How to Liberate Yourself From The Chains Of Perfectionism

perfectionism

“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

People used to call me the Ice Queen years ago, and I took it as a compliment. They thought I had it all together. I drove myself to appear perfect at whatever I did. And not because I felt confident. But to cover up feeling like a complete failure.

I was convinced no one would like the real me.

The one who made mistakes. The one who wasn’t always smart. The one who even – gasp! –  goofed off, which was akin to a mortal sin in my family.

Being the typical people-pleasing-hyper-responsible oldest kid, I felt smug because I’d figured out that the way to please everyone was to be perfect. Easy. I got this!

But perfectionism feeds on itself like a snake eating its tail. So the more I undertook, the more opportunities existed for me to screw up. Which skyrocketed both my anxiety that I’d be found less than perfect and my determination to be even more perfect.

An early marriage to an outwardly charming man who turned out to be an endlessly critical emotional abuser was almost inevitable. I’d fallen into a common dynamic of unconsciously choosing a partner who treated me in a way that reinforced how poorly I felt about myself. And after the marriage fell apart, I felt like I had no choice but to atone for an imperfection I couldn’t exactly hide.

So I threw myself into succeeding at a demanding profession while I completed my degree at night and on the weekends. Plus, I was raising my two little boys on my own. I was determined to keep up with all the usual mom stuff like helping them with homework, driving them to activities, and making them nutritious food. No one would be able to fault my boys for being from a broken home. Are you kidding? Nothing broken about my home. It’s perfect!

People admired me, but they didn’t really like me because, let’s face it, who can relate to someone who’s more like a flawless cardboard cutout than a genuine person? I had no close friends but convinced myself I didn’t need them.

I flipped wildly from feeling like a big success to gnawing my lips raw in bed at 3:00 am as I stared into the darkness, strung as tight as an over-tuned guitar.

One day while at work, I started laughing so hard at someone’s witty comment that I was in tears and gasping for breath. Like opening the safety valve on a pressure cooker, I suddenly flipped into uncontrollable, sorrowful sobs. And I was horrified at publicly losing control.

My facade of faultlessness had cracked. But I took another ten years, including a dark 18 months with a cancer scare and my oldest son almost dying, to shake out of perfectionism’s relentless grip.

Looking back, I’ve felt aghast that I stuck with the mirage of perfection until major life catastrophes forced me to simply surrender. Especially once I had a taste of how much happier and more powerful I felt taking even a seemingly small step like saying “I don’t know” out loud when answering a question I would normally criticize myself for not having the answer to. If you ever saw a woman leaping for joy and shouting, “I don’t know!” that was me!

So please don’t wait until your bleakest, most life-shattering moments give you no other choice but to liberate yourself from perfection’s shackles.

Instead, start right now to let yourself be imperfectly, gloriously, lovingly human.

Here’s how:

First, Shift To Being And Away From Doing

Be honest; was “Make a to-do list to stop being perfect” one of your first impulses? It was for me.

But as I was floundering around believing an itemized task list was the answer, a dear friend introduced me to a Buddhist lama who first seemed to be an unremarkable middle-aged counselor yet turned my life upside down.

From her, I learned the richness of regularly sitting still and observing what happens within me. Just being. Without judgment, dialog, or analysis. I was gobsmacked to discover how nurtured I felt simply by meditating.

But you don’t need to luck into a lama to get started.

Instead, establish your own regular contemplative meditation practice.

When you start, your mind will leap around like an over-caffeinated monkey. But being still and observant for a while every day calms your entire being. As your chattering mind settles down, you’ll be able to hear and heed your intuitive voice, sharpening your insights and stoking your wisdom.

And when you gain these qualities, your confidence and courage to let your imperfections show naturally increase.

Have The Heart Of A Lioness

Letting go of a deeply ingrained part of your identity requires courage. Who are you if you’re not the perfect person? When I would think about screwing up in public, my stomach would clench into knots so tight you couldn’t have cut through them with an ax.

Fear is normal.

Simply feel it.

Because the calm and confidence you develop through your meditation practice will support you to acknowledge the fear, accept it, and let it go. As many times as you need to.

Then one day you’ll realize the terror has vanished. And when you do, celebrate!

Shine The Light of Loving-Kindness

As the saying goes, charity begins at home. So start out by being as kind to yourself as you would to a beloved child learning a new skill. I’m a little ashamed to admit that being kind to myself was sometimes tough. Especially when my inner harpy shrieked her criticisms and I would wear myself out trying to silence her — yet still half-believing her.

So steady yourself.

Imagine a pink light in your heart while you smile and say, “May I be well and happy.”

When you’ve bathed yourself with loving-kindness, you’ll then be prepared to extend it to others. Picture the pink light in your heart radiating out as though you’re the sun of loving-kindness shining on the world. Smile and wish for everyone to be well and happy.

Then when people react to the changes you’re making, you’ll be on a solid foundation of joyful well-being. You’ll be less likely to take their reactions personally. And you’ll be more likely to respond with curiosity and openness.

Allow Yourself Abundant Time To Change

Openly acknowledge to yourself that letting go of perfection is a substantial change to your being.

