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Mastering the Art of Imperfection: How I Am Learning to Let Go of My Perfectionism

By , SparkPeople Blogger
I was born a perfectionist and it is something I have fought with for the better part of my life. I believe my need to be perfect has kept me from going out and truly embracing everything that life has to offer. I have often wondered why I expected more from myself than I would ever expect from my friends and family. For me, anything short of what I deemed was perfect was like a Scarlet Letter I wore for everyone else to see.

A few months ago I was watching an interesting documentary on the masterpiece painters. They told the tales of how it took some of the painters years and years of painting and repainting a particular portrait or landscape before they felt all was just right--and even then it may not have been right for them. What surprised me was the sheer beauty of their work and yet these great painters were, many times, never satisfied as they always saw the flaws in their own work when no one else could.

That is precisely what I found true with myself-- my need to be perfect was keeping me from ever accomplishing anything I wanted out of life. I would set the bar so high that the minute I fell flat on my face I did what so many others did and that was to give up. Giving up was so much easier than forgiving myself for not being perfect and moving on.

Perfectionism was a crutch, a character flaw for all the world to see, even if no one else saw it, I believe they did. It was what held me back from taking risks and in some way kept me safe and comfortable. If I didn't try, I couldn't fail and if I didn't fail, I was not a failure.

But what if I do fail? Will that be the end of the world? Will I be any less of a person?

Next week as I celebrate my five year anniversary for reclaiming my life and my health, below is a list of what this journey has taught me about accepting my imperfections.

  • I am fallible and I will make mistakes- I am not going to say there isn't a sense of anxiety when I do make mistakes, but the more mistakes I make, the easier it is for me to accept my imperfections. I believe we all learn more from the mistakes we make than we ever learn from doing everything perfectly.
  • Others do not judge me as harsh as I judge myself - I love it when I read on the message boards how members help one another by saying, "Would you ever speak to a friend like that? Then why would you talk about yourself like that?" Letting go of judgment is by far one of the biggest lessons I have learned from you all. I would certainly never call my friend a 'fat cow' so why is that I would call myself that.
  • Love and accept the body I have- In all honesty, when I embarked on my journey I was doing it for my health, but there was a little hope that when I got to my goal weight I would have the body I had back in my college days 25-30 years ago. That has not happened. I am older. I have had a child and my body is what it is. But one thing I can say, my 20 year old body never ran a marathon either, WOO HOO!
  • Hold your nose, jump in and either, sink or swim-If you said to me five years ago, "Nancy, you are going to have one of the best jobs in the world doing what you have a passion for and that is helping others reach their full potential, I would have said, yeah, right?" But when SparkPeople approached me 18 months ago, I must say not only was I honored but I was scared to death. What if I failed? What if I couldn't live up to their standards? What if I can't do what they ask me to do? And for the first time in my life, I jumped at the opportunity, and while I can't say I haven't made a mistake, I have learned so much about taking risks. I am swimming!

    The past few years have taught me to go out of my comfort zone and as the Nike ad says JUST DO IT! I am taking risks I could have never imagined doing so before I began my journey. In a few short weeks, I will be traveling solo to New Orleans to run in the Rock 'N Roll Mardi Gras Half/Full Marathon. Never would I have pictured myself traveling alone and running with 20 other Spark Friends I have met over the years. This is allowing me to break the mold of perfection and appreciate all the flaws that make me who I am.

    Have you allowed your need for perfection to stand in your way of achieving your goals? Do you judge yourself more harshly than others judge you? What risks would you like to take on in the next year even if it means you run the risk of failing?

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This is the best thing i have read. It really hits home for me. It is so hard to not judge myself but i try and some days are better than others. This helps me though to know that there are others that feel the same way and i not alone. I can get it together! Report
I'm a recovering perfectionist too :) It's such a relief to now be able to laugh at my mistakes...rather than constantly try to avoid them (and miss out on life!) Report
This is the best thing i have read. It really hits home for me. It is so hard to not judge myself but i try and some days are better than others. This helps me though to know that there are others that feel the same way and i not alone. I can get it together! Report
Thank you for sharing! This was truly helpful to read as I also struggle with being a perfectionist. Report
Thanks so much for your insights on this:) Too often I overwhelm my self with unrealistic expectations. This article helps me to rebuke these thoughts and stay on the path. Report
Long ago I realized I was a perfectionist, but it took me until the past few years to realize the harm I was causing myself. There are so many things I never attempted and often times I would start something, but easily give up instead of stretching and challenging myself. I short changed myself in so many ways and suffered a certain degree of arrested development.

