In all things human

Are you a recovering perfectionist?

Here are some clues that you may be in this camp (with me, I might add):

  • you need (NEED) to make all the fonts match in your writing
  • you have to clean your desk before you work
  • projects are never really finished
  • there’s always one last email to send
  • you are working on one more advanced degrees because you like those cute letters that go after your name
  • yes, you need details! Who wouldn’t need more details?
  • life is never quiiiiiiiite right, and…
  • no, it’s never really good enough.

Perfectionism, or the relentless quest to turn life into a series of never-ending checkboxes, is driven by our desire to control the universe. Understandable! And clearly impossible. Ask a perfectionist, “Say, there fella, are you trying to control the universe?” and they will scoff and you and say, “Don’t be ridiculous, I’m just trying to do this right/ correctly / appropriately.” However, the truth is that underneath our cute scoffing, part of us does actually believe that if we just get it right, that the skies will open, heaven will pour down upon us,  and we will finally have that wonderful feeling of satisfaction happiness for which we have worked so hard.

But the problem with our strategy is that the world (and certainly other people) are beyond our control. Just look at your three-year old having a tantrum and you will be reminded that other people are remarkably resistant to behaving according to our wishes. But if we did manage to check all our checkboxes (the kids are behaving! my boss recognizes me! my partner talks about his feelings!), life itself will slip the noose. Without telling us, life changes the list.  Our checkboxes are suddenly obsolete! We start to feel narrow and squinty-eyed. We get frustrated, or scared, and we spend a lot of time scurrying to finish off the new list. Until life does it’s thing once more and all of our tasks are all changed. Again.

So here’s the thing: checking the boxes might make you temporarily happy (and it will certainly keep you busy), but it won’t actually give you what you want. Because no matter how many boxes we check, we will not get the “the heavens have opened and I am free and joyful” feeling.

So, my fellow perfectionists, I suggest we change the game. Rather than figuring out what “better” boxes we should be checking, or increasing our productivity so that we can check them off so much faster, let’s change our assumptions. Let’s unearth and air out our old belief that perfectionism can lead to happiness in the first place.

Here are five tips to get you going.

    1. Dance. Yes, dance. You may think you can’t, but you can. But don’t dance in order to look good. In fact, I want you to dance in your room with the door closed where no one else can see you. No looking in the mirror either. It doesn’t matter how you look, it matters how you feel. And yeah, you have to play the music that you love, even if it’s Aerosmith’s, I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing. Dance until you’re out of breath and your checkboxing happy brain is too giddy to care about the messy kitchen.
    2. “Done is better than perfect.” This is your new mantra. Try it.
    3. Practice messy. You have the choice: you can clean up the “thing” (whatever the thing is…your kitchen, your manuscript, your email box) or you can spend time doing something that puts you in the present moment, into your body, and gets you out of your busy head. You can clean it up after, I promise it’ll still be there.
    4. Contemplate death. Everyone you know is going to be dead in 120 years. Okay, I know that’s a bummer to drop as #4 on a list, but it’s true. Remembering that we are all here for just a little while will start to shake up your priorities and make those niggly details seem less important.
    5. Be wild. Go outside and hug a tree. Nature is perfect, as it is. Observe its spirals, its moss, its chaotic, fractal beauty. It’s not neat, tidy or in a box. It’s wild. And so are the people in your life. And so are you.

Give it a week. Try it out. See how you feel.

And then, yes. Use your capacity to be a perfectionist on tasks that can benefit from a steely eyed, detail oriented mind. Like correcting grammatical errors and correctly calculating tips. But keep your perfectionism out of your happy.

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