Perfectionism – Don’t Let It Stop you!


Life is beautifully imperfect. It’s wonderfully flawed with cracks, missteps, and wrinkles. Our imperfections are what make us unique and they are also what make us human.  In fact, it’s actually those imperfect human qualities which connect us to others.

To me, the most tragic thing about our very brief time on this planet is that we often miss what’s in front of us, because it’s “not the way it’s supposed to be.” Our never-ending pursuit of perfection often causes us to miss out on what is actually here… our imperfect, glorious, messy, unique, one-and-only life. Through mindfulness practice we learn how to embrace what is. We practice opening to all of life including the good, the bad, and the imperfect.

I myself am a recovering perfectionist.  I discovered my perfectionism several years ago when I caught myself longingly looking at artists doing their work and desperately wishing that I could paint like them. While I considered myself to be creative in other ways, one thing I was convinced of was that I was no artist. When asked to draw something, I wouldn’t even try to produce anything beyond stick figures. So for years, I enviously watched artists create life on canvas and just wistfully hung around museums believing that the art fairy had intentionally passed me over. Since I knew I wasn’t going to be really good at it, I didn’t even want to try.

Then, one day I came across a quote by Vincent Van Gogh: If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.”

I ignored the quote at first, but over the next few weeks it kept popping into my mind. So I finally surrendered and took a drawing class, and while I wasn’t great at it right out of the gate… I eventually learned some techniques and found that, to my great surprise, I actually could draw! Next, I took some painting classes and learned a few more things. I’ve been painting now for several years, and I even sold a couple paintings last year. I don’t think that painting will ever be my career and there is nothing perfect about my work, but it brings me joy and I’ve learned that joy is a good enough reason to try.

Just to be clear, perfectionism is not the same as a “healthy striving”. Our perfectionism is often focused on what others think of us. The voice of perfectionism asks the question, “What will they think of me if I fail?” Healthy striving comes from a place of self-compassion, which asks the questions, “How can live my life to my fullest potential?” “What brings me joy?” “Who do I want to be in the world?”

One of the best ways to recover from perfectionism is to simply CREATE without expectation and preferably through a medium that is not entirely comfortable for you. If you’ve always wanted to write poems but were afraid that you weren’t any good, write a poem! See what happens. When you escape the exercise unscathed, you will see that you were never in any danger after all, and your writing doesn’t have to be perfect to be enjoyable. And just like with mindfulness practice, try to notice when self-judgment shows up. You can give your inner critic a name like “Critical Carly” or “Ned the Nay-Sayer”. You can say to your inner critic, “Yes I see you there, but I’m going to proceed anyway.” We don’t have to listen to the voice of perfectionism. It’s okay and even advisable to fumble forward in spite of that voice. This is how we learn. This is how we grow. This is how we become who we want to be in this world.

“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”
-Leonard Cohen


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