As with any transition, you’ll have times when you’ll glide along like a skater on smooth ice and others when you’ll wonder what the hell possessed me to try such a dumb thing anyw-

Oops! Never mind. Time to bring back the kindness!

Realize your progress will be more akin to an upward spiral than a linear path.

And take the time you need.

Check in with yourself during your meditation sessions to see how you’re coming along. Listen to your intuition and let it pace your rate of change so you’re not pushing yourself too hard and risking a setback. Research shows our intuition is a powerful force when we heed it.

Be Ready To Love The Beautiful, Imperfect You

Constantly feeling you have to be perfect is like being locked away in a cramped, joyless, bleak prison.

When you start to embrace your natural human imperfection, it’s as though you unlocked the iron door to step out into the sunshine.

You’ll blink at the brightness, and your first few steps will be shaky.

But then you’ll spread your arms wide and twirl joyfully as you lift your face to the light, bounding with energy that you no longer use trying to be faultless.

And maybe one day you’ll join me while we leap around gleefully shouting, “I don’t know!” 

Photo by Rory MacLeod

Recommend Resources

Looking for more inspiration? The following are some of our favorite resources:

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Possibility Change Book Series – the best stories on this website from different topics, neatly packaged into Kindle Books for your convenience and reading pleasure. Books published to date: Fear & Courage, Personal Transformation, and Travel & Adventure.

Kindle Unlimited – a subscription service from Amazon that gives unlimited access to over 1 million titles (including the Possibility Change Series). You can read anytime and on any device with the free Kindle app. Click here to learn more about Kindle Unlimited.

Audible - If you have trouble finding time to read, audiobooks are a great way to listen to books while commuting, working out, cooking, or any other activity. You can try Audible for free with the Audible free trial.

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36 thoughts on “How to Liberate Yourself From The Chains Of Perfectionism”

  1. For someone with perfectionist tendencies I was immediately drawn to your article Lynn. “When you start to embrace your natural human imperfection, it’s as though you unlocked the iron door to step out into the sunshine.” A powerful analogy which is now etched in my memory. Thanks for sharing your personal story and for helping me unlock the door. 😀

    1. Hi Helen,

      How wonderful that you’ve unlocked the door. I know it can feel both exhilarating and scary, and if you’d like support, you know where to find me!

      Thanks for sharing your experience.

  2. Lynn, what a beautifully written and insightful piece. As someone who knows you on a personal level, and has actually worked both with and for you in a professional capacity, I was very moved by this article. You’ve apparently had a very difficult journey but have come out so much better and stronger through your (appropriately directed) efforts. As you know I began dealing with anxiety about 4 years ago, and feel that my perfectionism is at the root cause of these feelings. Thank you for sharing your story, which I’m sure will be an inspiration to many others. I plan on sharing it with a number of my other close friends in the hope that it will help and inspire them as well.

    1. HI Andrew,

      I’m delighted that you were inspired by this story. And by your insight, too. It’s a reminder to me of your own journey of change and growth, and how inspirational you are as you embark on your new life – minus the significant anxiety :-)

      And thanks for sharing it out to help others.

  3. Thank you, Lynn! Especially for having the courage to tell you story. I love the suggestion of shifting away from “doing,” and head towards “being,” instead. So insightful.

    Thanks.

  4. Hi Ashley,

    I’m glad that shifting toward being and away from doing resonated with you!

    AKA “Don’t just do something, sit there” as Jon Kabat-Zinn says :-)

    Thanks for taking time to comment.

    1. Hi John,

      Can’t we just be, though! And why not aim for best :-D

      Thanks for your kind words, and for taking time to comment.

  5. Such a meaningful post, Lynn! Thank you for sharing! I was especially drawn to the “when people react to the changes you’re making” part. So true! Nice work!

    1. Hi John,

      I’m so glad you mentioned the part about people reacting to changes we make. It took me awhile to accept that their reactions are about them, not me. I don’t mean that as a criticism; it’s just human nature to react, especially when the person making changes is close to us.

      Thanks for commenting!

  6. Lynn, what a beautifully written post! I could relate to everything you said. This is especially timely because I was just having a conversation today with a friend about perfectionism. Like you–like so many of us–she had to present a perfect facade to the world. But now, she wants to show up as who she really is. No more covering up!

    1. Hi Cheryl,

      Maybe we should start the “Imperfectionists Unite” club! I can see the T shirt now, with crooked letters :-D

      On a more serious note, perfectionism robs the world of an awful lot of good. How wonderful for your friend to decide to show up simply and profoundly as herself.

      Thanks!

    1. Hi Ann,

      Embracing our imperfection sounds so simple yet has such far-reaching positive effects. I’m excited for you!

      Thanks for stopping by.

  7. Hi Lynn,

    Thanks for sharing your story. I have to say I was a little unnerved in beginning – it was like reading my own life story! The only difference was that I didn’t have children to my first husband. Other than that I was thinking ‘snap!’ Perfectionist, yes. Early marriage to abusive person, yes. Put myself through University while working full time, yes.