I am an artist, and I can now leave what I perceive to be flaws in my work. I am now facing life and all it's challenges fearlessly as no mistake I have ever made has resulted in the end of the world.

I do think the axioms, "Youth is wasted on the young." and "If only I knew then what I know now." are entirely true. But there are no do overs, so I forgive myself my past transgressions and eagerly live in the moment.
Great words! I let fear of failure control me for years. In college I adopted a motto I saw on a poster in a laundry mat. It was of a rock climber attempting to traverse a difficult spot with the quote, "Only those who risk going too far, can ever know how far one can go!" We won't know what we are capable of if we don't ever push it too far. It has served me well. Plus I learned through the years that I really never learn anything without failure, so failure instead of a dreaded enemy is a friend to be embraced. Report
Thank you for writing on this. I too have an all or nothing attitude. If I can't do it perfect I don't start or if I start and it is not going my way I want to quit. Thank you for writing and thank everyone for commenting. I see I am not alone. Report
Thank you, thank you, thank you! I mistreat myself so much because of my weight. Like you said, I would never allow a friend to talk to herself the way I do. I would tell her to treat herself with respect, love, and kindness. So why can't I do the same for me? Excellent article! Report
I really needed to read this today - A therapist once told me that making mistakes is OK as long as we learn something from them. And a friend told me that "perfection is not an option." I just LOVE that saying! Report
I really loved this blog! I can relate in so many ways! Thank you for being so honest! Report
Perfection is overrated. Is Picasso's art perfect? Manet? Cristo? My favorite is Vermeer, and he just slapped them out - one perfect painting after another. Cristo was having fun. My mother was a beautiful knitter, but always knitted in a small "flaw" so no one could ever think she was a perfectionist. You've heard people say, after they've made a slip, "Tee hee. I meant to do that." That's my kind of perfection. What I'm trying to say, here is that I am perfectly flawed, even when I'm trying my best. Report
I have struggled with the discrimination of being overweight all my life and always felt "not as good as others" because of it. In the '70's, I read a life changing comment by a reporter for the NY Daily News, Liz Smith(God bless her!) who wrote.."As you travel down the road of life, if you can't hide it, decorate it." My BFF and I decided to be the most decorated, well dressed overweight (now called curvy) ladies around and spent hours at the mall shopping and dressing up wherever we went. Our self-esteem improved 100%, and attitudes followed. We weren't perfect but pretty good looking for the shape we were in and enjoyed life from that time on, being the best selves we could be. Report
wow i have never thought of things that way, my whole life i have been so hard on myself, it got really bad at one point... i never thought that I was expecting perfection from myself, just that I was born not good enough, That is changing now! Thankyou so much for this! Report
Sounds like me! Report
I LOVED this blog. I have such a problem with perfectionalism, and this blog really helped open my eyes! Report
Awesome blog post. I go back and forth with perfectionism. But sometimes the idea of being perfect or doing it perfectly stops me from attempting it in the first place. Lately, now that I'm older I take it as it comes. Report
I was one of those "perfectionistic artists" I worked for days on a small section of a painting in college. Finally, I was so disgusted with my less than perfect results that I threw a paintbrush full of paint at the painting. Needless to say, I had a mess to clean up and finally accepted what I'd done on it, although I still felt it was not up to my standards. That painting went on to win a National Award. I guess those judges didn't see the flaws I saw! Report
Nancy thank you for sharing this post. It's amazing what we can do once we get rid of the "got to be perfect" attitude. Report
Dr. Phil has pointed out that a "perfectionist" is just a person with anxiety, since the fear of failure keeps them from doing something with the thought "It won't be perfect." Reading biographies like Abraham Lincoln, taught me in school that successful people failed many times, and didn't worry about being perfect. They just kept trying. Report
Thanks for this! I think we can all use the reminder that perfection is a process. I have had so many of those same thoughts...it's nice to know that I'm not alone and there is hope in forgiving ourselves and moving forward. Report
I loved this. Thanks so much. It really is true that when we try and make mistakes we learn to be more forgiving of ourselves and others. It is so much better than standing on the sidelines, afraid to try, and being critical of others who do try. Report
i, too have a problem with perfectionism. trying to fit in a mold that i can't possibly meld into makes things worse. i hate being a failure and when it happens depression sets in. i am always playing by some one else's rules and losing the game, in this case the weight game. Report
This is right where I am struggling now and your blog really opened my eyes. God Bless you for this article. Keep up the good work. My name is Nancy! Report
Thank you for sharing. Report
thank you for writing this blog Report
This is so me!!! I am trying really hard to let go of it. One perfect example: Hesitated to join a "food-tracking" site like sparkpeople because there are so many foods that I don't have exact nutrition information for. Well, hey, some information is better than none!!! So I'm just going with it and doing the best I can. Report
Thanks for sharing. Report
I have definitely allowed my need for perfection to stand in my way of achieving my goals. This is evidenced by the fact that if I "slip up," I think the whole day is ruined and I continue on my binge. I judge myself a lot more harshly than others judge me. I am my own worst critic. I would like to take the risk of trying (and possibly failing) instead of using perfectionism as an excuse for not reaching my weight loss goal. Report
*sigh* Sometimes I think that because I had/have a problem with self esteem I am a raging perfectionist. If who I am doesn't measure up, maybe the things that I do will...right? I also have the habit of quitting as soon as there's a slight chance that I could fail...sometimes I just don't start due to the remote possibility that I might not be able to do a new thing perfectly right from the start.
There's a book called 'When Perfect Isn't Good Enough: Strategies for Coping with Perfectionism' (I don't remember who it's by). It really helped turn some things around for me. Maybe it can do some good for others, too.
Thanks for the article, all the best to everyone. Report
Perfectionism has reared is ugly head many times when I try to do things. If I can't catch on quickly and do it "just so" I don't want any part of it. What this does is keep me back from trying things and "beating myself up" when it's less than perfect. Oh, brother...where in the world did I get that from?

