Embracing Imperfection: Lessons from a Recovering Perfectionist

Are you one of those individuals who once believed that being a perfectionist was a virtue? I certainly was.

There was a time when everything had to be 'perfect,' and anything less left me feeling disappointed. From striving for perfect work and maintaining a perfect home to raising perfect children and delivering the perfect essay or project, I held myself to unattainable standards. Even when I embarked on a career in social care, I aspired to have the perfect day, every day. I knew the policies and procedures inside out, could quote them by heart, and did my utmost to get along with everyone.

However, the drawback of being a perfectionist is that you never quite reach these unattainable standards because life is inherently imperfect. Children aren't perfect, and work, especially in human services, is often messy and imperfect. We're frequently just rolling with it, doing the best we can. Yet, as perfectionists, we can never find contentment in that; we end up working longer and harder, becoming increasingly frustrated, stressed, and even facing burnout.

I've been on a journey to overcome perfectionism, and I'll admit it hasn't been easy. Even after becoming aware of my perfectionist tendencies, I still catch myself saying the word 'perfect' all too often. Here are a few valuable lessons I've learned along the way:

1.       "Done is better than perfect." (This invaluable lesson comes from my friend and mentor, Amanda Delaney.) At times, I used to invest excessive time in a task, missing deadlines, sacrificing sleep and other important tasks in an attempt to perfect something. Yet, I was never truly satisfied with the result. I recall spending an excessive amount of time researching and writing an essay once, striving for perfection, only to receive the lowest grade I'd received all semester. Since embarking on this journey to let go of 'perfect,' recently while writing a chapter for a textbook, my perfectionist demons whispered in my ear that it wasn't good enough. I brushed them aside, submitted my work by the deadline, and it did indeed return with numerous edits. But you know what? That's OK because if I hadn't submitted it in the first place, I wouldn't have known what needed improvement. My website is another example; it's far from perfect, requires adjustments, and maybe even a complete overhaul, but it's done. This leads to my next lesson: 

2.       Recognising that I am my own harshest critic. I tend to see flaws where others don't, berate myself for saying the wrong things, or not doing enough, and internalise everything when things go awry. For instance, while working with children in special care, a teenager became upset and smashed a ceramic mug with the intention to harm herself in front of me and other staff. It all happened so quickly, and though the incident was promptly addressed, I blamed myself for months for giving her tea in a ceramic mug. In my mind, I convinced myself that it was my fault, telling myself that 'I should have foreseen what would happen, I shouldn't have given her that mug.' Not a single other person criticised me for the incident. But realistically, I couldn't have foreseen it, and the entire staff team couldn't have predicted the incident either. As a recovering perfectionist, I've come to accept that things may go wrong, and while I take responsibility for my actions, I am now much more forgiving of myself. 

3.       Learning to celebrate wins and progress: Have you ever found yourself fixating on what went wrong, trapped in a cycle of self-deprecation? That's where I often found myself as a perfectionist. I would obsess over a low exam grade, overlooking the other exceptional grades, or dwell on a minor work incident that lasted only a few minutes, overshadowing an otherwise productive and enjoyable 12-hour shift. It was time for a mindset shift, and I initiated it practically. I began with a jar in my office to keep a note of all the remarkable things that happen, whether it's a small success, a compliment on my work, or an impressive achievement. On days when I feel like I'm not good enough, slipping back into that perfectionist mindset, I take a few notes from the jar to remind myself of how far I've come. It’s been a great way to acknowledge all the good that happens in my work and life and I’ve found new ways to celebrate progress.

Contrary to my past belief, perfectionism is not about relinquishing high standards of work but rather a commitment to continuous learning and personal growth. It took me some time to realise that the pursuit of perfection often leads to stagnation, anxiety, and an unhealthy fixation on unattainable ideals. Instead of striving for the elusive concept of perfection, I've learned that setting high standards for oneself is important, but it should be coupled with the recognition that perfection itself is an unattainable and ever-shifting goalpost. In the quest for excellence, it's vital to understand that making mistakes, facing challenges, and embracing imperfection are integral parts of the journey.

Each week presents an opportunity to build upon the experiences and lessons of the previous one, cultivating progress and development. While I may not achieve perfection, I can undoubtedly ensure that I am better, more skilled, and wiser than I was the week before, and that, in itself, is a worthy and attainable aspiration.