    It’s good to know you’re not alone. Thank you. :-)

    1. Hi Cate, you’re right, we can find comfort in knowing we’re not alone. And take strength from adversity. Not that I’d prescribe life sh#$! as a way to get strong, yet in adversity is also substantial opportunity for personal growth.

      So a big high five to you!

      Thanks!

  8. Hi Lynn – wonderful story – huge kudos to you for writing it. I always felt that if any politician at the next election stood up and simply said ‘vote for me, because I don’t know’ they’d get my vote!

    1. LOL hi Mark, that is freaking awesome! I’d love to see a politician do that :-D

      Thanks for your kind words, and for taking time to comment.

  9. Oh, Lynn – I get it! My perfectionism is more connected to Oh, I will make the stupidest choice and I will be miserable and in regret. (translated to: my life won’t be perfect). Those sentiments contradict everything I believe in as well. And yet …. they continue. I just did the Loving Kindness exercise this minute and felt a shift. Thank you for sharing your loving kindness wisdom.

    1. Hi Therese,

      One of my long-time meditation students told me the loving kindness practice transformed her life. Sounds like you experienced a taste of the transformation! Yay!

      Re how your perfectionism shows up, that’s one way perfectionism robs the world of a lot of brilliance. And brilliance ideally contains some stumbles and re-starts so we also develop wisdom.

      You’re so welcome!

  10. Such an insightful post, Lynn! I think women, especially, get so caught in this trap. And it just dawned on me that my thoughts of judgment were about expecting others to be perfect. Who knew!
    Great tools here. Thank You!

    1. Hi Susan,

      What a great insight you had regarding expecting others to be perfect. I love those insightful nuggets. There’s so much potential for self growth when we dig into them and observe what’s under the surface.

      And you’re welcome for the tools, my pleasure.

      Thanks for commenting!

  11. Great post, Lynn! Thank you for bringing awareness to this topic, as chronic perfectionism is one aspect of depression. I know this too well having struggled with this condition most of my life. I used to discard it as one of those things like “I’m not good at math.” Most people experience it at one time or another, but for the depressed self, it is a permanent state of being. And because making mistakes is inevitable, each time one’s made, it reinforces the distorted belief of self-worthlessness which ultimately results in keeping us depressed. Again, thanks for shedding light on this subject.

    1. Hi Pat,

      You taught me something I didn’t know, the link between perfectionism and depression. Thanks.

      When that insidious little voice that whispers/shrieks “I’m not good at (fill in the blank)” starts up for me, nowadays I turn to YouTube to find a video that will teach me how to (fill in the blank). A recent example is when a doorknob on my house froze in the locked position. I had no flipping idea how to fix it and boy, was that voice yelling.

      Instead, I found a video that laid out very well how to fix it. I followed it step by step. And fixed it. Take that, insidious voice!

      Thanks for sharing your insight.

  12. Wow Lynn! What an insightful and powerful piece. Thank you for sharing your change. The “how to” steps looks deceptively simple but potentially transformative.

    As I write these comments I realized I’m trying to write the PERFECT comment. It’s everywhere!

    Carol

    1. Hi Carol, I’m glad you enjoyed it. What a poignant insight re trying to write the perfect comment. You’re right, it IS everywhere!

      Thanks for taking time to comment.

  13. Hi Lynn,

    This issue of trying to be perfect is so pertinent to modern day living, I think it should be discussed more often!

    I applaud you for being so vulnerable and sharing your struggles with perfectionism, it’s not an easy to thing to admit in the first place.

    Brene Brown describes perfectionism as the armor we carry around with us, that we believe will protect us, when in fact it does the exact opposite!

    I agree with you completely perfectionism is a prison sentence, stopping us making mistakes and growing as people.

    Yay to being vulnerable and showing imperfection! :)
    Andrea

    1. Hi Andrea,

      I’m so glad you shared Brene Brown’s observation. It’s bang on. One of the many typical ways we try to armor ourselves, but it sure does backfire.

      Thanks for sharing your wisdom.

    1. Hi Maria,

      I think you know the feeling of sharing something deeply personal. It’s gut wrenching but in the end, so valuable! I appreciate you taking time to comment.

  14. What a beautiful and vulnerable post Lynn, congratulations on your courage to share your story. Your points are great – I am going to remind myself to have the heart of a lioness next time I get myself into a perfectionist pickle. x

    1. HI Ellen,

      I’d love to hear how having the heart of a lioness goes for you. What a delightful vision of you being fearless!

      Thanks for stopping by.

  15. Good for you Lynn,

    And thought it’s hard being vulnerable there’s a freedom in it isn’t there?

    I think there are a lot of recovering perfectionists out there – myself included!

    On the one hand it’s nice to know you’re not the only one who lost it at work, married the wrong person, and otherwise tortured yourself with trying to be perfectly acceptable, but on the other . . . my heart goes out to you and others like us who have suffered in the same way.

    With metta,
    Quinn

    1. Hi Quinn,

      What a keen insight. Yes, there’s a ton of freedom in it!

      A friend jokes that many of us have what he calls our Practice Marriage. I reflect on that sometimes and wonder why it is, and in the end I keep coming back to letting it go. Embracing imperfection :-)

      Thanks for commenting!

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