This past fall, we moved some things around in our previously neglected backyard. We thought having a dedicated play space would help our kids, as well as afford us more breathing room during the pandemic.
I began starting evenings with vision boards, shopping lists, and poring over Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace for deals. I wanted to make sure anything we bought fit the greater “vision.” Pretty soon, even though the project was still contained in the screen of my laptop, it became overwhelming. I realized that I had been working on this idea for weeks and hadn’t bought a single thing.
It’s silly, but it reminded me of how we can sometimes let the big picture stop us from taking the next step. Sometimes it’s not a backyard— it’s a country that needs renovating. It’s a relationship pattern we keep repeating. It’s a dream we keep having for our life that we want to make happen. But when we’re at the beginning and the present feels so far removed from where we want to end up, it can be easy to get discouraged.
The inner critical voice of perfectionism can have a lot of approaches. Sometimes it tells us we’re not good enough or that we make too many mistakes. The kind of perfectionism that might creep in around the new year is the kind that tells us we have to get it right before we even get started. We might expect, even unconsciously, to flip a switch, and when we fail to “make it happen,” we can get mad at ourselves. Maybe we even start giving up.
So, what’s the secret to resisting perfectionism? Well, I don’t know if I know the secret, per se, but I can share with you what I try to do:
- I keep going. I notice when I am drifting into wanting to get it “just right” in my mind before venturing out and trying new things. If I’m spending too much time in my head, I try to make a little bit of tangible progress, even if it’s just a little bit.
- I remind myself that it’s okay to make mistakes. This can be especially challenging for those of us who are good test takers or who are outcome oriented. We can be tempted to get stuck looking for the “right” answer. In life, though, there are rarely totally “right” and “wrong” answers” – as adults, we have a plethora of choices. This can feel really scary and liberating all at the same time. Ultimately, we have the agency to choose things in our life, and most of the time, we don’t have to be afraid of getting it wrong.
- I forgive myself for not being perfect. I read a quote recently that said, perfectionism is not a pursuit of the best— it’s a hunt for the worst in ourselves. When the inner critic pipes up and tells me I make mistakes, I don’t waste time disagreeing with it or trying to prove it wrong. In doing so, I take the fear of making mistakes out of the equation. I accept that I will make mistakes and that it will be okay.
- I find places where failure is okay and safe. It can be scary to challenge perfectionism where the stakes are high, like at work. My work includes working with human beings, so I have more trouble challenging perfectionism in a professional context. For me, I look for opportunities for play. Baking has been a fun place to experiment with being messy. Starting a podcast has also been an exercise in anti-perfection for me.”
Often, giving into perfectionism actually prevents us from making meaningful change in our lives. In reality, change is incremental, and imperfect, and messy. Our minds like to put things in categories like “before” and “after.” But real life typically happens between those two poles. We live in the “during.”