I'm working on this and realize that it's okay to not be "perfect" and there's more than one way to do things. Just attempting and doing my best should be good.

I even look at my posts and if I misspell a word, the spacing isn't right, I miss a comma, or it just doesn't "look good" I have to edit my comment (more than once many times). I waste precious time trying to make sure it looks "just right". I overlook the grammatical errors when others post and don't really even care but not so with myself. Report
Great article. It took me a while to figure out that I was a perfectionist. I always figured that perfectionists had "House Beautiful" with everything in place, and the same with the rest of their lives. I have been overwhelmed by the amount of weight I need to lose and the work it will take to accomplished it, and yes, the fear of failure. Way too many things that I haven't attempted because I couldn't do them perfectly. Report
Thankyou, thankyou, thankyou. This is my favorite blog. Report
I feel I have missed out on so many things for fear of looking foolish or failing. If I can't do something perfectly, I feel I shouldn't even try. Report
Today I found out I am not alone. Inside I am a perfectionist, but the world around me would never know it. Almost everything I do I think about and if I feel I cannot do it perfect AND within my self dictated specifications that not doing is better than failing at what I know I "should" be able to do. It is not the perfection or the failure that kept me from doing is is the FEAR of not living up to MY expectations of myself. This is not logical. This makes no sense to me, because I have been told all of my life I was capable of doing whatever I wanted. Because I have never been rejected by my family. Because I know that life is not perfect or fair. Because I know that no matter what my friends and family do I love them anyway. I am not sure how this FEAR developed or the perfection, but I feel a relief that I am not alone and that the FEAR can be soothed. Thanks!
In a household of "Is that the best you can do"? Was a hardship on an African American female not alone a male. We were taught to do it perfectly the first time. This is a set-up for failure! So when you don't reach the expectations of self, you critize yourself whithout any other help. Those were the hard years.
Now at 59 I do what I can to be comfortable; without the self pressure and make goals that are realistic. Some good days, some not so good days; but the secret is getting back on track, without beating myself up. In life there are no failures, never will it be that way again. Set goals without deprivation, and go forward. Report
I see that I am not alone in my admiration of you for penning our thoughts and feelings. You've remarkably captured what I could not (or would not) say to myself or even bring myself to journal (if I would ever take the time). There are sooo many ways that perfectionism has been stifling my life. However, I have recently taken a HUGE step in making great strides toward moving in the right direction. Even as I read this, I am very cautious in my speech because of my concern that I may not dot every "i" or cross every "t"...I remain optomistic, though, because if I were someone else in this same situation, I would counsel them differently...I'm saying all that to say that I am a work in progress and I thank you, Nancy - and each of you others - for being there to encourage and strengthen me. All the best.... Report
Just what I needed to read today! Thank You! I have been trying so hard to work on not beating myself up over everything. I have always expected so much more of myself than I would ever expect from anyone else. " It is impossible to be perfect!", I keep reminding myself. There is no 'perfect'. I'm trying to go with doing the best I can at this moment. A challenge I have to face daily, sometimes many times throughout the day. I just spent I don't know how long reading and rereading my comment...Baby steps, I'm taking baby steps for lasting change. : ) Report
This was very helpful - thanks! I had to save this in my Favorites because it was just what I needed to hear today! :D Report
Woo Hoo! Rock and Roll Here we come!

