I find it healthy to strive for excellence. I’ve always been ambitious and proud of my high standards. However, after years of beating myself up for any hint of a blunder or misstep—from the large to the completely insignificant—I have learned that it’s also healthy—and normal—to make mistakes.
I am a recovering perfectionist, and I still struggle with relapsing. My perfectionist tendencies can surface in every area of life: I fear my article may have an extra comma, my dinner may have a pinch too much salt, and the yoga class I’m about to teach may not be challenging enough, may be too challenging, or worse—may be considered boring to someone in class.
If you can relate to the desire to be top-notch at everything, if you have a fear of slip-ups, making mistakes, and being imperfect—you may be a perfectionist, too.
Do you have perfectionist tendencies? Here are some telltale signs:
3 Worst Pitfalls of Perfectionism
- You don’t actually finish projects because you are so caught up about finishing them perfectly. Learn the age-old adage, “Better done, than not at all.” If you wait for perfect, you’ll never get anything done.
- You beat yourself up at the smallest slip. You are your worst critic. So what if you found a typo in your email, an extra formula in your excel sheet, or the wrong font in your presentation? Is it worth it to spend the afternoon practicing self-hatred tactics to ensure you won’t do it again?
- You are constantly disappointed. This one goes for yourself and others. If you find yourself imparting your own high standards on others, you’re going to be constantly frustrated and disappointed when they don’t live up to these unrealistic expectations. This can lead to a steady mood of aggravation, let-down, and discouragement. This can also lead to difficulty in relationships—at work and at home.
If you experience any of those pitfalls in your life, you may want to start working toward less-than-perfect. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t strive for excellence—less-than-perfect and excellence can coincide harmoniously. Focus on doing the best work you can do and being the best self you can be. But in the process, remember you are human, and just by the nature of your humanity; you have no chance of being perfect. Humans are not meant to be perfect, and overcoming perfectionism involves accepting this reality.
Meditation as Medicine
As I mentioned, I don’t believe there is anything wrong with a healthy desire and pursuit of excellence—it’s when the fear of failure creeps into anything and everything, that takes things in the wrong direction. Meditation helps you settle into the unknown, let go of the need for total control and “perfect,” and release the constant fear of failure.
The goal of mindfulness practices is to help you practice “awareness of the present moment without judgment.” The tricky part for us perfectionists is the “without judgment.” As perfectionists, we are conditioned to judge—ourselves and others, anything and everything.
Letting go of the judgment is the biggest opportunity you have to release your perfectionist hat, and meditation is a great place to begin making peace with perfectionism.
The first thing to accept here is that meditation will never be perfect. No matter how hard you try, there is just no such thing as a perfect meditation. So if you find yourself searching for it, you will soon be disappointed. It is the much easier and recommended route to accept that as your starting point.
A Guided Meditation to Overcome Perfectionism
Whether you’re a full-on perfectionist or just have some tendencies, this meditation and journaling exercise will help you loosen up and let it go. The best time to try this meditation is when you are being hard on yourself for a mistake—large or small. Take a moment to find some stillness so you can release the self-judgment (and at times, self-hatred) from your blunder.
Make sure to have a journal nearby for this exercise. Since there are many steps along the way, I recommend you read the entire guided meditation first, then have the prompts nearby so you can refer to them as you need to. You can take notes along the way or when you are done. To begin, take a comfortable seat, set a timer for 15 minutes, and close your eyes.
- Begin to bring all of your attention to your breath, slowing it down—in and out through your nose. Take at least five or 10 breaths to begin.
- Bring to mind something that you’re proud of yourself for—it could be a talent, skill or specific project. Hold that feeling of pride and appreciation for yourself in your mind as you breath.
- Now visualize other people you know (or know of) who share a similar talent, skill or accomplishment, recognizing a connection between you.
- Now bring to mind a mistake that you have made—one that you are currently beating yourself up for or an error for which you were hard on yourself in the past.
- Now visualize other people (you can know them personally or not) that have made similar mistakes as this one.
- Recognize the common humanity between those who share your talents and those who share your mistakes. You are all human and not one of you is perfect.
- Now bring to mind something you are currently working on that is stressful—something for which you are holding very high standards and you are nervous they won’t go perfectly.
- Recognize the level of your standards, and whether or not they are realistic for yourself and others.
- Develop a new definition of satisfaction. Declare this in a clear sentence. What would the success of this project look like?
- Then ask yourself: What’s the worst that could actually happen? The answer usually leads me back to reality, as the worst-case scenario is usually not so bad.
- Bring your attention back to your breath. Notice when you’re judging yourself. Is your inner voice saying “My mind is much too active, it should be calmer during meditation.” Or “I’m not good at this.” Observe the tendencies to judge your meditations or judge yourself while meditating, and let them go and find your way back to your breath.
- Notice that your mind goes back and forth, from the breath to the self-critic. Release the need to judge the movement of the mind. Let it go and when you notice, just come back to the breath.
- When your timer goes off, keep your eyes closed and take two deep breaths.
- As an option, you can take a moment to go through steps 2 through 6 again. You can use the same visualizations, sentiments, and people to focus on or choose new ones.
- When you are done, you can gently open your eyes.
After you finish sitting with the exercise with your eyes closed, take some time to grab a journal and write down what came up for you for each of these steps.
It’s not easy for perfectionists to break the habit of self-judgment, and this challenge can show up during meditation as much as it can show up at work. If you have some false expectation that meditating is easy or you should be “great” at it, you are going to wind up more stressed than when you started. Instead, notice the reality: that your mind may have trouble slowing down or that you may struggle with meditation. Accepting this imperfect nature is the final step of this particular meditation.
Meditation helps you find equanimity and peace, despite missteps and stumbles along the way, and teaches self-compassion, enabling you to forgive yourself for making a mistake.
Plus, there’s always something to learn from a mistake and if you’re not too busy beating yourself up for the slip-up, you’ll miss the important lesson and growth opportunity. With practice, you’ll bring those sentiments into every part of your life and continue to strive to be the best, but let go of the minutiae.
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As an ICF Certified Executive Coach, Melissa partners with leaders to develop their executive presence, strategic and systems thinking, resilience, communication skills, and influence in order to reach their goals. Melissa is passionate about supporting leaders and teams on their growth journeys toward greater impact, more collaborative teams, and stronger results.