ESCAPING THE PERFECTIONISM TRAP

Are you a recovering perfectionist like me? Or are you still in the trap of trying to keep all the balls in the air?

THE PERFECTION TRAP

Recently I wrote about Midlife being a process of re-creating from the unraveling. It's such an important concept for me, and I hope it struck a chord with other Midlifers. We aren't falling apart, we are growing and blooming and becoming more authentic every day. But one of the biggest issues I've had to deal with in the process of finding my true self was the whole Perfectionism trap.


WHAT'S WRONG WITH PERFECTIONISM?

I always saw perfectionism as something to be aimed for and attained. It was the pinnacle of having succeeded when I managed to do something perfectly. Ticking all the boxes made me happy and gave me a sense of control. I felt like I could stand in front of others and not feel like a failure or second best. It was really important to me to get it right - and preferably to get it right first time, every time.

When I did something and got it right I had a real sense of pride - I felt like I had proved my worth and that I'd met the standards that I thought were vitally important to attain. It gave me a sense of security to do something well and to not feel like others would be judging me - if I didn't fail and I did it perfectly then there was nothing to judge - so I was definitely a success in that area.


THIS IS WHAT'S WRONG WITH PERFECTIONISM

When I failed to achieve the standard I set for myself I'd feel like I'd let myself (and everyone else) down. If I wasn't the perfect parent then my children would be irretrievably damaged, if I wasn't the perfect wife then my husband would be missing out, if I wasn't the perfect daughter then my parents weren't being cared for enough, if I wasn't the perfect employee then I wasn't doing the job well enough. It was a tough standard to keep reaching for and hoping to get right.

Let go of who you think you should be in order to be who you are - imperfect

What's wrong with perfectionism is that it's an impossible standard to continually meet, and to continually succeed at without a lot of stress and pressure. It also gave me completely unrealistic expectations that I assumed were from others, but were really from myself. I'd almost set myself up to fail because nobody can be perfect all the time - except me (according to the voice in my head and my poor grasp of reality!)


LEARNING A NEW APPROACH

It wasn't until a few years ago, after I read Brené Brown's book "The Gifts of Imperfection", that I finally began to realize that my perfectionist nature was really my insecurities controlling my approach to everything. I felt so much more worthwhile if I was doing everything right, if I was making other people happy by agreeing to do more and be more. I did this at the expense of my own needs and because I didn't know I could set boundaries in place and that it was okay to say 'No' to things that I really didn't feel like doing.

I'd never even heard of the concept of boundaries until I listened to some of Brené's Ted Talks and read more of her research. They have been a really valuable resource for me as I've renegotiated my life after 50. Now that I have the time to think about what I'm doing and why I'm doing it, I've learned that boundaries are vital, I've also learned that it's okay to say 'No' if I really don't want to do a particular task. It's okay to not appear to have all my balls in the air and my juggling game perfected. Here's a little video clip from Brené:



ESCAPING THE PERFECTIONISM TRAP

It's such a relief to be less than perfect, to let go of trying to be all things to all people. It's liberating to admit that I get things wrong and I make mistakes. It's powerful to put boundaries in place and to ask for other people to respect them. It also frees me up to try new things - if I fail then, really, it's no big deal. Before I wouldn't attempt something new or out of my comfort zone unless it was guaranteed I'd do it well - so many lost opportunities!

Those who have a strong sense of love and belonging have the courage to be imperfect.

I still have moments when I want to be the perfect wife, the perfect mother, the perfect mother-in-law, the perfect Nan, the perfect daughter, the perfect employee. I still struggle with being disappointed when I drop the ball and don't meet the standards that would make me feel like I had it all under control. But you know what? That's okay too - I can be a work in progress - imperfect but real. Maybe that's perfect enough.


WHAT ABOUT YOU?

Are you a recovering perfectionist like me? Or are you still in the trap of trying to keep all the balls in the air? Or are you one of those amazing people that had enough self-confidence from Day 1 to never have gotten caught in the Perfection Trap in the first place?


