How I Learned to Relax and Stop Being a Perfectionist

Photo: F. Galetic

This just in: we are imperfect, every last one of us. Always and forever. And here’s the great news … within that imperfection actually lies our perfection. If this sounds like a koan or a word puzzle, it’s not. It’s just a bit of gristle the Universe has given us to work on.

I say this as a recovering perfectionist. And you may have to find your way through this truth to truly get it.

Over the last few years, I’ve seen how raggedly I’ve run myself throughout my life. All, of course, in the pursuit of that invisible ghost: perfection.

But when upheaval happens, suddenly you are forced to stop and let go, and then the truth dawns. There is no book of standards you must live up to. And the only person waving that whip is … you. It wasn’t until my daughter suddenly died that I stopped trying to be a heroic superwoman. Because frankly, there didn’t seem to be much point.

That was four years ago. Now I have a different perspective. I’m back to producing my writings and other creative work, and I have decided to give myself all the time in the world — and all the permission in the world to do so.

Now I can mess up, make mistakes and not get things right. Then I can ask for help, get feedback, course correct and improve. And I can do this again and again and again.

Recently I experienced this around a book I just finished writing. I asked my partner to read the first draft, knowing her analytical mind would pick up all kinds of loose ends in my complex plot.

She came up with a long list of fixes, all of which were feasible. After the list was delivered, what I felt was pure gratitude and some relief. I knew there were missing pieces but I wasn’t sure what they were. Hallelujah!

Hours later it suddenly occurred to me that my inner perfectionist hadn’t even flinched. The first draft wasn’t a glowing model of perfection — it needed work. And beautifully … that was okay! Bottom line is that the book will now be vastly improved, and so this is actually very good news.

In the old days, my perfectionist would have been appalled. It needed me to be impressive at everything I did the minute I did it. Lord, was that tedious! It was an ancient mindset locked in place when I was a child, by an encouraging father who frequently told me I’d be a star someday. So I was left with the massively huge job of delivering on that promise.

No one ever said to me, “Go ahead and be mediocre, honey. That’s just fine.” I was expected to be a star, and it was up to me to figure out how to do it.

When a therapist first delivered this news to me, I was appalled. My own father set me up for perfection-mania? I loved my dear dad, and couldn’t imagine that he meant any harm. Which, of course, he didn’t. But this is how perfectionists are born.

Somehow, somewhere in our pasts, our little survivor selves believe we must overachieve to get our basic needs met. Perhaps you know what I’m talking about.

Today I keep the following promises with myself:

  1. Good enough is just fine with me.
  2. Mistakes ultimately make things better.
  3. Ask for help the minute you need it.
  4. There’s all the time in the world to get things done.
  5. Creating is a process … so go with the flow.

I also make a practice of stopping and breathing. I allow things to unfold, and I dive into the mystery of what will happen next.

Most of all, I keep in mind that if I don’t get things perfect the first time, the sky will not fall. In fact, I know I will be just fine — as I have been through every step of the last four years.

Perfection is nothing more than the cry of a frightened soul trying to get our attention. When we stop to listen to it, and we reassure ourselves that we’re going to be okay, then we grow.

For it is our compassion towards ourselves that really unlocks our brilliance, one sweet, vulnerable step at a time.

All we have to do is be willing to see the truth.

Originally published at on July 27, 2016.