Perfectionism is a sneaky mental illness. I know because I’m a recovering perfectionism addict.
On the surface, the voice of perfection makes you think that it’s only trying to help.
After all it only wants to help you be all that you can be, right? Not only that, but it’s supposedly protecting you from the devastating effects of failure. It’s there to shield you, so you don’t let yourself and others down.
Cloaked in its desire to help you be the best, to avoid failure, to reach your potential, the devious voice of perfectionism can lure you into thinking it’s doing you a service.
That’s what I used to think. But the dirty truth is that it often just creates resistance or the feeling of “never enough.”
The desire to be perfect, to be the best, has only ever led me to into two, equally horrible traps.
The never enough trap
The first is that even when I am successfully driven by perfection, I check all the boxes and do all the things that I’m supposed to do, I still never quite feel like I did enough. There is always room for more, for being better.
Perfection’s favorite tool weapon is hindsight. In the best-case scenario, it can seem like you’re flying high and on top of the world. But once you reach your goal, you can’t help but look back and see all the things you could have done better. There’s always, and I mean always ways you could have tried harder, been more focused, more disciplined. The voice of perfection never rests, even when you “succeed.”
No matter how hard you try, it seems that you’re just never enough.
The complacency trap
The second trap, which is more common for most people is that the desire to be perfect just leads to crippling resistance. I know this all too well because this is my favorite way of dealing with debilitating expectations.
The voice of complacency comes to your rescue, and says “if I can’t be perfect, why even bother?” It can make you think you should just “relax” and “take it easy.” In an effort to help you not be so hard on yourself, it often leads you to simply collapsing under the enormous weight of trying to be the best.
Perfection seems like a good idea on the surface. But it’s really a no-win situation. At best you’ll never be good enough, (because perfect doesn’t exist), and at worst, you’ll never do anything because you collapse under the weight of unrealistic expectations.
Another way, beyond the extremes
Both the hardcore approach to be the best, and the complacent approach to not even bother are extremes. Neither are sustainable and neither are who you really are. They’re strategies you learned to cope with something else, entirely…
The root cause of this merry-go-round of struggle is the belief that you need to become something to earn love and approval.
I would venture to say that at least 90% of us have been taught in our western culture that we need to earn love. Of course, our parents and loved ones don’t do this on purpose. Just like systems of oppression, it’s not something we intentionally learn or try to do. Like most cultural norms, we’re never overtly taught these things. It’s just there, silently operating underneath the surface. We learn these beliefs not because we’re taught them, but rather, through osmosis.
To undo the struggle, we need two strategies: first, we need to be mindful of when these voices are running the show.
When we want to collapse, we need to ask, what is this desire to just “take it easy” coming from? Is that what I really want or need right now?
When we want to get hardcore and extreme, we need to ask, what is this desire to be hardcore or perfect coming from? Is that what I truly want or need right now?
You are already worthy of loving and accepting yourself, right now. You don’t need to prove your worth to anyone. You don’t need to collapse or burn yourself out.
The second strategy is to ask yourself:
“What do I really want?”
That might seem like a simple, obvious question. But I have to tell you, when I first started asking myself this, I had a very hard time authentically answering this question. I didn’t even know what I wanted beyond trying to prove myself or earn happiness.
It took me a lot of sitting with that question, coming back to it over and over, before my authentic voice could come out of its shell. I had to learn how to listen past the noise of perfection and complacency to hear what my heart was dying for me to hear.
And that’s the big distinction, right there: your desire to be perfect, or your impulse to collapse is rooted in your mind. What you really, truly want and deeply need? That can only come from your heart.
What does all of this have to do with creating a passion business?
If you want to create your own freedom, to really work and live on your own terms, you’re going to be a lot more effective if you’re not ruled by perfection.
At best, you will succeed in creating a business, but you’ll still be stuck with a shitty boss that has unrealistic demands (you). You will succeed, but still feel like a failure. In other words, you might get what you want, but you’ll still be you.
At worst, you will never be able to take action consistently enough to get results, because you’re crippled by the desire to be the best. You thwart any chance of achieving your goals before you even start.
Your rebellion is your greatest gift
Many of you read my blog because you want to go against the status quo. You reject the unstated belief that says you must work a 9-to-5 to earn your freedom someday.
Whether you identify or not, you are a rebel at heart. You don’t like just doing what you’re told and being grateful for a “good job.”
And at the heart of every rebel is an inquisitor, an intuitive voice that dares to question the way things are. A voice that won’t stop asking “Why is it that way?” and “What else is possible?”
I want you to use this power to question the voice of perfection.
Did you agree to a system that demands you earn approval, respect and love?
I never did. I don’t think you did either.
So you use that voice. Notice your patterns and the cycles you go through. Personally, I have cycled through periods of being really hardcore and unrealistic with myself, followed by stretches of wanting to take it easy and not be so hard on myself.
Noticing these patterns, I’m able to ask myself, “is this what I really want?”
Does it make the voices go away? I haven’t found that to be the case, but it has become far easier for me to listen to my heart. And the better I get at that, not only am I making more consistent progress on the things that matter most to me, but I’m also actually enjoying the process a lot more.
Isn’t that what we want at the end of the day anyway? To enjoy the journey?
If you struggle with perfection and complacency, share your voice in the comments.
I think the more we remove the stigma around this, the easier it will be for us to move into something deeper. We might even find out who we really are beyond this false sense of self.