Are you a recovering perfectionist like me? Or are you still in the trap of trying to keep all the balls in the air?

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60 comments

  1. Nah, I'm like you - trying to break out of the perfectionist trap, but also trying to keep all the balls in the air.

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    1. It's a strange balance isn't it Jo? Knowing which ball is allowed to drop without completely losing the juggling act in the process.

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  2. Not only are there the perfectionist traps you so well describe, there are the family classifications traps to overcome too; the brain, the artist, the athlete, the clown etc. Being who we really are, not stuck in a trap is really living!!

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    1. You're so right Haralee - I was always the "good child" the one who didn't get in trouble and who did what they were told - got really stuck in that trap! Meanwhile my brothers had a great time doing whatever they felt like - "boys will be boys!"

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  3. Trying. Not necessarily succeeding. Women are so hard on themselves!

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    1. We are aren't we Diane? I know I'm the one who sets the bar for myself ridiculously high - and then feels like a failure when I miss. Crazy stuff!

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  4. I agree with Diane! We are way too hard on ourselves.

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    1. I know - as much as I'd like to blame someone else for it, I know that I do it to myself and it's on me to make the changes and cut myself some slack.

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  5. Hi I'm Emily and I am a recovering perfectionist. Love this post, Leanne! I have made great strides in the past 7 or so years since I had the same realization you did - "my perfectionist nature was really my insecurities controlling my approach to everything." Even though I still mentally berate myself when I produce something less than perfect, it is done. No more obsessing, I tell myself.

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    1. Emily we should start Perfectionists Anonymous! That mental berating is something that I deal with all the time - such a waste of time and something I'm working on too. One day we'll be carefree!

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  6. One of the many advantages of getting older is that I no longer need to be the lead rat in the race.

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    1. I love that expression Elaine - I might even borrow it to remind myself that I don't have to be "lead rat" and to stop running myself ragged!

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  7. Hi Leanne, I can totally relate to this post. I am a perfectionist.

    It could be anything from writing an article, or planning an outing or buying something or keeping up with blogging schedule. I look for the ideal and the most correct way of doing it. If things don't end up the ideal way it is supposed to, then I am upset. And, as you have rightly said, not always anything is perfect.

    So, now I have come to terms with it. I do my very best that is possible, and leave it there. It's working.

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    1. I'd like to think that my best effort is something I'm always satisfied with Pradeep - but I still wonder if I could have done better, or if it was enough, or what people might think. I still have more of the journey to complete on this one - but I'm getting there slowly :)

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  8. Hi Leanne, yes I've struggled with the perfectionism ideal for years and probably still do. Although in writing that, perhaps I am changing. A couple of weeks ago I ran my second marathon. It was much harder than I expected and took me longer than I wanted. In the past, I would have beat myself up and would have been disappointed in my performance. This time, I looked at myself and said 'I'm 61, I've just finished 42.2km run and crossed the finish line with a smile and all in one piece'. That was a much more positive thought than feeling as if I had failed because I didn't run as fast as I wanted to. It is hard not to want to be perfect at everything but sometimes when we let go and accept the burden of being perfect is lifted and we actually enjoy whatever the experience is. Thanks for the reminder and have a beautiful week. xx

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    1. Isn't it amazing that we can do something really great and still notice what we didn't do? For anyone to run 42kms is a huge achievement - to do it as a mature aged woman (small generalization there) and finish it with a smile is fan-blooming-tastic and you should be shouting it from the rooftops Sue.
      I soooo agree with you avout enjoying the experience rather than rating ourselves on the perfection scale.

