Dear (name of perfectionist)
This is a tough letter for me to write because we have talked about your perfectionism so many times. However, I want to start on a compassionate note. I sense how difficult it is for you to accept anything less than perfection in your life. I also know how you grew up in a very punitive family where you came to believe that unless you were perfect you would be severely criticized. However, in your present situation you,
o Have difficulty in meeting deadlines due to the fact that you seek to have 100% of the data before you make a decision.
o Are so hard on yourself like when you forgot to attend an important meeting. I continually heard you say things like “How could I be so stupid to miss that meeting?”
The advice I have often given like “Get it done and not perfect” and “see yourself as breaking glass (a messy process)” seems to have fallen on deaf ears. However, things have reached the point where your boss is at his wits end with your missed deadlines and your life-partner throws up his hands in frustration.
I want to share some resources that I, a recovering perfectionist, have found to be useful.
1. Explore the roots of your perfectionism
I found it very helpful to gain deeper insights about my own condition to consult with an experienced psychotherapist. She did not judge me, fully understood my feelings, and gave me a safe environment to explore some of my own painful memories of the past. I came to see that the “script” given to me by my family and culture (e.g. you are not loveable if you are not perfect”) had absolutely nothing to do with what I really was. This discovery of the nature of the true self enabled me to slowly,
2. Use the perceived failures as learning trials
I know of a person who struggled with shyness and who avoided social situations. He was challenged to try the following at his next dance. “Go to the dance and ask at least 20 women to dance before you give up and leave.” Person number 16 accepted his invitation to dance and disproved his belief “nobody wants to dance with me”. It is always important not to have an “all or nothing” perspective on change. In regards to accepting failure as a part of life it is important to see that,
3. Not everything you do has to be a magnum opus
I remember the time when you rally freaked out when you could not get an important memo to your boss exactly right. Do you think that she really cared that you dotted every i and crossed every t? Perfectionists have to learn not to catastrophize every perceived shortcoming. Now if you were developing a new parachute of course you would want no errors in your design. People’s lives would be at stake. Knowing when to be perfect and when to do it “good enough for government work” is a key point of wisdom we all need to acquire.
4. Back off and regroup when progress is frustrated
I love what Maya Angelou said, “If there is pain in the path ahead of you and pain in the path behind you, change paths”. The act of finding a detour in the face of obstacles is not quitting but finding other options. Perfectionism, on the other hand, is a compulsive attitude of “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” It keeps driving ahead even though the behavior may be counter productive.
There are no magic formulas, quick fixes, or easy ways out of your perfectionistic torture chamber. But rest assured, changes are possible.
All the best,