Tuesday, September 29, 2020

After Reading 2 Books On Perfectionism, Here Are My Top Fourteen Take-Aways

So hi, you. 

::floomphs down on couch::

How are things? How ya holding up?

John and I are still working offline jobs as often as we can, then balancing work here online and making time for a few fun projects, too. This could be just me, but lately it all feels... a little harder? Anyone else feeling that? Florida just lifted all their Covid restrictions, which had the curious effect of making some of our friends give up social distancing, and others return to total lockdown. John and I work for older and at-risk friends a lot, so we're more on the cautious side. Turning down invites is always awkward, though; no matter where you fall on the social-distancing scale, you still end up feeling judged, right? And that's hard on people-pleasers like me.

Anyway, there's your reminder to give friends & family a lot of grace right now, whether you agree with them or not. We're all just trying to live and love each other the best we can out here.

On a more positive note, the last few weeks I've read a couple of books on perfectionism: why it's bad, how it holds us back, and how to work around it. I also started CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) for the first time, since up 'til now my therapist has been using something called Attachment Theory. (Which has helped enormously, btw.) All of this has me learning some nifty new tools, and I'm kind of amazed how well the stuff I've learned about perfectionism goes with what I'm learning in CBT.

In fact, I've been so impressed that I thought I'd share my top take-aways from those two books: things I wrote down and have been trying to practice/absorb since.

First up, How To Be An Imperfectionist, by Stephen Guise

If you have Amazon Prime you can read this for free on your Kindle. Score!

Now I have to admit, I wasn't going to review this book at first, because the author got on my nerves. He's the usual self-help guru type, always bragging on himself and pitching his last book, and then he only uses illustrations about sports, how much he goes to the gym, or how many women he's asked out. Gah. By the last few chapters I was reading with gritted teeth, and at one point John walked in and burst out laughing at my expression.


As much as I disliked reading it, this book really does have some great tips on beating perfectionism: things that made a positive difference for me as soon as the next day.


So... FINE. 

Here's what I wrote down as I read:

- Emphasize the effort, not the results.
For this I've been reminding myself how much more you readers respond when I share my "failures" versus my successes - how the imperfect stuff brings us closer and sparks better conversations.

- When doing something difficult, don't look ahead. Focus on your very next step, and no further. Looking ahead will only overwhelm you and make you want to give up.

I feel this one a LOT. I loooove looking ahead and deciding The Thing is not worth The Effort. So I'm trying to tunnel-vision myself and only look at my feet, so to speak. One step at a time.

- We perfectionists must ignore our current circumstances - meaning how we feel - AND the possible result. Focus instead on the procedure.

Feelings lie. I already knew depression lies, but I'm learning ALL emotions can and do lie, so I can't trust myself when I "don't feel inspired" or "don't feel like" doing something. Most of the time motivation follows action, not the other way around.

- Replace "should" with "could."

Take away the self-condemnation. So when thinking about the past, replace "I should have gone to that party," with "I could have gone to that party." Or replace "I should get back to work now," with "I could get back to work now."

This one has made a noticeable shift in my thinking, y'all. It changes the whip into a hall pass, and makes me feel like I have a choice instead of an obligation. HIGHLY recommend.

- Confidence requires practice, because confidence is comfort. Practice taking up space and striking confident poses, then practice minor "embarrassing" things like wearing something silly or talking to strangers. Get comfortable being awkward, and you will feel more confident.

He cited a study that said people who struck a confident pose for just 2 minutes (hands on hips, head tall) increased their testosterone by 20%. So silly as this sounds, I've been practicing holding my arms out wide when I walk on the treadmill. I don't know what my testosterone thinks about this, but it feels... nice... to take up more space.

- Measure success by IF you did something or not, not how WELL you did it. Re-define "success" as progress, as experience.

I appreciate that Guise admits we perfectionists can't simply change our nature, so we have to trick it by redefining success. If the goal is giving a speech - not giving it WELL - then even if you do a terrible job you'll still have "given a speech" perfectly. I believe he called it binary thinking: you either did something, or you didn't.

The very next morning after reading this I didn't have enough time to walk my usual 30 minutes before an appointment, so I figured I'd go sit at my desk instead. Then I remembered this tip, and realized I could walk for only 15 minutes, and I'd still have "walked on the treadmill" perfectly.  BOOM, BABY. Put a check mark in that box! Such a small thing, but a real game-changer for me - and I really enjoyed that 15 minute walk, dangit.

