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As I headed to Albany, New York last week to film a 90 minute public television special, as well as 6 hours of additional DVD content that would be included as part of the PBS fundraising pledge package, I knew I was walking into a situation that was completely out of my comfort zone. I so wanted to feel like I was going to just nail it on that television set, that I would get it all perfectly right on my first try, that I would wow everyone with my professionalism and TV chops, that everyone would come to me later and say, “Lissa, you’re a natural!”

So I loaded myself up with expectations, hoping I’d get it right, wanting to impress my producers and please my publisher and all that jazz. Naturally, heaping myself with expectations of perfection only left me feeling stressed and overwhelmed in the months before the film date. And then, suddenly, I was backstage, about to appear before a live studio audience to deliver what I hoped would be a perfect performance. (No biggie.)

Permission To Be Imperfect

Suddenly, inside my head, I heard the soothing voice of Brené Brown (with whom I just did a free teleclass – you can listen to us here). When Brené was about to appear on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday, she wrote herself a permission slip, which she hid in her pocket. The permission slip said, “Permission to be imperfect.” So right there, back in the wings, I wrote myself the same permission slip, and when I stood in front of that studio audience, I told everyone to bear with me because I was about to give an imperfect performance.

I then proceeded to royally flub up several times, stuttering over my words and misreading the teleprompter. Fortunately, the special was prerecorded! All I had to do when I screwed up was stop, admit my mistake, and try again. The audience had even been prepped so that if I said the same thing twice, they were supposed to pretend they were hearing my hopefully wise words for the very first time!

What If Life Had “Do Overs?”

After a few mistakes and do overs, I said to the audience, “Wouldn’t life be great if we were allowed to just pause and get a ‘Do over’ in other aspects of our life?” And then I realized I’ve done just that. I married imperfectly – twice – and I’ve now been with husband #3 for almost eleven years. (Do over! Do over!) I wound up unhappy in my job as a practicing physician, so I went through a massive career change. (Do over!)  My health broke down because I wasn’t caring for my body or my mind, but I was blessed to get a do over in my health and am now down to half the dose of one of the seven medications I was once taking.

I have been pausing, admitting my mistakes, and doing life over again time after time! And this, I’m realizing, is one of the essential keys to a happy life.

The Pressure Of Perfection

Perfectionism can be a real joy killer. If I had been too afraid to appear imperfect, I might have stayed in two unhappy marriages or kept a job that was sucking the life out of me.

Perfectionism can also be a barrier to intimacy, as well as a potent form of self-sabotage. If I had been committed to trying to give a perfect performance in front of the live studio audience, I might have missed the chance to giggle and connect with the audience the way I did when I flubbed up my words and exposed my imperfections. They might have wrongly assumed that I had it all together, when the honest truth was that I was terrified to be doing something so far outside of my comfort zone. As soon as I let go of the expectation of perfection in myself, my whole body relaxed. I could be imperfect! And I would still be good enough…

I realize that’s what it really comes down to. When I’m too focused on being perfect, it’s usually because, deep in the shadows lies a basic lack of worthiness. Some part of me thinks that, if only I overdeliver, I’ll finally be good enough.

But beneath that shadowy part of myself lies something deeper, something more true, something I call my Inner Pilot Light, and that part of me know that I am – and YOU are – inherently worthy simply because we all have sparks of Divinity within us, and we don’t have to prove anything in order to earn that worth.

Excellence Or Perfectionism?

I notice in myself this struggle between the quest for excellence and the tug of perfectionism. Where is the line? How much striving for excellence is noble versus how much is just ego, rearing its overfluffed head?

Heading into the filming of this public television special, I was aware that, yes, the stakes were high. Yes, my publisher had invested a lot of money to produce this special. Yes, a lot of people will view it. And of course, I want to do a good job.

The same was true in my career as a doctor. A person’s life is on the line. The stakes are high. You don’t want your surgeon to be one of those medical school slackers who swears by the “C=MD” formula! But is it really necessary to push yourself to be top of your class like I did?

Here are my thoughts on how to tell the difference.

5 Tips For Avoiding Perfectionism

1. Give 90%.

90% of the pain of perfectionism comes from trying to eke out that last 10%, when 90% is pretty damn excellent.
 
2. Choose ease.

If you’re finding yourself pushing, striving, trying too hard, or if your work becomes burdensome, you feel the pressure piling on, and you’re in “fight-or-flight” all the time, you’re edging beyond the desire for excellence into perfectionism territory. As Christiane Northrup taught me, try being less sperm, more egg.

You’ll know you’re really in the flow when you’re doing great work, but it doesn’t feel like struggle, when you get winks from the Universe, things line up easily, and the quality of your work doesn’t suffer – you just didn’t have to suffer in order to achieve great things.

3. Know your inherent worthiness.
 
As long as we look outside ourselves for validation that we are enough, we will always be tempted to overdeliver. Try repeating affirmations that remind you that your value lies within. “I am more than enough.” Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
 
4. Send your Gremlin to time out.
 
There’s a voice in your head that can be a nasty bastard. I call it “The Gremlin,” and it’s the voice of your fearful, insecure inner critic.  If you’re not maxing out your output, giving to the point of depletion (and for many of us, even then!) your Gremlins might be tempted to wage war.

Instead of letting your Gremlins get the best of you, listen to your Inner Pilot Light and know that you don’t  need to be perfect. In fact, as Brené Brown teaches in The Gifts Of Imperfection, your imperfections are actually the gateway to intimacy, the way people can relate to you. Who can relate to anyone who never makes mistakes? (BO-RING!)