A lot of what you wrote, I could have written about me....well except the part where SparkPeople ask me if I want a job......I'm still waiting.....I haven't gotten that call yet.....LOL Report
Yikes! I think I just did some writing on the same topic because these thoughts have been rattling around in my brain! Even at my age, I'm still battling this 'demon'. It's a daily 'battle' to remind myself to be a better friend to myself and to congratulate myself for what I've already accomplished rather than always trying to find just one more thing to add to 'perfect' a project.

Breathe, relax and pat ourselves on the back right now! Report
The perfectionist label seems familiar. See Carol Dweck's book-Mindset: the New Psychology of Success. Although I don't recall much or even any attention given to perfectionism, her research suggests strategies whereby any of our typical approaches to challenges can be replaced with a particular 'mindset' used by successful people everywhere. This is not a new age treatise regarding positive affirmations but simply a psychological concept to manage our behavior, particularly our behavior related to attempting new projects, advanced work efforts, or unfamiliar challenges. Report
Great post, thank you for such a thought-provoking message. Yes, I'm a recovering perfectionist and self-critic. I am working on being a friend to myself and accepting my mistakes and errors in life. Report
This was a great post - thank you =) I've struggled with perfectionism for years. I'm reading a book - Too Perfect: When Being in Control Gets Out of Control by Allan E. Mallinger, M.D. and Jeannette Dewyze. My therapist actually recommended it. This book has helped me to understand my perfectionist tendencies and how to overcome them. If anyone is struggling with this as I am I would highly suggest this book. Good luck to all on your journeys! Report
Thank you for this. In some areas of life perfectionism might be an assest. But if it keeps you from living because you are afraid to fail at something then it is a hinderence. That is what it has been for me. Holding me back because I might fail. Well the occasional failure probably won't kill me, and if it doesn't than it will make me stronger and more prepared for the next challenge. Report
I could SO relate to this blog posting! I feel like I have a lot more self-assessing and letting go to do in this area. Thanks for sharing some of your own journey! Report
Very well put! I strive to do everything to the best of my ability and I do get upset if I don't achieve the results that I want. I am dealing with this and I think it all stems back to my childhood. I don't want to be a deadbeat, I want a better life for myself. I want better and I deserve better. I have a better life, I have to give myself a break and remember that it doesn't always have to be the best. I just have to remember to enjoy everything that I do no matter how it turns out. Just jump on in and it will turn out how it turns out. You can't have a perfect plum everytime! Report
I totally understand about perfectionism getting in the way of achievement! It's something that I'm working on and in the process of changing. Good luck when you run your race! Report
I .too have have flaws, but i never wanted to own up to them. This is my new chance to say,I can be reborn. I am on my new journey in life . I am hopeful that I will find someone who will help me to go the distance. Not only for my health but to become a better me .My reading of your blog has given me some of the fuel . Report
Thanks, Nancy, for writing such a great blog that is about something that most of us experience at one time or another. I'm a terrible perfectionist but have not yet found a way to let go and "just do it." I constantly berate myself both for my efforts and my lack of efforts, and won't try things that I think I might not be good at. A perfect example is this: my local YMCA is starting a Zumba class on March 1st. I've been encouraged by all of the ladies I know at the Y to give it a try, as well as by some SparkFriends who have taken the class before. But because it's part of the great unknown I'm afraid to try it, afraid of looking silly or being out of breath and not able to keep up.

This attitude has kept me from doing so many things in my life, but it is especially interfering with my health and fitness goals. I set unrealistic fitness goals for myself and practically set myself up for failure, then start a cycle of criticism that brings me to a complete halt.

I don't know how I'm going to stop this cycle, but your blog gives me hope and brings the problem to the forefront of my mind. Thanks again for such an insightful blog! Report
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