- Quantity over quality: The experience you gain making wrong decisions will help you make the right ones. So choose experience over your own predictions that something will be terrible.

I'm rubbish at this, and furthermore, I DON'T LIKE IT - so I keep reading it as a reminder, ha.

- The answer is activity. Choose something and go do it.

This one pairs perfectly with the CBT principles I'm learning about combating internal paralyses from depression: that literally any activity can lessen depression. Anything that distracts you from your own self-critical thoughts is healthy and useful. Perfectionism is its own form of paralysis, so I want to work on just choosing something - anything - and going and doing that.

Wow, that took a lot more words than I expected! You still with me? Don't worry, I'm going to zip through this next book, since I only have a few really impactful bits I want to share:

The Gifts of Imperfection, by Brené Brown

I love Brené Brown's talks on Youtube, which is how I found her, but this is my first time reading one of her books. She's relatable, humble, and funny - the polar opposite of Guise - but she can also be a little hard to follow, since she doesn't have easy "tips" condensed down the way he does. Brown uses a lot of big concept words and sweeping statements, so this book didn't feel as laser-focused on perfectionism as I expected; it was more comprehensive and touched on a little of everything regarding "wholehearted living."

There were a few things Brown did say on perfectionism that struck home, though, and these hit me much harder than anything Guise wrote. Here, I'll give you the Biggies:

- Shame is the birthplace of perfectionism. And the less we talk about shame, the more we have it.

I have nothing to add, except the more I think about this statement, the more eye-opening it is.

- Most perfectionists were raised being praised for what they did, so we start to believe, "I am what I accomplish, and how well I do it."

Oh look, it's me. I was praised a lot for my writing in particular growing up. And I should add, this is not blaming anyone for praising us as kids; it's just how perfectionists interpret that praise. If we are only as good as our last accomplishment, then any failure means we, too, are failures.

- "Life paralysis" is when we're too afraid to put anything out in the world that's imperfect. It's also the dreams we don't follow because we're so afraid of failure.

- This is why risk is so terrifying for a perfectionist: our very self-worth is on the line.

I had to sit with those last two for a while and really practice my new CBT skills. It's hard not to beat myself up for this, and so so hard not to regret and grieve over all the creative risks I've been too afraid to take, that I'm still too afraid to take.

Now on the more encouraging side:

- The only unique contribution we will ever make in this world will come from our creativity.

- "Don't ask what the world needs, ask what makes you come alive, and go do it." - Howard Thurman

Yes and yes. YES AND YES, my friends.

I hope some of this is helpful for my fellow perfectionists out there, and maybe helps us to be brave enough to try new things. If any of this piqued your interest, definitely check out both books! Both are relatively quick reads, and as much as I disliked How To Be An Imperfectionist, I have to admit it gave me the the most "actionable" advice. Brene's Brown's is more of a deep dive that takes a more philosophical, soulful approach, but they feel like two sides of the same coin.

Right, now it's your turn: are you a perfectionist? And if so, have you spent most of your life (like me) thinking that was a good thing?

Bonus question for anyone feeling brave: What's something your perfectionism is keeping you from? What are you too afraid of failing at to try? (I'll give you one for me: traditional art. I loved drawing and painting all the way into high school, but now I'm so afraid of failing I won't even pick up a sketch pad.)


 Oops, I almost forgot: today's the last day to enter our monthly Squeegineer Give-Away!

I added some fun stuff this month for prizes, hit the link up there for details on how to enter.


  1. "'Life paralysis' is when we're too afraid to put anything out in the world that's imperfect. It's also the dreams we don't follow because we're so afraid of failure."

    *looks at quote*
    *looks at my unsent work resume I've been "working on" for 10 months*
    *looks back at quote*

    I mean, I was already seeing way too much of myself in most of the other lines, but that one cuts especially deep right now. Wow.

