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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84 comments

  1. Lauren P. says:

    This post really hit home as I definitely fall into this trap. I’ve been consciously working on overcoming my need for perfection the past year– mostly because I don’t want to pass that pressure on to my daughter who is currently 9 months old. And because it’s exhausting. Having an infant has been so incredibly joyful and amazing, and it has definitely forced me to take lots of deep breaths and be patient. I must remind myself that she is resilient and it is okay if she doesn’t go to bed successfully at the same time each night. She (and my husband) will still love me if I don’t have a “perfect” meal ready at the “perfect” time after working all day. They will give me grace because they are not perfect, too. And I am slowly learning to give myself just as much grace as I willingly extend to others. My mantra the past nine months has been, “It’s okay. We’ll try again tomorrow.”

  2. Southern Gal says:

    I call myself a PPP, Procrastinating Perfectionist Packrat. It’s a horrible combination. I’m slowly coming out of it. I put my sewing machine away for about 15 years because I didn’t think the things I created were perfect enough. I’m sewing quilts now. The worst part is that we homeschool and I have put those feelings and tendencies of perfectionism on my children. (My daughter had to talk herself off a ledge during a test in her first semester of college. It was OK to make a B!) We’re turning over a new leaf this year and it looks like it’s going to go much smoother. Learn by doing. Yes, ma’am.

  3. Tim says:

    I’ve never been much of a perfectionist, Anne, but I’ve had stages where I’ve fretted over trying something for fear of failure. Now I just tell myself the only guaranteed way to fail to achieve something is by not trying. So trying is the first step to achieving. And if I don’t achieve, it’s not for lack of trying.

  4. Kandi says:

    This was so meaningful to me today. Reframing the word failure, even as a positive way of learning, into experiment with any outcome as a positive, is life giving to me. Thanks so much! This is silly but even this morning I’ve been thrashing around in my mind something as silly as whether to hang a particular picture over the bed in the guest room and whether that one picture will define the rest of the room. Sounds ridiculous, but as you described, I have decision paralysis, particularly in specific areas of my life. Decorating my house is one of them b/c I don’t particularly love it and I don’t feel confident of my abilities. I’m about to go hang that picture as an experiment.

  5. Amber says:

    I also identify as a recovering perfectionist. A phrase that has been helpful for me is “just begin,” which I think has that same vibe of “learn by doing.” I have really found it to be true that when you just start, you gain both positive momentum and inspiration. We (perfectionistic people especially) tend to think that we should feel totally ready/inspired to do something before we act, but, paradoxically, action often begets motivation/inspiration! Also, growth mindset and all of that thinking/research is another thing that has really helped. Thanks for this great post that I’m sure will resonate with lots of people!

  6. Jeannie says:

    Writing is the area where I most benefit from a mantra like this. I may have an idea for a story, poem, or whatever, but I procrastinate about starting because “What if it doesn’t work?” “What if I can’t translate the idea in my mind into anything worthwhile on paper?” And yet there’s nothing to be lost from trying and seeing what happens; putting the words down on paper or screen isn’t a commitment, but just an attempt. I need to remember that!

    I really like your example about staying at a hotel. We have had similar experiences of thinking “Oh, this will NEVER work with our kids” and then just giving it a shot. Yes, sometimes the outcome is “OK, that actually WAS a disaster,” but sometimes it’s “Wow, that went SO much better than we thought it would.”

  7. Erika says:

    Thank you so much for your vulnerability and for sharing! I’m trying to beat my inner perfectionist voice into submission and this is wonderfully helpful. It’s even similar to an exercise I recently read about in an anxiety workbook. It’s so helpful to know others have to beat that perfectionist voice back as well and that you’ve made such progress. Thanks for the encouragement!!

  8. Have you read “No More Perfect Kids” by Dr. Kathy Koch & Jill Savage? (There’s also “No More Perfect Moms.”)
    I can’t tell you how helpful this resource has been to me in addressing and overcoming my own fear of failure, pressured to be perfect feelings.
    Thank you sharing your experience and encouragement. I’m on a similar journey – and I have to say my own “just try it” mentality has been (dare I say it?) FUN! 🙂
    And my whole family is thankful for this mentality too.

