How to overcome perfectionism and start living freely

Are you a perfectionist? Do you work until every detail is ‘right’? Do you see mistakes as failures, or feel highly anxious when things aren’t working out exactly as you imagined?

Perfectionism is about judgement. We each have a set of standards that we live our life by; some of these standards we have chosen for ourselves but many others we have inherited or absorbed from family, peers and society. From these standards, we learn to judge ourselves and our adherence to these expectations: How did I perform? Where do I fit in the larger scheme of things? How do I compare to others, and to my own standards?

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Perfectionism occurs when we forget to balance the striving for these standards with a healthy appreciation for mistakes, miscalculations and misfortune. When we choose to ignore the value of perceived ‘error’ and chase imaginary, ideal results, we make inevitable mistakes and missteps wrong – and make ourselves wrong in the process.

It’s easy to see, therefore, why chasing ‘perfection’ is potentially very limiting in terms of your capacity for joy, fulfilment and success. When functioning as a perfectionist, your mind becomes hyper-focused on the desired result and on every detail of your project or task. This draws you out of yourself and into the elements that you are desperately trying to control – elements, ironically, that are actually controlling you. You become a victim of external circumstances. In doing so, you lose the anchor within yourself, and limit both your personal power and your creativity.

The good news is that it is possible, with time, practice and a little self-nurturing, to liberate yourself from the grip of perfectionism.

The first step is to allow yourself to step out of judgment. It can be easy to see perfectionism as a wrongness in you, so an important step in liberating yourself from this condition is to start appreciating how your desire for perfection works for you. For instance, it is possible to see the determination and perseverance that underlies perfectionism. By appreciating these traits in yourself, the experience shifts from a desperate need to avoid mistakes into a scenario where mistakes work for you. When you ‘stumble’, you experience the mistake as feedback and learning, and draw upon your innate determination and perseverance to create something greater.

Next, turn your focus from being more perfect, to being more you. When you are trying to be perfect, you are chasing an ideal that exists outside of you and it is likely that you have rejected any personality trait, habit or instinct that you don’t believe fits this perfect model. Therefore, it’s vital to understand that it’s your foibles, your points of difference and your ‘weirdness’ that makes you most valuable to the world. When you’re imperfectly perfect, you’re you … and that means you’re constantly bringing something to the table that nobody else has to offer. You see things others don’t; you explore possibilities others won’t; you create solutions others can’t. By being you (especially the imperfect bits) you become a true contribution to the world and others around you.

Finally, and crucially, you must allow your mind to move out of limitation and hyper-focus and encourage it to see possibility in every experience. The most powerful way to do this, is by asking a question. When you ask a question, your mind begins to explore all the possibilities available. To be most effective, don’t look for an immediate answer. Let your mind stay in a state of ‘query’; searching, wondering, inquiring. And allow the possibilities to find their way to you.

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If you are a perfectionist, effective questions to ask are:

“How can I use my desire for ‘betterment’ to my advantage in this situation?”

‘Better’ can be a judgment when it comes as a comparison, but if you choose to better yourself from the simple joy of creating greater, then it becomes a potent capacity. Rather than suffering in the limitation of trying to meet certain standards, this question empowers you to find joy in the experience of creating (and becoming) greater.

“What capacities of ‘never give up, never give in, never stop’ do I have, that I can acknowledge now?”

When things don’t work out the way you have envisioned them, don’t conclude that ‘it’s wrong, it’s never going to happen’, Instead, just keep going. See obstacles and mistakes as both feedback and a springboard to something greater. This question frees you to experience the inevitable bumps in the road without judgment. Importantly, perfectionism is often time-bound; you expect to get everything right, every time and on time. Asking this question allows you to remove yourself from any perceived time constraints and gives you the freedom to create your dreams and achieve your targets in whatever timeframe is required.

“How can I use this mistake to my advantage?”

This question is a powerful turn-around question that will take you, every time, from wrongness to strongness. It allows you to see what benefits you are gaining from any mistake or perceived failure. Vitally, it opens your mind to acknowledging and accepting the learnings and benefits from each ‘mistake’, ‘mishap’ and ‘failure’.

The irony of perfectionism is that it can close you off from becoming the very thing that perfectionists crave – to be the greatest version of you possible. When you are in a state of seeking perfection, you become so hyper-focused on the details, the control and the wrongness, that you miss vital opportunities to learn, expand and grow.

By stepping out of the judgment that underpins every perfectionist mindset, and by tapping into the possibility of questions, you can set can yourself free to enjoy life in all its messy, flawed and imperfect glory.

Susanna Mittermaier is a psychologist, psychotherapist and author of the #1 international bestselling book, “Pragmatic Psychology: Practical Tools for Being Crazy Happy.” She is a certified facilitator for Right Voice for You, a special program by Access Consciousness®. Susanna offers a new paradigm of therapy called Pragmatic Psychology and is known for her ability to transform people’s problems and difficulties into possibilities and powerful choices. Follow her on Twitter: @AccessSusanna.