    1. So I learned a tip from a friend of mine when I hold onto something to make it "just right". He would say, "okay you have until tomorrow at noon (or whatever time you pick). Stress over it, overthink it, re-do it 100 times if you want, but at 12:00 it is getting sent off." And it really helped me to have a deadline on stuff I kept trying to perfect because I would reread it 1000 times but when I said it would be sent, it goes. Mainly because I know it's great, but I get too afraid and want to do something "just one more time" before I send it off and next thing you know it's 3 weeks later. And these are not deadlines to finish something, it's a deadline to stress over something. Sometimes our deadlines would be 5 minutes, sometimes a week, depending on the project, but it really helped me just let things go. And it seemed so silly at first, but now when I catch myself stressing over something that isn't "perfect" I'll give myself a deadline, and it really has been a game changer.

    2. ARE YOU ME?
      *looks at my unsent work resume I've been "working on" for 10 YeArS*
      *looks back at post*

    3. I'm not a fan of FB, but the quote "Perfect is the enemy of done" really resonates with me. I think about it whenever I try to justify not doing something - sending out that email, doing a craft, sharing photos. Just do the thing and be done. Then it can stop taking up head space and I can move on.

  2. Art is a big stumbling block for me, too; something I love doing is crafting, but I find myself spending more time buying more crafting supplies (which I don't need!!) than actually doing the art/craft. Why? Because I'm afraid I'll fail, or it won't look as nice as I want it to, and I'll be judged. So I'm surrounded by art and craft supplies, with very little output! It's frustrating! I know quarantine is kind of the worst creative atmosphere for it, but I'm trying to push myself to make more art.

    1. Same! I guess I never really considered what my craft supply "hoarding" was. It makes total sense now.

    2. Adam Savage (formerly of Mythbusters) said something the other day that I found super helpful with the "but what if I mess up?" paralysis. He was asked what to tell kids who are getting started in STEM/STEAM and he said "Everything is an iteration. Always expect that you will need to make or do something at least twice, but maybe many, many more times before it is what you want."

      So I'm starting that sewing project expecting it to be a mock-up full of changes, rather than expecting/hoping I get it right the first time out.

  3. Oh my goodness. I intended to skim this and then I was hit in the solar plexus and had to go sip every word. Thank you for sharing what you learned, because I would never have picked up those books. (Cue first hint that I should!)

  4. Jen, I love how much you lay yourself bare for us - it's inspiring and refreshing and helps me be brave, too. I eliminated the word "should" when planning our wedding (mostly so I wouldn't lose my mind in a tight timeline)- I never thought of continuing it. I could give that a try! :)

  5. I've been on a similar path of learning the last few months and I relate to a lot of what you wrote. I've really struggled with perfectionism since high school and used to be super proud of it. But in reality it has greatly affected my health, work, hobbies, and relationships. I finally reached out for help and am working with a counsellor also following CBT. We've talked about some of the things that you mentioned like how shame and fear of failing being a core factor behind perfectionism and how being praised a lot growing up led me to placing unrealistic expectations on myself. We're currently discussing the rules and assumptions that I've put upon myself that feed my perfectionism and how we can reword them to be more flexible. It's been a long struggle but I'm starting to see improvements (not seeing immediate results and quitting is also a lovely result of perfectionism I'm trying to move away from).
    Thanks for writing about your experience and sharing it with us. I find a comfort being able to discuss this struggle with others. Knowing we're not alone in our struggles. I wish you lots of love and support as you continue your learning journey! <3 We can do this! :)

  6. Jen,
    Your post made me cry, but in a good way. Not only do we share a name, but we also share issues with anxiety and depression. Today you found me at a really low valley on both fronts and your tips are helping so much. I am in the middle of a HUGE, potentially life-changing project (a prestigious award with a LARGE cash prize) and I have tremendous writer's block. I've written my responses so many times in my head, but the words won't seem to travel down my arms to the computer. And, it all boils down to my perfectionism. I seem to succeed in the majority of my endeavors and I am deeply afraid that this time it won't be good enough and I will fail when it really counts.

    Your post put a name and a reason to everything I am dealing with and I am going to go forward with the attitude of, "This is who I am and the best I can do." It's going to be a hard month going forward to the deadline, but I am going to continue with the thoughts of "I could".

    Thank you for your openness and vulnerability. Your imperfect self makes a difference in a lot of people's lives, every day.

