Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

10 Steps to Conquer Perfectionism


Perfectionism. It’s the enemy of creativity, productivity, and, well, sanity. In “The Artist’s Way,” author Julia Cameron writes: “Perfectionism is a refusal to let yourself move head. It is a loop–an obsessive, debilitating closed system that causes you to get stuck in the details of what you are writing or painting or making and to lose sight of the whole.” But you don’t even have to be creating anything to be crippled by perfectionism. It can also frustrate your efforts as a mom, a wife, a friend, and a human being. Because no one and no thing is perfect in this blemished world of ours.


I tackle this adversary everyday. And although my inner perfectionist clearly has hold of my brain many days, I do think I am handcuffed less often by the fear of messing up than I used to be. Here are 12 techniques I use to break out of the prison of perfectionism in order to live and create as freely as I can in an imperfect world.

1. Remove yourself from the competition.

Don’t make life any more difficult than it already is. Most perfectionist’s are extremely competitive … because being perfect means being THE BEST at, well, EVERYTHING. So choose your friends and your groups wisely. For example, some professional organizations–writing clubs, publishing groups–can be extremely supportive. But some can be horribly competitive. And as a perfectionist, you don’t need folks feeding you the very message you are trying to forget: “you are nothing without total success…. and if you don’t get there, I will!” Do this: check your heart rate before one of these meetings, and just after. If it’s up ten beats or more, don’t go back!


2. Make up some rules.

Of course you can’t avoid all competitive situations. Which is why you need to make some rules. For example, I can now gauge when I’m going throw a period of insecurity … when I feel like I need to be the best at something in order to feel okay about myself. During these periods, I don’t check out Beliefnet’s homepage where it lists “most popular blogs,” “most e-mailed posts,” “most popular features,” because if I don’t find my name somewhere in there, I mope around the house with that tight knot of disgust and angst in my stomach. Why torture myself? So here’s my rule: I can only visit the homepage on the days when I don’t feel like my popularity as a blogger is the definitive statement on who I am as a person. The result? I haven’t been to the homepage in months!


3. Do a reality check.

Unrealistic expectations are perfectionism’s trophy wife. Think about it. They always show up as a pair. So I try my best to distinguish realistic expectations from unrealistic ones. I list them all on a sheet of paper or (on a good day) in my head and then revise them about 2,035 times during the day. Under “unrealistic expectations” are cataloged things like this: “penning a New York Times bestseller in my half-hour of free time in the evening,” “being homeroom mom to 31 kids and chaperoning every field trip,” and “training for a triathlon with a busted hip.” Under “realistic expectations,” I index things like: “do 30 hours of good work in 30 hours of working time,” “reading to David’s class and having lunch with him once a month instead of being homeroom mom,” and “skipping the triathlon, but continuing to work out four times a week to keep the brain and body happy.” Recording the different possibilities of actions I can take to inch toward my broad goals (being a good mom, an adequate blogger, and a healthy person) can be extremely liberating.


4. Return to your exodus moment.

Awhile back, a Beliefnet editor asked some of the bloggers to describe our “exodus moments,” when we were freed from fear and crossed the Red Sea of anxiety into a land of peace. I’ve had a few such moments. One was during my junior year in college, the one time I relapsed and got drunk after three years of sobriety. I stood quietly in the gazebo right outside Our Lady of Loretta Church, where Eric and I married four years later. I told God to take my addiction, to take it for good, because I could no longer carry it’s weight. I remember lifting my hands to the sky as I looked down at the St. Joseph’s river, and I felt totally at peace.


The truth learned in all exodus moments is this: None of that stuff responsible for spinning us in a tissy matters. None of it is important. Just as Henri Nouwen explains:

Somewhere deep in our hearts we already know that success, fame, influence, power, and money do not give us the inner joy and peace we crave. Somewhere we can even sense a certain envy of those who have shed all false ambitions and found a deeper fulfillment in their relationship with God. Yes, somewhere we can even get a taste of that mysterious joy in the smile of those who have nothing to lose.

