Three little words to overcome perfectionism.

Three little words to overcome perfectionism.

I’ve spent more than a decade beating my inner perfectionist into submission. We know each other well. Some years the better me prevails; for a few acutely uncomfortable years the perfectionist won out more often than not.

When perfectionism prevails, it’s not pretty. It looks like me being critical, uptight, and generally not fun to be around. It looks like constant decision paralysis: if I can’t tell what the absolute, unquestionable best option is in a given situation, I’ll do nothing—except fret about it.

(If you love the enneagram—and I do—you know that one of the 9 types, Type 1, is known as “the perfectionist.” I’m not talking about personality types today. I’m talking about the broken kind of behaviors you unconsciously adapt after life kicks you around a little bit and you’re terrified of taking one more misstep.)

Fighting perfectionism used to be a battle; now it’s just a habit.

Now, my mantra is: learn by doing. 

There was a time when I’d think and think and overthink before I felt comfortable acting. On anything.

Mistakes would not be tolerated. Failure was not an option.

But if mistakes aren’t okay, I miss out on one of the fastest, most effective ways to learn. Failure is incredibly instructive. But “failure” is also a scary word to throw around, and it’s not one people want to own. It’s not one I want to own.

What if I fail? is a big, scary question.

Intellectually, I know failure is a good thing. But working to desensitize the word feels like a battle itself, so I tried a vocabulary switcheroo instead.

I don’t talk about success or failure much anymore, not in my day-to-day life. Instead, I’ve learned to say let’s experiment. It’s far less scary.

When I try an experiment, success is getting an outcome. Any outcome. The goal is to get results, not a win.

An experiment is neutral, dispassionate. There’s none of that paralyzing pressure to not screw everything up.

Here’s what that looks like in real life, on an ordinary Thursday. A couple of weeks ago my family tried something new: instead of driving to the beach in one 11 hour haul, we broke the trip into two segments, spending a night in a hotel en route.

We’ve debated doing this for years. So why this year? We could have talked and discussed and made pro and cons lists, but we didn’t, this time. The final decision sounded exactly like this: Learn by doing. Let’s try it and see what happens. 

I don’t remember who said those words: me, my husband, or both together, because this has become a household mantra. Learn by doing. Let’s experiment. Try it and see what happens next. These are words we say, daily, to ourselves, to our kids, to the people we work with and the people who work for us.

When you experiment, there’s no paralysis and there’s no criticism. There are rarely regrets. Because all you need is an answer, not a victory.

(Our drive to the beach was awesome. We all loved the hotel stopover. But if it hadn’t gone well—if we swore we never wanted to do it again—it wouldn’t have been a mistake, because the goal was to get a result, not the best possible experience.)

Some experiments are low stakes, like a new route to school, or trying a new coffee shop, or recipe. Sometimes there’s more on the line: a move, a marriage, a school, whatever. Sometimes, an experiment is a tiny step; sometimes, it’s a leap of faith.

In the day to day—with math homework and personal essays and new fall routines—there’s not much to lose. I don’t agonize over what to do; I just try something, and see what happens next.

Today, don’t beat yourself up over getting things right the first time. Don’t agonize over the right decision. Instead, go try something, and see what happens. You don’t need success or failure: you need an outcome.

Learn by doing.

Does this describe you a little, a lot, or not at all? Tell us all about it in comments. 

3 little words to overcome perfectionism

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  1. Jeanne says:

    Thanks for this! We’re building a new house and I’m constantly fretting that I’m not getting it perfect and it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity etc., which results in almost total paralysis, or, maybe worse, reckless decision making because I delayed too long.
    So I’ve been steadying my nerves with “nothing to it but to do it”.

  2. Anouk says:

    Reading your post is right in the middle of what I am learning to do right now. First I am trying to release the shame that I painfully overthink everything and by the same token often am a procrastinator.
    Then as you say I am trying to “experiment” even if I am not 100% sure of the outcome.
    It is very difficult but also very liberating.
    I feel happy that I am not the only one having these difficulties and that it’s possible to overcoming it.
    On this topic I recomment Brene Brown books and lectures which I found really helpful especially on shame, vulnerability and perfectionism.
    Thanks a lot for your post.

  3. Lisa says:

    This is where I get to say, “Are you peeking in my window?”
    Wow! So needed this new insight!
    I fear failure often.
    Never considered the experiment perspective.
    Heading to my desk to write now. Think I’ll picture myself in a lab coat.
    Thank you!!

  4. Julia says:

    Reading this after rereading your bullet journal (got to try that!) repost today, and these are the words I need to hear. I’m preparing to start my first semester as a college writing professor after more than a decade of being an editor. I’m planning my class and am so stuck on which books to choose and the theme around which to structure the class because what if I get it wrong?!

  5. This makes so much sense to me! I have called myself a “recovering perfectionist” since college. When I am comparing myself to some list of absolutes or shoulds, I get down on myself and start having insomnia. Kristin Neff’s work on self-compassion helps, as do good friends and therapists and writing like yours. Thank you!

    I am a HUGE fan of the Enneagram – what tools did you use to explore it?

    Thank you for your candid sharing. I love your blog!

    • Anne says:

      For the enneagram … good books and good friends. (I’m actually posting a list of my favorite personality books this Monday and will include a few Enneagram books.)

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