  7. As a recovering perfectionist, this is all great advice. But what's really striking me is that, as someone stuck in a fog of apathetic depression in going-on 7 months of near-total isolation, this is GREAT ADVICE. All the things I should (err, could) be doing, I just don't care about. Lawn care, dirty dishes, even the minor remodel I was super excited about 6 months ago, or my million craft projects. I'm going to try some of these Jedi mind tricks and see if I can't regain some semblance of myself.

  8. I really recommend Kristin Neff’s work on self-compassion! She has a book on the topic and a lot of other resources on her website. Self compassion is a really great practice for responding to our own perfectionism (which I have... a lot of)

  9. It makes me so very happy that therapy is helping you, and I think it is awesome you are so generously sharing your insights here!
    Giving folks tools to help them find a way out of depression or self-sabotaging behaviors is such a gift.

  10. Thanks so much for this! I keep getting stuck and not doing things, and I didn't really realise it's due to perfectionism - I had always been taught that was a GOOD thing :-P. Art and crafts are some things that I haven't progressed because of this, but the major one was work. I had been at the same job for 10 years and didn't like it much any more, but stayed because it was comfortable and too scary to try to get a new one. My paralysis was broken by being made redundant (laid off in American :-) ), and it turns out I can job hunt when forced! I have actually found something much better! I am going to print out your lists above to re-read and remind myself every day...

  11. Hooboy, yeah, all of that resonates hard. "If it's not perfect, it's not worth it" has been in my head for a long time. And I've had The Gifts of Imperfection on my kindle for ages, it's about time I dove in. I read Brene Brown's "Dare to Lead" and that had some moments that almost felt like a gut punch because they were so familiar to me.

  12. Before Lent one year, I decided to fast perfectionism. Yes, I did. That small act freed me to work at my creativity more freely. Here I am 25 years later with my perfectionistic tendencies still flowing through my veins, but I give myself permission to allow the last few must-it-get-exactly-so-thoughts sit on a shelf. Thank you for this beautiful reminder that we are all being refined and honed on our life journey.

  13. I'm so happy you're discovering how helpful CBT and ACT is in dealing with anxiety. I've been working with both of those techniques for years (more in waves), and it's making a big difference for me.

    I am a perfectionist. If I get overwhelmed with something as simple as cleaning the house, and I don't think I'll do it good enough or I try to do all the things all at the same time, I stop and hide away and avoid. Which is not good. That happens with new things, or wanting to do things that I used to do well and can't do as well anymore.

    Self-soothing and self-compassion are both really helping me too.


    It's hard not to self-sabotage when you think you're going to screw things up. And the last few years I've risked by marriage by putting everything but me as top priority.... thankfully things are better and I'm still working on making me more of a priority, but it's been a rough few years.

    Thank you for sharing these book reviews, and for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

  14. Navojo weaving. Bought books. Took a class. have a loom. Have the yarn. Terrified because I watched a 90yr old weave at a Trading Post and now I can't start. Mind you I am a costume designer, tatter, cross stitch, bead and make masks.

  15. This took so long for me to read because I kept having to stop and reevaluate parts of my life, past events where I've been held back by my own fears. Definitely have some life paralysis where I catastrophise the consequences of potential failure. On a smaller scale, perfectionism is why I rarely pick up my saxophone these days: I know learning to improvise and play by ear can only be learned through practice but every wrong note feels like an attack on me as a person.

  16. I'm reminded by the song Do The Thing by How To ADHD on YouTube. Sometimes intentionally doing a bad/mediocre/imperfect attempt is a good way to get over the hurdle of starting to attempt something. Going in with the intention to, say, do a childlike drawing can make the thing less daunting.

  17. Thank you for this! I am working on using these tools I've learned from co-workers, counselors, and books. Your sharing about Perfectionism as a form of fear has been in my mind constantly.

    I am a perfectionist, the first born in a large family. There are lots of things I don't do well, or am perfectly terrible at, and I focused on those for so long. I have thought my perfectionist accomplishments were a good thing, like a 4.0 through college. I was devastated when I lost that status my senior year. I learned a lot that term.

    I really appreciate the mindset changes that can come with language shifts, so amazingly powerful. Don't should on yourself :)

    Perfectionism has been a huge part of how I've let me body and health diminish. It is time to put these strategies into place and keep on the path, the progress.

  18. Damn. I recognize myself in this post. From my workdays (wfh is flexible and I admit to taking advantage of that more than I prolly should) to my costuming and crafting to my struggles with my weight, my relationship with food and my constant fighting myself at the gym. My BF keeps telling me that it matters that I did the thing, and not to worry about doing it perfectly.