5. Show your weakness.


This is counter-intuitive for most perfectionists. But I can guarantee that you’ll get good results if you try it. Because every time I have, with great reservation, flashed my imperfections and become vulnerable before my Beyond Blue readers–crying, whining, screaming either in a post or on a video–the response is amazing. “Phew!” some say to me, “You are real. You feel that way too! So I guess I shouldn’t beat myself up for similar emotions.” Whenever I follow the advice of my wise editor, Holly–to write from where I am, not from where I want to be–my readers don’t recoil in disgust. They come closer.


6. Celebrate your mistakes.

Alright, celebrate is an awfully strong word. Start, then, with accept your mistakes. But I do think each big blunder deserves a round of toasts. Because almost all of them teach us precious, rare lessons that can’t be acquired by success. Nope, the embarrassment, humiliation, self-disgust … all those are tools with which to unearth the gold. Just like Leonard Cohen writes in his song, “Anthem” that a friend of mine tapes to his computer as a reminder to ignore the perfectionist in him:

Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.


7. Add some color.

Perfectionists are color blind. They see the world in black and white. Example: either I am the best blogger in the entire blogosphere or I should throw my iMac into the Chesapeake Bay and become a water taxi driver (they do have a pretty cool job). Either I am the most involved mom in David’s school or I am a slacker parent who should let a more capable mom adopt her son. Does this kind of thinking sound familiar? In order to get a pair of glasses on our inner perfectionist, then, we have to add a few hues to every relationship, event, and goal: we have to become a tad more tolerant of life’s messiness, unresolved issues, and complicated situations that can’t be neatly boxed up. Seeing in color is realizing that even though a certain solution to a problem worked well yesterday, it might not be right for today.


8. Break the job down.

Procrastination is a symptom of perfectionism. Because many of us are so petrified of bloopers that we can’t begin the project. For a year or so I procrastinated writing my memoir. In fact, I procrastinated by reading Dr. David Burn’s chapter on procrastination in his “Ten Days to Self Esteem,” I couldn’t write a bloody word until he set me straight. Burns explains: “One of the secrets of people who are highly productive is that they rarely try to tackle a difficult job all at once. Instead, they break the task down into its smallest component parts and do one small step a day.”


As an exercise in that chapter, Dr. Burns suggests you list a few steps. For example, my first chore didn’t involve sitting down at my computer. I first had to find and organize all the post-its regarding this project that I had stashed away in drawers and coat pockets. Then he advises you to commit to a specific time that you will get started on the job. Third, he prompts you to record the problems that you anticipate at that time. I wrote: “getting overwhelmed, hearing the negative voices in my head that say I can’t do it, brain farts, and cognitive fatigue.” Finally, Burns encourages you to arrive at some solutions to the potential distractions. I wrote: “do it despite what the voices say.”

9. Be yourself.


In her book “Being Perfect,” Anna Quindlen explains that being perfect is cheap and easy: “Because all it really requires of you, mainly, is to read the zeitgeist of wherever and whenever you happen to be and to assume the masks necessary to be the best at whatever the zeitgeist dictates or requires.”

The much more challenging task, she asserts, is becoming yourself. Because “nothing important, or meaningful, or beautiful, or interesting, or great, ever came out of imitations.” I concur. As a writer who used to shirk penning anything original, compiling book after book of other authors’ works, I can attest to the exhilaration and satisfaction of writing my own words.


10. Believe in redemption.

Redemption is an odd thing. Because identifying the broken places in your heart and in your life can be one of the scariest exercises you ever do, and yet only then can you recognize the grace that comes buried with every hole. If the journey to the Black Hole of despair and back has taught me anything, it’s this: everything is made whole in time … if you can just hang on to the faith, hope, and love in the people and places around you long enough to see the sun rise yourself. Absolutely nothing is forsaken, not even those relationships and memories and persons that you think are lost forever. All things are made right in time. So you don’t always have to get it right on the first try.


Click here to subscribe to Beyond Blue and click here to follow Therese on Twitter and click here to join Group Beyond Blue, a depression support group. Now stop clicking.