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    2. Hello BBB, we are kicking it this week at #MLSTL so many links already! I'll be sharing your post on social media and again I thank you for your friendship and also being my co-host. :)

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  9. Leanne, you are and always have been perfect in my eyes. I couldn’t wish for a better, more loving daughter than you are and always have been. So don’t beat yourself up. Perfection is in the eye of the beholder and you are right up there in my estimation of what a daughter should be. xo

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    1. Oh what a lovely thing to say! It's always so hard to judge whether I'm being enough for everyone - good enough daughter, wife, mother etc and when I fail it is so hard to deal with. It was a wonderful boost to read what you wrote and to know that I'm doing okay in the daughter stakes - must be because I have such a great Mum xx

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  10. Leanne, another great post! Very reflective and thought provoking. I've never really been a perfectionist but I certainly lived my life with the hopes of being accepted. While very similar in symptoms, the root illness, I think, is slightly different. I have let much of it go through life...but also still a work in progress.

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    1. It all circles back to people pleasing and wanting to be accepted and not judged I think Janet. To know that our best is enough and that people love us and think we're doing great is such an affirmation isn't it?

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  11. Great post, Leanne! I definitely have perfectionist tendencies. Living with my husband and being constantly surrounded by his more balanced approach has helped to soften this. Good thing I did not marry another perfectionis

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    1. My husband is a more mellow soul than me Donna, but he is a perfectionist in his own way. Fortunately we see things from different perspectives and that helps balance us out a little :)

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  12. Leanne, Spot on. I am a perfectionist. I was also the "good child" and still struggle with what I think of as family and societal expecations. I've been told I have too high expectations and that I am too hard on myself. I am fearful of trying things for fear of failure; I rethink situations again & again when I could have done it better (if it didn't meet my expectations). Self-acceptance and feeling I am enough, feeling like I belong... this is the space I need to grow! Thanks for a lovely thought provoking post. I need to get that book!

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    1. Everything you just described also fits my personality Pat - it's a hard road that we created for ourselves. I really try to not beat myself up as much these days and to remind myself that imperfection is a good thing and perfection is completely unrealistic and unfulfilling - I'm still a work in progress and probably will be for the rest of my life.

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  13. Isn't Brene Brown wonderful? One of my favorite reminders on perfection is: "Perfection is not a standard. It's an obstacle." I call myself a recovering perfectionist. It feels good to let it go. Pinning to share! Maybe Tweeting too...this is a really good piece.

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    1. Thanks so much Leah - it wasn't until I discovered Brene and her very sensible approach to this subject, that I woke up to how much damage I was doing to myself by holding myself to such unrealistic expectations. I'm a bit less dogmatic these days, but I still slip up and get annoyed at myself if I think I could have done better. I'll get there though!

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  14. I'm a recovering perfectionist but without much hope. My inner me is desperately insecure and strives to be perfect, but often with major fallout. Definitely need to heed your advice and just accept that perfection is a huge obstacle. Going to read Brene Brown ;)

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    1. It's funny Jo because you always seem so confident and like you have everything worked out - all your ducks in a row! It's hard to believe that there is insecurity underneath it all - but I guess that'w what a lot of us are like - we wear the mask and desperately hope to achieve the inward confidence to match the outward presentation!

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  15. I spent years of my life trying to be perfect. Remember the old Jamie Lee Curtis movie Perfect where she was an aerobics instructor and at one point she yells out, " What's so wrong with trying to be perfect?" I totally related to her and to why she was frustrated with any one who didn't understand her quest to be perfect. I am much more mellow and not so driven to be perfect now, but I still have those perfectionism tendencies!

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    1. I'm not sure why I do it to myself Michele - where the perfectionism came from and became so ingrained. I think it's probably trying to please my parents and never feeling any genuine praise, so trying harder each time. I'm slowly learning to let that need for affirmation become less important, but it's still under there - the child looking for approval I guess.

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  16. I'm a recovered perfectionist Leane. This has been a huge struggle for me during my life. For example when I was younger I would love to have joined a running club but couldn't bring myself to do it as I knew my running style and time wasn't perfect. ThankfullybIve now given that battle up and can enjoy being me #MLSTL Shared on SM

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    1. I think there's a lot of us who missed some wonderful opportunities because we were too afraid we'd fail or not measure up Jennifer. I'm glad you've moved past it and can enjoy life on your own terms - I'm about a decade behind you, but hope to get there eventually.