    I recently rediscovered a few costumes I'd been working on plus some accessories and the like in a random value village stop (I swear this thing was like the VV of requirement LOL - we didn't plan to stop but myself and a friend both found the perfect things there and I swear if we go back it'll be gone 😂😂😂) so fingers crossed I can finally finish my Anastasia yellow gown and my 1860s style Belle 💖💖💖

  19. I've been a perfectionist my entire life. I think one of the best things I ever did was start doing ceramics (specifically working on the potter's wheel) years ago. I specifically chose something I knew I would be bad at for a while so that I could have the experience of forced imperfection. The best thing about pottery is that mistakes are recyclable (last night I crumbled up a cracked piece and rehydrated the clay to make something new). I am still learning and growing and constantly remind myself of the advice of one of my teachers, "Perfect is boring."

  20. As a reformed perfectionist ("gifted" child - whatever the heck that means - praised for accomplishments, so learned to crave them) my go-to mantra is "Perfection is a myth, but excellence is attainable."
    It was hard for me to completely let go of the idea that i should do my best all of the time.
    Taking ANY step to break the inertia is a good step. Action is the right answer!
    But after a little while, action without striving to be great felt aimless to me. The key was to redefine "great" for myself. "Great" used to mean the very bestiest best that has ever bested. "Great" now means "striving for excellence" which incorporates action into the definition. Some days excellence is taking a shower and putting on clean clothes, so trying to get that done is "great".
    This definition change allows for a spectrum of results: cleaning out my closet and color coding the clothes is "great" but so is having a bowl of cereal for dinner instead of Doordashing again.
    We may not be able to completely change how we are hardwired, but we can control our perception of it.

  21. This video has a really good, easy to implement plan of how to get passed the "if i can't do it all the way, why do it at all" mentality. There are charts and things that us reformed perfectionist love.
    I am not affiliated with this video or entity and this isn't a paid endorsement. I just like it and found it helpful.

  22. I *really* wanted to pursue my MFA, but was sure I'd muck it up somehow, or that I would wish I'd gotten a different degree, so I told people I was going to pay off my BA first and I've just never gone back to get that Master's. I've never told anyone that before. Not sure I'd even admitted it to myself. That's something for me to ruminate on...

  23. Howdy! Do you know this book?
    It's a great perspective on life and perfection...

  24. I cannot express how much I needed some of these words today. So all I can say is simply, Thank you.

  25. Good stuff. I am a lifelong perfectionist who is raising a daughter with anxiety and, if it is possible, even more of a perfectionist streak. I'm going to send her this, and hopefully she will read it and identify that she is not alone. I really like the stuff from the first book, feels practical and helpful in a way I didn't realize I needed. I mean, I've written three books, and the only people who have read them have been my immediate family, because, well, what if they're bad? I really need to get over myself, and accept that "completed" is also good.

    Oh, and that Howard Thurman quote showed up on a free printable a number of years ago, and I framed it. It is great, and a great reminder that we can all contribute to our world.

  26. Ooh, I found the printable! Howard Thurman quote: http://www.donteatthepaste.com/2012/12/what-world-needs-printable-quote.html

  27. I really appreciate the replacing of "should" with "could". Just from reading that practice created a noticeable shift in my thinking. I've been so stuck trudging through grad school and graduation /future career is on the horizon, I barely feel motivated nowadays. I'm definitely going to try that thought process when I'm feeling particularly unmotivated. Thanks so much for sharing and I hope you continue seeing more and more progress with your journey!

  28. "Choose experience" - I turned down a job offer - for a job I was excited to apply for - bc when I was hired I immediately started thinking I'd screw up & that it really wasn't good for me even though initially I thought it was. Intuition or fear of failure? Hard not to beat myself up for stuff like that.

  29. So reading this made me think of this parenting book that's based on science, "Nurture Shock, New Thinking About Children." The first chapter goes into praise and how most parents are doing it wrong. That we need to switch from praising the end result and instead praise the process at which you get there. The whole book is super interesting (I think even if you don't have kids). They did an article that is basically what the first chapter of the book is about, it's an interesting read.

    "How Not to Talk to Your Kids"
    By Po Bronson:


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