  9. Desiree says:

    Hi Anne,

    I suffer greatly from decision paralysis. I made some poor choices, met what I thought was the lowest point but I’m still struggling with making decisions. It can be as simple as making supper and I can’t come to a decision on my own, I’m always seeking input from my husband or kids. When really it would probably benefit everyone if I just said hey this is what’s for supper. Baby steps, but I like the idea of reframing failure into an experiment. I’ll have to ponder that and see what I can learn from it. Thanks, Anne for the timely post!

  10. Marne says:

    You really hit the nail on the head for me. The procrastination of perfectionism keeps my progress at a snails pace unless I can bust through it. I even blogged about how it is keeping me from actually getting my blog going! And still, I haven’t gotten it going at a consistent rhythm yet. I am a perfectionist with control issues…that’s not good for trying new things! I have to just learn by doing. Perfect advice for me – thanks. (oh, and I hope you are enjoying “Someone Else’s Love Story” as much as I am!)

      • Marne says:

        Thank you! “What if” I don’t say it in a way that resonates? “What if” I say something I think is brilliant that someone else has already said? “What if” I offend someone (isn’t that the case with everything these days?). Let’s both promise each other…as perfect strangers…to just start writing. (okay, I just checked out your website. I’m not even in your ballpark. But I’m learning…by doing!)

  11. Grace Furman says:

    Love this post! Your words were very reminiscent of Brene Brown. What a great way to simplify a topic that can feel overwhelming when you’re in the middle of a perfectionism struggle (which is very often for myself).

  12. Heather says:

    Oh man, this totally resonates with me. It’s a battle I fight each day. I’ve come a long way, but the hesitation to do something until I can do it “as best as possible,” if not “just right” still rears its ugly head. We are living overseas for a stint at the moment, and I have really had to fight that battle with language learning. I don’t really want to open my mouth and speak until I can use the subjunctive tense perfectly…but I have to communicate. And I’ve found that in those times where I convince myself to just let go, to learn more Spanish by letting myself be vulnerable and having the conversation with someone at the hair salon or after church, I am actually learning. No one is making a fuss about the five words I mispronounced and the fact that I said “she left” instead of “I left”–they’re just having a conversation and being gracious. So I’m learning how to be gracious with myself! I love your mantra; it’s one I’ll keep reminding myself of!

    • Amber says:

      Heather – I totally hear you. I lived in Spain as part of my undergrad work and was TOTALLY afraid to speak Spanish if I did not know how to say something perfectly. If I wasn’t about 100% sure I was saying it right, I wouldn’t attempt (unless I was forced to in class, of course). I still came away with decent skills, but if I’d have just dove in I’d have learned much more. And the thing is – no one cares! In fact, people love to help you learn to speak their language.

      Good luck to you!

      • Heather says:

        I’d say I’m in the same boat as you. I’m also coming away from a couple of stints in Spain with pretty decent skills, but they’d be better if I could get over myself. 😉 Where were you in Spain? I’m currently in Valencia, but was in Madrid for a year and a half and then in Alcala de Henares for 10 months.

      • Heather says:

        Also, PS: I’m blogging about Spain/life abroad–you can click on my name to get there if you’re missing España! I just clicked on your blog and have enjoyed reading it! Blogs are the best.

        • Amber says:

          “Get over myself.” Love it. I use that phrase all the time, too.

          I lived in Granada. It is beautiful – you should go if you haven’t been yet. I will definitely check out your blog! I do miss it! Thanks for checking out mine – I just started it this winter. Yes, blogs are great! 🙂

  13. emily says:

    Thank you for this today. And a *big* thank you to all of the awesome commenters, as well. Sometimes trying to not be a perfectionist can seem like something else to fret over, so thanks for sharing your perspectives. 🙂

  14. Heather says:

    “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.)”

    YES–this explains how I lived my life for so long. After we had our first son and I started staying home with him, I had to keep reminding myself that it would take a while for me to adjust. I never expected it would be so challenging for me to keep up with meals or keep the house tidy or plan our day. But it was one of the least stressful years for me because I kept reminding myself that just as it had taken me a long time to adjust to teaching, it would take a while for me to adjust to this new role, too. Thanks for your post!

  15. “…if I can’t tell what the absolute, unquestionable best option is in a given situation, I’ll do nothing—except fret about it.”
    Oh wow, is that me. Even something as simple as picking sheets for my kid’s crib can turn into a long, exhausting process because of the fear of getting it “wrong.” Sometimes I have success with the mantra, “Done is better than perfect.”

    I like the idea of framing things as experiments!