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  17. Such pressures you put on yourself to be perfect in your various roles, Leanne. I'm glad you're taking a different approach. I'm a bit surprised to see how many commenters had similar experience to yours. I'm an odd one to say I haven't been a perfectionist. When I take on something, I strive to do well, and usually hit the very good to excellent range but I don't aim for perfection. I enjoy the process of me doing something well more than the 100% end result.

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    1. I wonder if we compared childhoods if there would be a glaring difference somewhere that allowed you to develop your self confidence rather than the need for approval that a lot of us are burdened with Natalie? If we could figure out what it was we could start a self help group and make a fortune!

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  18. I'm in the recovering perfectionist camp. The thing about being a perfectionist is it held me back from trying new things outside my comfort zone, because I didn't want to be "bad" at anything and risk looking foolish. Also, once I committed to something, it was hard to let go, if it turned out it wasn't for me after all. That would be admitting I made a "wrong" choice to begin with. I love Brene Brown's Gifts of Imperfection. I'm reading Rising Strong now.

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    1. I feel exactly the same way Christie - that fear of failure, or of not doing well stopped me from trying lots of things (still does to a degree). I'm hoping that one day I'll be able to launch into new endeavours without a single thought as to whether I'll be good at it or not, or whether people will laugh at me, or whether I'll look silly etc - there's always hope! Maybe I need to read Rising Strong next too.

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  19. And... another recovering perfectionist joins the ranks. The thing I learned about "perfect" is that it means different things to different people. So while I was busy trying to be my version of 'perfect' the recipient of my perfectionist tendencies wasn't even aware. Now that is the definition of waste of time.
    The thing I like best about being online is how fast things change... I tend to explain now that "perfect is a moving target" so "done is better than perfect"!!

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    1. It's definitely a character trait of our generation isn't it Agnes? I think older generations were busy just getting on with life, and younger generations have that innate self confidence - we seem to have been stuck in limbo. At least we can recognize it and work on ourselves - the sheer relief of finding out that I didn't have to be perfect and that imperfection wasn't a bad thing was a godsend for me.

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  20. I have never strived to be perfect. I am not a competitive person and have always been what you see is what you get. I have always tried to do my best and left it at that.

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    1. Ahhhh Victoria - you got to be an achiever without even trying - bonus points to you! I wish I'd figured out whatever it was that you cottoned onto in my younger days - I always wanted to be the best and to not make mistakes. I intend to approach life differently these days, but it still sneaks up on me at times.

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  21. Juggling all the balls in the air is a skill that I just don’t seem to have Leanne, despite how much I might try! I enjoyed your post and can relate to much of what you say, like many others! We are much happier versions of ourselves if we just be who we are and learn to say no occasionally. You always write so well and sum up the main points of what we all seem to be feeling, so thanks for that! I’ve pinned this on my embracing midlife Pinterest board #mlstl

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    1. Hi Debbie - I hope things are settling down in your world and life is going okay for you all after your sad return. And yes, you're right, I think a lot of us felt the need to be the best version of ourselves possible, but now we're figuring out that good enough is certainly good enough and cutting ourselves a little slack :)

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  22. I don't think I've ever been a perfectionist, not that I've settled for the most mediocre job I could do. My problem was that I'd beat myself up for discovering a mistake later on. And I'm not sure a big dose of perfectionism can ever ward off mistakes. Acceptance of your flaws is a huge journey to make and probably much more stressful for the died-in-the-wool perfectionist. (Your mom is a sweet, sweet lady, Leanne!)

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    1. I meant, "dyed in the wool." See?! A mistake! ARRRRGGGH.

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    2. Your correction made me smile Jean - a perfect example of your comment :) And yes, my mum is lovely and I don't feel the need to prove myself as much as I did when my father was alive and never seemed to notice anything I did. Ultimately it was his loss and I've come to learn that I am enough in myself - probably more than enough sometimes!

