. Appreciate the work you’ve done. Congratulate yourself. Kerri Kelli says, “what if we chose self-care over self-improvement?” Gosh, what if we did decide to take that bubble bath instead of plowing through our to-do list? It might just allow ourselves the space to recalibrate and come back the next day with more energy, creativity, and joy for our projects.

If you’re a perfectionist, know that you’re not alone. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t need to do anything in order to be worthy of love—we’re already there.

Amanda Kohr is the Senior Content Editor at Wanderlust. You can find her exploring new highways, drinking diner coffee, and on Instagram