I know the feeling of being punched in the gut. No one else has never actually physically punched me; I know the feeling because I have emotionally punched myself for years. The abuse wasn’t evident to others – and for years not even to myself, quite the opposite actually. My high-standards, obsession with achievement and perfectionistic mindset was praised and celebrated. The perfectionistic attitude and expectation I harbored about myself turned out to be one of the most detrimental things I have ever done to my health, my happiness and my hope.
Little by little and year after year, I bruised myself. Using the excuse of perfectionism as a constant justification, I accepted the ever-present and dull ache of anxiety as part of life. I lived with the constant ache of not feeling good enough. Even though I exceled at everything I did – I was a competitive athlete, a superb student, an excellent employee – I always felt like there was more that I could do. My thoughts were either locked in the past on how I could have improved or obsessed with the future about what I needed to do to become better. I was highly self-critical and often disappointed; on the outside I lived life as a happy and driven person, but on the inside my confidence was a wreck. I was gasping for breath, desperate to find freedom from the feelings of inadequacy that swirled in my stomach.
I thought perfectionism was in my blood and hardwired in my personality; I feared that I would never be able to live with a different, more relaxed mentality. Furthermore, since as a perfectionist I found comfort in black and white thinking I struggled to understand how I could possibly be successful, worthwhile or even happy if I abandoned my mindset.
My pursuit of perfectionism manifested itself seamlessly into practically every area of my life:
- I wanted to be the perfect
- I wanted to be the perfect, most coachable athlete
- I wanted to be able to swim the perfect
- I wanted to make every swim practice and effort to be a perfect swimmer
- I wanted to perfect my stroke technique
- I wanted to be the perfect friend, never allowing anyone to be disappointed by me
- I wanted to be the perfect student, easy to teach and enjoyable to have in the classroom
- I wanted to have perfect grades
- I wanted to have the perfect body, so boys would like me and think I was pretty
- I wanted to be the perfect girlfriend so I would never experience rejection
- I wanted to have the perfect relationship, so others would be jealous
- I wanted to be the perfect employee so I would get more raises and have more opportunity
- I wanted to be the perfect woman – appearing to be able to “do it all” without challenge or stress so that others would think I had the perfect life
These desires did not lead my spirit to a place of joy or contentment in the “perfect life” I was so adamantly pursuing. Instead they lead me to a state of constant inadequacy. The incessant pressure I put on myself caused me deep anxiety, but I continued to rely on the excuse of perfectionism as my crutch for years.
And then I decided to fight back. I decided to “go into recovery.” I decided that I could still pursue excellence, and be excellent at what I did as to find freedom and peace from the unattainable expectations that came with my previous pursuit of perfectionistic thinking.
Perfectionism creates in us a heavy soul. My pursuit of perfectionism was destructive to my spirit, and even though no one else could see it, I knew it was happening. Instead of growing me and progressing me to a better place and to a better version of me it did quite the contrary. Perfectionism trained me to value and validate myself based on what I accomplished instead on who I am. It convinced me to have a spirit of harsh self-condemnation, justifying emotions of disappointment and criticism, an attitude that kept my focus chained to the past instead of able to be present in the moment. Perfectionistic thinking stole a level of quality of life (that is, authentic joy and an ability to enjoy the present moment) from me and it is a quality of life I am determined to never choose to lose again.
To break free from perfectionism we must break free from the pendulum swing of black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking, a concept simple to state but so very challenging to live out if one has never known anything otherwise. Over the years I have been proactively pursuing recovery from perfectionism, yet, at my very nature, find myself falling back into old thought patterns, because, well, they’re comfortable, and what is comfortable feels safe. I propose to you today a new strategy, one that I have take on myself: this strategy of freedom lies in the pursuit of excellence. What would happen to your life if you decided to shift your focus from the pursuit of perfectionism to the pursuit of excellence instead? What would happen if truly trying your best and striving to be your best would be enough and would fill your heart with joy and contentment? What if the pursuit of excellence is actually the highest and most noble thing we can pursue?
To strive for excellence means to do our best and to be content to leave God to do the rest. Excellence is doing your best and having confidence that God is pleased with your efforts, your growth and your progress.
It’s time to throw the punches back. Throw a punch at the lie of perfectionism – and give yourself some grace today. Snap your crutch in half. Throw the comfort of the pursuit of perfectionism out of your emotional arsenal for life and start to shift your mind to a new way of thinking. Here are three practical strategies you can employ today to punch perfectionism back:
OVERCOMING PERFECTIONISTIC THINKING STRATEGY #1:
The Punch Out Perfectionism Worksheet
Download your free copy of the Punch Out Perfectionism one-page worksheet at www.trishblackwell.com/perfectionismworksheet Again, that download is totally free, and is a tool I recommend you start using today: get it at www.trishblackwell.com/perfectionismworksheet
The simple act of completing this daily worksheet will set you up to really punch out perfectionistic thinking in your brain. The worksheet will take you no more than two minutes to complete each morning and serves as a very simple tool that you can use to actively engage your mind to choose excellence.
The Punch Out Perfectionism worksheet is a necessary discipline for those who really are committed to overcoming the toxic, detrimental and life-stealing qualities of perfectionistic thinking because so often our thinking is so deeply engrained that we need to actively fight against it. Our perfectionistic thinking was not birthed overnight, nor will the freedom we can find from it come overnight.
OVERCOMING PERFECTIONSTIC THINKING STRATEGY #2:
Dwell on excellence.
The second strategy that really works is to spend time intentionally dwelling on excellence. As in the words of Paul to the Philippians, “think on whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8)
By now understanding just how destructive perfectionistic thinking is to your overall well-being you can understand that perfectionistic thinking is quite the opposite of what Paul proposes above. It is not possible to think on excellence and pursue perfectionism at the same time because the two are fundamentally contrary by definition. Excellence is the pursuit of being outstanding, or to be at your best. Perfectionism is the refusal to accept anything short of the standard of perfection. Excellence permits you to live in a world of grace and in the pursuit of life; perfectionism keeps you prisoner to a moving finish line of dissatisfaction and displeasure.
Consider the following open-ended statements:
Pursuing excellence in my health means __________________________
Pursuing excellence in my relationships means ______________________
Pursuing excellence in my purpose means _________________________
Pursuing excellence in my finances means _________________________
Pursuing excellence in my nutrition means _________________________
Pursuing excellence in my fitness means ___________________________
Pursuing excellence in my balance of life means ______________________
Pursuing excellence in my role as a parent means _____________________
Pursuing excellence in my role as a partner means _____________________
Pursuing excellence in the pursuit of my legacy means __________________
Again, the definition of excellence is the “pursuit of being outstanding,” and the definition of perfectionism is “the refusal to accept anything short of the standard of perfection.” The definitions are pretty clear. You are at a crossroads in your thought life and the direction you choose to continue along in your journey is up to you. Will you cling to perfectionism or will you embrace excellence?
OVERCOMING PERFECTIONISTIC THINKING STRATEGY #3:
Get accountability in your pursuit of excellence.
Get an accountability partner to support you on your new commitment – this can be either an accountability coach, a counselor or even a friend who wants to walk the journey for themselves alongside you. The key is to have someone who knows about your new intentions and who also believes in the freedom that is available to those who can break free from perfectionistic tendencies.