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  23. I used to be that kind of perfectionist who wouldn't even delegate at work because no one could do it as well as I could. But along the way I realized that as a manager, I wasn't developing my people with that attitude. So I started loosening up and was able to start promoting people because I started delegating and giving people opportunities to learn new things. (And you know how I feel about learning new things...)

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    1. I'm less of a fan of learning new things Jennifer - so many more things to potentially fail at (gosh I'm definitely a work in progress!) But I've also been learning to let others do the job and maybe not do it as well as me, but it's still done well enough and it frees me up for things I like doing better.

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  24. You accurately summed up my entire life, Leanne! I try to read Brene Brown's book, The Gifts of Imperfection, at least once a year. There is SO much goodness in that book - so many new tapes I need to program into my brain. But, with baby steps and lots of personal grace, I am making progress - and so are you!

    I read a quote not too long ago that has helped me quite a bit. Perhaps you will find it helpful as well:
    "I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence I can reach for; perfection is God's business" ~ Michael J. Fox

    Will pin this to my #MLSTL board for future reference - as I know I will lapse into that perfectionism trap again.

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    1. Hi Molly - we definitely need to start a club for recovering perfectionists don't we? I love that Michael J. Fox quote and will keep it in mind when I'm pushing myself to be more than I need to be. Learning to be enough and not having everything exactly right is so tricky - but also so worthwile!

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  25. Leanne, I grew up being a perfectionist, and like many/most/all perfectionists, I thought it was a good thing, but finally realized in my 30s that it was not a good thing. Took a while, but I finally got free of it.

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    1. At least you woke up to it in your 30s Jean - it took me until my 50's to even begin to get a handle on the whole perfection/imperfection balance!

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  26. I was raised by a perfectionist control freak and that totally rubbed off on me! This eventually led to burnout in the corporate world. I'm better and somewhat more relaxed now, thank goodness, but there are still moments. Where's the sign-up for that recovering perctionist's club? ☺

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    1. Hahaha! How imperfect of me to have a typo! Should read "perfectionists'club". The fact that I corrected it is likely a bad sign. ☺

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    2. I think we definitely need a Perfectionists Anonymous - we could keep it for women over 50 and be inundated with applicants Debbie - and I laughed when I saw that you had to correct your apostrophe placement - we'll be fighting it til our dying breath!

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  27. A great liberating post Leanne. I loved the little video as well. Let's liberate some more and feature this post on the next Blogger's Pit Stop.
    Kathleen

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    1. Hi Kathleen - thanks so much for your kind words and for sharing my post on the Pit Stop - I love that link party and it's always a great honour when you choose me :)

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  28. So true, Leanne! I struggled with it for most of my life until I completely exhausted myself. Two years ago was a year of big life moments. Once that passed, I told myself to stop, just stop. Quit the busyness and hyper-focus and drift for one year to calm down and get a grip. Not in the sense of sitting in a chair all day just staring, ha! But, in the sense of being okay with not jumping on things to accomplish and prove that it could be done and done to absolute perfection. Not to impress anyone, but a habit of self-challenge for satisfaction which ended up feeling very empty. So here I am blogging, haha!.... we all know THAT's not a challenge, right, LOL. It is the only thing I apply myself to now, and it is just enough. We will see where it goes. Thanks for the inspiration and always being helpful, Leanne! Great timely post :)

    Lori Jo

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    1. I can be much the same Lori Jo - always trying to get everything perfect and being disappointed in myself if I don't get it exactly right, or I don't say Yes to a request, or if I don't get something right the first time. I'm slowly learning to be kinder to myself and to realize that I put more pressure on myself than anyone else does and it's time to ease up a bit! Blogging can become a bit of a trap for this too - but fortunately I've wound back a little and I'm okay just cruising these days.

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  29. I am so aware of how perfectly imperfect I am and I am so OK with it because it makes me so uniquely me.

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