5. Set goals but release attachment to outcomes.

It’s one thing to set the goal of delivering a genius manuscript or a standing ovation performance or a gold star sales report or a successful surgical outcome or the desire to win the case/ land the client/ get the deal. It’s another to place your sense of value in how much you achieve.

Instead, do the best you can (well, 90% of your best) and then let it go. Trust. Have faith. And lean into your own sense of inherent worthiness.

Are You A Perfectionist?

Tell us your stories…

Imperfectly yours,

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13 Comments

  1. Intuitive Leadership Coach

    I’m a bit of a perfectionist but lately I’ve been playing with the mantra “I am enough”. This helps me slow down in my quest to get everything done and to slack off (for the Summer at least) on trainings, courses and readings a bijillons books!

    Reply
  2. Walt Ford

    You bring up some interesting things that have raised my awareness. You’re right about the do overs! I have long given up on the perfectionism, but I now realize that that is a big contributor to why my life seems to work so much better now. And when you say perfectionism can inhibit intimacy…….yes. I’ve never thought about that before in those terms, but again you really hit the nail on the head. Especially from a male perspective.
    Thanks Lissa! ps-your book is sitting about 3 feet away from me as I write this. I love it!

    Reply
  3. Denise Dare

    How auspicious to read your words today, Lissa!

    “Imperfection is Lovable” just posted yesterday at Tiny Buddha…it’s my expression of embracing imperfection and encouraging everyone to BE who they are…and love themselves for it!

    I am learning to be more gentle and kind with myself and to allow myself to be perfectly imperfect with grace & joy.

    Thank you, as always, for your insight & inspiration!

    Wishing you the happiest of days…freedom and joy on this gorgeous 4th of July!

    Reply
  4. Meaghan Folk-Freund

    Lissa,

    Thank you. In being honest and authentic you not only share a great, and entertaining story but you empower us ( me) to be imperfect as well. As a mom I am constantly questions myself and working on letting go of my expectations of myself. Like the fact that although, I know I am a great mom, I did find my daughter in a pile of poo and, a mouthful of stuff that was not chocolate pudding!

    Thus is life, our imperfections make great stories if we allow ourselves to share them!

    Your friend in imperfection,

    Meaghan
    Holistic body image counselor
    Meaghanfolk.com

    Reply
  5. Claire Kerslake

    Thanks so much for this article Lissa. I call myself a ‘recovering perfectionist’ but it sure rears it’s ugly head at times still. I love the thought of the 90% and need to keep reminding myself that ‘I am enough’.

    Am just loving your book!

    Reply
  6. Amy Handford

    Perfection… hmmmmm… doesn’t exist anywhere in our universe… so ilogical concept… I was told that we just need to show and suit up and the rest is up to the Higher Power who wants to run the show anyway…
    When we let others see our wonderful stained glass mosiac that we call our lives, we give them permission to “BE” present broken glass and all.
    We choose what we want to create with our “imperfect” pieces of glass… a chaotic mess or a beautiful image.
    Amy

    Reply
  7. Happiness Experiment

    Thanks for a great article – lots of wisdom.

    Reply
  8. Linda Stark

    There is a well-known 80/20 rule which says that 80 percent of the work takes 20 percent of the time; the remaining 20 percent takes 80 percent of the time. I subscribe to The Flylady who has a great deal to say about dealing with perfectionism, and I have learned that good enough is good enough. It’s a lot of weight off your shoulders if you can get to grips with it.

    Reply
  9. Jennifer Eve Perfect

    My last name is actually Perfect. I have been trying to be perfect my whole life – and have failed miserably.

    Reply
  10. Nanette

    While I really appreciate your work I’ve gotta call you and your friend Christiane Northrup on the sperm/egg thing. This has been well documented for YEARS now. No one is getting it because our society is so locked into made up gender garbage. The sperm is not aggressive, the egg is! Here’s an article about the article that started it all. It’s easily accessible on the web. You’ll notice it’s from 1992 – https://discovermagazine.com/1992/jun/theaggressiveegg55#.UddDWhbJ-aQ

    Reply
  11. Patricia Mackenzie

    Thank you, Lissa, as always for your wise, wonderful words. My own journey over the past couple of years has led me to seek and discover the perfection in each moment… no matter how imperfect I feel, or the situation appears to be. I have come to believe that implicit trust in ourselves (as you exhibited in the studio, go, girl!) is the only path to true peace. As I learn that trust, I find more and more that in each moment I can see true perfection, despite the flaws. Light and Love.

    Reply
  12. Ivy

    I’ve come to love my “imperfections” like scars…things that are “different” make me unique and I kind of get excited when I have new scars. Number 5 is what I emphasize to my clients/patients all the time- it’s ok to set goals and standards, but also that it’s ok to fall short, learn from the mistakes, and try again. It doesn’t feel good to fail or make mistakes, but when I do, I always try to find out what I can do better/differently next time.

    Reply
  13. Traci Dryer

    Getting to meet you in Portland was so wonderful! Thanks for my private pep-talk. Perfectionism is an ugly beast. I try to fight it now to help those around me as much as myself. The last thing I want is to harm my children and pass “the gift” on. I have always said, “I’m a type E Personality–Everything to Everyone”. I don’t know that being a self-sacrificial martyr has aided me in my quest for love, peace, joy, and gratitude. Keep being that positive energy in the world, Lissa. Love exudes from your pores. XOXOXO

    Reply

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