P.S. The 365 Days to Freedom program is reopening soon. It’s designed to help you move beyond being trapped by indecision and uncertainty and start making consistent progress building a business on your own terms. Make sure you’re subscribed to find out when the course opens.
your blogs are very valueabale and deliver good value for the reader. i agree with this one, perfectionism is a silent sabotager which never lets u enjoy ur little successes. u r always upset with what u did and more so with what u didn;t.
enjoy and thanks
Zero One says
You are wise beyond your years. The gift of experience and suffering.
I, too, was raised to think I was never good enough.
Performance based love and approval are the opposite of good parenting. Family is supposed to be a safe place to fail on a daily basis. Failure is how we learn.
We need to reevaluate our relationship with failure.
Keep on pressing on. You are looking for truth and sharing your journey is helping lots of people. We love you man. You make my heart happy.
Someone once told me it’s the unlearning of our past that we need to focus on for true recovery.
Blessings and peace to you and your tribes.
Jeanne M Posthumus says
Hi Jonathan and thanks for this much needed article. I have come to realize I am a perfectionist. But, there was was a time, where I thought perfectionists were….well…..perfect! I’ve known of my problem for a while. I wasn’t getting anywhere, comparing myself to others, never feeling good enough. I didn’t know I was a perfectionist, I thought I was just a loser :/ I felt like when I tried, it was never good enough, and then after there was a period of “f#ck it all!” This didn’t help. I was angry, mostly with myself, although I would blame others, the system, etc. Right now, I am in my mindful stage, the part where my eyes are open and I am seeing what is wrong or what I need. As for my passions? I have some ideas, but I am not convinced they are true passions, simply because I do not have an undying restless desire for them all the time. Passion seems irrational to me, and I rarely see my likes as irrational. I love photography, but I’m not dying to get out of bed and capture the world. Maybe I am just shut down for a while. My brain needs to reboot from all the chaos that resulted from my obsession with being perfect all the time. Yoga helps, talking it out with friends helps.
Faith Singer says
So true Jonathan! A little while ago I went with a friend to one of those Groupon paint nights where a group of about 30 people try replicate an acrylic painting (along with drinking lots of alcohol!). My friend was having the time of her life while I was so mad and frustrated with myself for not getting it perfect. I realized that perfectionism ruined my night out with my friend. Since then, I’ve tried to be more cognizant of it. Thanks for the article and the tip. I’m going to start asking myself, “What do I really want?”
This is a 100% me, and this post could not have been more timely. A year ago I started studying photography, and upon that point I just considered myself to be very organized, but not a perfectionist. I was so wrong. Being placed in a environment where all of a sudden I had to deliver works on a weekly basis, it didn’t took long until I went into “collapse mode”. I felt unable to produce good work which finally lead to me canceling my exams at the end of the semester. Irony of the story I did my exams later, and got the best grade possible. Oddly enough the works I’m most drawn to from others are those that are seemingly flawed. The grainy, blurry, high-contrast, light-leaked kind of photography. So for this term I’ll run a experiment to intentionally mess things up in the darkroom just to see where it takes me. Fortunately film photography provides plenty of sources for potential failure. Sounds simple, but to be honest I feel uneasy just thinking about it.
I hear you about the perfectionism. My problem was always that I thought I first needed to BE perfect in order for anyone to take me seriously. I am in recovery as well. It is surprisingly hard to let go of this way of thinking. But I’m getting there….
Thanks for the article. As always you are spot on!
Such truth in this article, thanks Jonathan.
I know perfectionism can strike in some strange ways too. I’ve been facing it in terms of my ideas, in that I feel like I shouldn’t pursue an idea until it’s the “best” one I could have, the one guaranteed to pay off, and my fear is of wasting my time. I think about time in such a weird way, like taking a year or two to build a business part time whilst working and having a young family is too long – how ridiculous is that?!
Asking that question, what do I really want, I hope will help me a lot in breaking through the not good enough/time waste barrier I’ve built inside.
Ironically I’m not bad at shipping things out, particularly at my day job where I really don’t care that much and the timeframes we work in are so tight that doing anything more than 80% is not really possible! It’s good training for when I get past this idea-blocking problem of mine, I should be fine to create once I accept that it’s ok to create a few things people might not need. Failure doesn’t spell the end, it guides to the better ways. Easy to say, damn hard to do, but you have reinvigorated my drive to live that belief properly!
Peter Fritz says
This is a timely post, Jonathan. I’ve grappled with this for a long time. I’m the guy who cannot ship till he’s happy with every little detail (many of which are ignored, anyway). My wife, on the other hand, often says, “good enough”. She fires, aims and iterates; whereas I aim, aim, aim, iterate, iterate, iterate, iterate, fire… As a result, my wife has been hugely successful at everything she’s done, while I vacillate and fuss over inconsequential ‘stuff’.
Perfection is a scam. Action is life. Life rewards action.
Your post is a much needed and appreciated reminder – delivered in your inimitable style.
I’ve long been a perfectionist but I’m in recovery. It’s very difficult to say no to all that calls out to me to be done…and done well…the first time! I know in my head that perfection is impossible but it’s so tied to my striving to be valued and accepted. I also know in my head that my value doesn’t come from performing perfectly, but it takes a long time for that to sink into one’s heart.
Thank you for tackling the topic!