  • John McManamy

    Hey, Therese. I’m glad you only revise your expectations about 2,035 times during the day. :) On a related note, I am in search of the ultimate hamburger.

  • Meghan

    You don’t know how much I needed to read this today…thank you for being real. Thank you for being you – even the broken parts – so that the rest know we’re not alone.
    See you soon on group BB…

  • Franco

    When my bride and I were wed 8 1/2 years ago, I felt an absolute need to be right – each and every time. It wasn’t exactly because I thought of myself as perfect but because I wanted to be perfect. I wanted to be the perfect husband with perfect solutions to each and every dilemma that came down the pike. Unfortunately, my bride and I both strived for that same perfection. She figured it out first – that I was imperfect! Then I did. :) Then we decided that we would allow ourselves an opportunity to just be the best we could be and let the chips fall where they may. When I obsess over something she cheers me on by reminding me, “Build a bridge and get over it.” or she’ll encourage me, “Let it go Louie; let it go.” We’re less and less aware of the personal flaws and imperfections because we’re more in the moment and just giving ourselves permission to ‘be’. Thank you for another great set of encouragements.

  • Alicia

    Thank you, Therese! I’m really trying to live the whole “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of this good” thing, and your post really helps to see what doing it actually looks like. Btw — I love you blog and can’t wait to read your new book (I’ve already pre-ordered it).

  • Tamara

    Once again Therese – you have hit the nail on the head! Well Done- thanks I am going to save this.

  • jpat

    Well this is an interesting article, becuase I have been named a perfectionist as well. Getting bent out of shape about things that others cant see is usually a waste of time and energy, becuase you are the only one it bothers.
    I have some chronic health issues, and I have had to let go of my perfectionist ways and lean on others when I am not capable. I belong to a women’s art group and we all have issues. But we stick it out together and have made wonderful progress as a group. My suggestion to all you perfectionists out there: Belong to a group of people who are like minded and you will find fulfillment.

  • Sharmyn

    Very helpful, thank you for sharing.

  • Carolyn

    This really hit home…I so often stop myself from doing things because I think if it does not turn out perfect whats the point in doing it!!! Today I will stop that!!!!

  • Tori

    Thank you I just was able to take a deep breath for the first time in a while!

  • Your Name

    I can’t tell you how much your posts here have helped me. I was especially moved by your “Believe in Redemption”–for myself and all my perceived failings, for loved ones I know to be struggling with their own demons, and for “lost” ones–particularly my beloved youngest brother who suffered from bipolar disorder and an array of addictions. He succumbed to suicide by degrees five months ago. God bless you. Keep educating us and keep being compassionate toward yourself.

  • Mona

    It is NOT TRUE when you say “All things are made right with time.” People die when wrongs still are outstanding. Some are stubborn and sometimes NOTHING IS EVER RIGHT AGAIN!
    Your article was good until that last part and eye opening to say the least.

  • Steve

    Great article. I have found that eliminating perfectionism comes from accepting What Is as simple perfection. Nothing can be more perfect than the present moment. I write a lot about that on my blog, but your 12 points here offer a very practical way to help eliminate perfectionism from life. Thanks for the insight!

  • http://Perfectionism Zlata

    How I could find out, I am a Perfectionist or not?

  • Toni Star

    Good advice! It is refreshing to see such advice because it causes the perfectionist-myself included–to step back and say…”Yes, I need to do this!”
    Thank you…

  • Your Name

    I loved your article. Speaking of the obsessive loop, that is the definition of insanity (taking the same action and expecting different results.) Or as another author put it, “appreciate the moment your in rather than treating it as an obstacle to get to that next place you think you need to be.” (I’m paraphrasing)

  • Your Name

    These are some of the most rewarding comments I have ever heard for direction in my life! Thank you…..!

  • linda

    Thank you for this article. Having struggled all week on a new job with new associates I found that “my” problem was this long-time friend of mine, “the perfectionist”.
    Those ten tips have been quite enlightening and I will refer to them often because of the clarity they bring to the insanity.
    I will keep it simple just by saying “thanks again” for this life saving tool.
    Here’s hoping for a better work week next week.

