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Lessons from a Recovering Perfectionist

In life, we make mistakes and get things wrong. Fact. We are humans.


Our brains may interpret mistakes and perceived failures in many ways, and if you have tendencies towards “perfectionism,” a negative outcome may feel catastrophic. Perfectionism often promotes a “fixed mindset” that sees in black-and-white, often associating a mistake with being a complete failure.


Alternatively, our minds may turn mistakes and wrong answers into learning opportunities and opportunities for growth. With this growth mindset, we may realize that we did the best we could with the information and circumstances at the time, and now we have new information and new circumstances that may lead us to think and act differently. With the new information, we may be able to see that our previous beliefs were not correct. Rather than beat ourselves up for prior mistakes and wrong answers, we may appreciate that we have learned, grown, and now have new information that we can use to think and act differently. No judgment needed.


Which mindset feels better to you? Which mindset is currently true for you?


As a recovering perfectionist, I had a natural tendency towards the former “fixed mindset.” I tended towards black-and-white thinking that led me to believe that if I got an answer wrong, I was a complete failure. Spoiler alert- I would not recommend.


For me, this need to be perfect resulted in heightened anxiety and reduced self-worth which turned into overwhelm that I soothed with isolation and avoidance. I became risk averse and ashamed when I did not perform at top standards. I quit sports and hobbies that I enjoyed simply because I did not think I could be the best at them. I had intense performance anxiety before every race, quiz, test, or day in the clinic. As someone that ran cross country and track in college, who has taken years of exams over the course of dental and medical school training, and that has spent years in patient care, I bathed in chronic, intense anxiety on the daily and my mind and body were never able to adequately rest as I could never achieve the perfection that I was so desperately chasing.


Along the way, I thought perfectionism was desirable as I was often complimented for my attention to detail and discipline. However, perfectionism was coming at a cost to my mental, physical, and psychological well being. The constant unrest from the anxiety about making a mistake would lead to exhaustion in all aspects of my life, and I realized that perfectionism was not my strength, but was often holding me back.


Releasing myself from the need to be perfect, I started to learn to embrace opportunities as chances to learn and grow. I appreciated failures as signs that I was pushing myself to try something new and asked “what can I learn from this?” rather than “you should have known.”


Working to recover from perfectionism has not reduced my attention to detail and frustration when I make a typo. However, rather than my inner self-critic ruminating about the mistake and what the mistake means about me as a person, I am able to correct the error and move on with self-compassion. I grow by deciding that the next time I am preparing to submit a writing, I will revise my edits when my eyes are fresh rather than after a long day at work. And if that is not possible, I will do my best with the circumstances that are available to me at the time.


If I could write a letter to the previous version of myself and have intervened earlier, I would recommend to continue playing the sports that gave me joy and spend more time engaged in the journey of life rather than worried about a perfect outcome. I will send a ginormous hug full of self-compassion and celebrate the girl that was doing her best with the information she had in the circumstances that she was in at the time.


And for those reading this message, I invite you to reflect on your own journey. Do you feel the pressure to be perfect? If so, how is that pressure serving you? How may it be causing harm?


I also invite you to celebrate yourself… flaws and all.


The world needs you just the way you are. Not as some airbrushed version of you that lives in fear that people may see that you are human.


You are human. An incredible, unique human. And though we can’t be perfect, no one can be more perfect at being you than you. How cool is that?


Much love,

Jillian



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