Perfectionism: How to Make Mistakes (and Feel Good About Them)

Full disclosure: I am a recovering perfectionist. I know all too well how it feels to send an email, then obsessively re-read it 10 or 15 times and think about how the other person will perceive it—“I hope she doesn’t take that the wrong way, I didn’t mean that at all. Ugh, I sounded like such a jerk when I said that. Is there an unsend button?” I know the lurch in your stomach as you turn in a paper you have spent hours on, and realize you forgot to reference that one quote. I am hyperaware of the emotions of others and can pinpoint the exact moment when someone feels disappointed by me (or so I think). Trying to be perfect is exhausting, especially because it’s impossible.

Expectations are the driving force of perfectionistic tendencies. Expectations are individualized and we tend to set them much higher for ourselves than other people. For example, you may expect that you will respond in a timely manner to emails—timely meaning immediately, checking your email 50 times a day to be sure there aren’t any waiting for you. Or you may expect yourself to juggle your job, your personal life, every day challenges plus the super tough stuff that gets thrown at you from seemingly out of nowhere, without ever having a moment of sheer panic or sadness. What’s hard is that as people who have come to focus on maintaining perfection, we rely on expectations. We actually kind of like them. They support our habits and set the bar for us. And if anyone can reach the bar, it’s us, right?

But what if we say “screw expectations?” (yikes!)

You might start breathing heavily and noticing your body going into panic mode. You blaze through the worst case scenarios in your head. Take a moment and feel this in your body. Let’s harness this energy and do something else with it. One of the most effective strategies I have utilized myself and with clients is to find a safe place to make mistakes. If you dabble at all in painting, sewing, pottery, or cooking, these could be a good place to start. What happens if you don’t follow the recipe exactly? What if you grab a piece of old fabric and stitch on it with the ugliest thread you have, in crooked, zigzagged lines? What we come to realize is this: nothing scary happens. We don’t die. Time continues to pass. We take a deep breath. We are still fully whole and human; our mistakes don’t define us, and they don’t chip away at who we are deep down. What does dig at us is our expectation to be 100% on, all the time. 

Is there a way you can find a moment of your day on a regular basis where you don’t have to be performing at your absolute best? Creating a space where you can fully relax into yourself, even for just a few minutes, can help give you the courage to do so in a situation where the stakes are a little higher. Start really small and sit with your response. The more you practice making mistakes, the better you’ll get. You may even find some joy in coloring outside of the lines a bit.

This blog was originally posted for Porch Light Counseling.