  • angela lemons

    cool articles

  • Elizabeth

    Thank you for this. This is something I am working on with my therapist and according to him, my perfectionsim is so tied in with my scrupulosity that the two are really inseparable.

  • AshleyS

    Thanks Therese! This post is incredibly insightful and so very relevant to my life. I struggle with comparing myself to my mentor, who is a perfectionist who’s achieved a million times what I have…and she’s only 30! Thank you for keeping me real.

  • Michael

    “Perfection is the enemy of good”

  • Nicole

    Very helpful article.

  • Angela H

    Thanks so much for your writing. I look forward to your articles very much. They are of immense help to me. Thank you.

  • Elizabeth

    Therese: Thank you for this. It is all new to me. I really admire you for being so you. My New Year’s resolution is going to be to be myself.

  • barb

    as usual therese, you have succeeded in giving your readers immense wisdom in light of trying to be perfect. i was a perfectionist before i became ill. after many years of being sick every day i realized that i had to let go of my former life, and just do the best i could every day. living one day at a time is a hundred times harder than it sounds, but it is possible. once i accepted my limitations, life became immensely easier. i think in your case, if i may make an observation, your manic side is the side that makes you want to be perfect, and when your down side comes out, you realize you cannot be perfect, and guess what? you are human, just like the rest of us!! we love you just the way you are. relax. as Oprah says, and i am kind of quoting here, “…it is as it should be…”.

  • Marie Ennis O’Connor

    Webster’s dictionary defines the word ‘perfect’ as “Lacking nothing essential to the whole: complete of its nature or kind. – Being in a state of undiminished or highest excellence: FLAWLESS”
    Pretty high expectations to put on ourselves don’t you think?! Perfectionism is merely an illusion because if it were a reality then it actually wouldn’t be perfect; this is what makes it such an insane desire to achieve something that is not real.
    So thanks Therese for this wonderful advice on how to break the never-ending cycle of perfectionism.

  • Arnie

    Thank you so much! Your article came at a good time for me. This week I am working on getting real about all of the things that I have been procrastinating about, and rereading Dr. Burns chapter on procrastination. I feel like you wrote this for me. Hope you don’t mind – I am printing a copy to keep.

  • Maureen

    I read somewhere that perfectionism is “idolotry of the ideal.” That seems to fit what you are saying, and I think your 10 ways to combat the insidiousness of perfectionism are very helpful to me. Thank You!

  • Jack

    Great blog. Perfectionism is a seductive addiction to absolutes – all or nothing. Of course, you are setting yourself up for failure. We can never have it all, for that would make us Godlike. Ah – but we continually aspire to sit atop Mount Olympus. Dare we be mere mortals?

  • Nancy

    I might be missing it, but this page needs a button for making a printer ready version. This is a keeper.

  • Allison

    Thank you, again, Therese…I’m a songwriter and performer (even majored in performance in college), and now I’m surrounded by a bunch of wonderful musicians that I am convinced think I’m a nobody. This stupid mental battle goes back and forth in my mind a million times a day, despite the fluoxetine 😉 Thank you, thank you, thank you…you are awesome and inspiring and give me the hope that I need. Your blog is the first button on my internet toolbar, and I always find many, many, encouraging and supportive words here. Thank you SO much!!

  • gregory

    I suffer from this too. Sometimes it is just paralyzing because it is better to not try, than to try and fail. The perfectionism is powerful, but it can be overtaken. It just takes time, patience, understanding, and God’s Love. Thank you for writing these points and sharing, it is a great read and great tips to move forward and be imperfect. Jeronimo!

  • barbara

    So funny, I have those post-its and notes all over the house, too.

  • Diane

    Enjoyed the article Therese. Love the term (and definition): “exodus moments,” when we were freed from fear and crossed the Red Sea of anxiety into a land of peace. Will definitely be remembering that one :)

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