  16. Laurel says:

    I love this idea! (I’m working to overcome my perfectionism just writing out this comment.) I like the idea of seeing instances where this tendency creeps in as an experiment. You’re right; you can’t fail an experiment.
    I’m going to try and think with this mindset next time I’m paralyzed by my fear of failure. Thanks for this wonderful tip!

  17. Jules says:

    This is so helpful. It took me SO.MANY.YEARS. to realise my procrastination was at root perfectionism. I thought perfectionists were, well, perfect! And I certainly am not that. However, I finally realised that failing to start projects/classes I had gathered materials for or not making decisions was not laziness but fear of the outcome not being perfect. So clearly it was safer to not try. Oh my, so many missed opportunities to learn. I shall now try to view any potential decision to be an experiment with a dispassionate result not a personal failure if it doesn’t turn out as I hope/expect.

    • Amber says:

      Such a common misconception – that perfectionists are perfect. They all feel a strong pressure/desire for perfection; whether they appear perfect or not is beside the point. It’s the underlying pressure they put on themselves and (often) others around them. (Sorry, I’m a nerd who has thought about perfectionism a lot, as totally afflicts me, my husband, and both of our families of origin!)

  18. Kerri says:

    I LOVE THIS. How freeing! That the goal is just results, not The Best Possible Result.

    My friend and I were once talking about major decisions in life and how the temptation is to *think* incessantly about them. But then she said, “you can’t discern a hypothetical.” I thought that was such a great way to phrase it. You have to discern concrete things by actually doing them – I think as a perfectionist/ maximizer my temptation is to think through every major possibility and all it’s various hypothetical results… and never actually do anything because I might end up with a lesser good. But if the goal is just to see, instead of getting it exactly right, that takes a lot of pressure off!

  19. Anne says:

    “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.”

    So true for me too! Excellent post, Anne. I really like how you reframed failure and experimenting, too.

  20. Greg says:

    Thanks for writing this one. As an engineer, perfectionism is an occupational hazard, and can be a career limiter. Worse, it can spill over into your personal life with making smaller decisions, as you describe. So, I have added your “Learn by doing” to my little yellow sticky motivational quotes at work. We’ll see what happens.
    BTW, I initially came for the books/reviews and am staying for the good advice. Not that the review aren’t useful, but you have more to offer. Thanks.

  21. Brianna says:

    Looking at breaking perfection that way is so much more freeing than trying to dismantle and dissect the causes, my current avenue. The mentality of not making any mistakes has kept me shackled. Recently, it has been my downfall in a new job. Too careful and too much analyzing, not enough action. As I look for a new job, the perfect job has caused me to obsess over choosing the right one and applying to the right job. Perfection steals so much joy…

    But I love the idea of experimenting. Part of an experiment is just to try and see what happens. It does remove so much obsessing. My husband and I always say when we get lost or don’t know our way, that it’s adventure time. Part of the journey is being lost.

    Thank you for these words. I needed a reminder to not take risk so seriously.

  22. Ruth-Anne Hayes says:

    Totally! I keep telling myself that failure fuels creativity. Last year, my daughter and I began taking private lessons from a potter as part of my daughter’s art curriculum. Needless to say it had greatly improved my ability to let go & my daughter had found a niche in life. Two thumbs up! ♡

  23. a says:

    mine are “Fall Forward”
    it means even if you’ve to fall, fall forward, not backward. take the leap. worst you can do it fall FORWARD, which is still a big help than falling backward or not moving at all.

  24. Cassie says:

    A LOT! My husband and I are starting a new business so there’s a lot of pressure to “succeed.” These insights are so beautiful and timely reminding me that as long as we’re learning, we’re succeeding. The failure is in ceasing to grow or learn anymore.

  25. 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”.

  26. Anouk says:

    Hello,
    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.

  27. 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!!

  28. 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?!

  29. 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.)

  30. Keri Brown says:

    I’m so glad I followed this link from yesterday’s post. This is the mantra I will use as I begin (hesitantly) a new venture tomorrow. Thank you!

  31. Kristian says:

    Oh my goodness. What fabulous advice. I worked with elementary aged gifted students, many of whom really struggle with unhealthy perfectionism (um, that’s the actual term used in research. There’s the healthy kind too!) and for them? These words would be game changers! So many of them love the idea of experiments na dyour right- its takes the negative factor- the possibility of failure- out of it. Thank you for sharing (and then re sharing on your links in 2017) this.

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