On Finally Breaking Free From Paralyzing Perfectionism

04/14/2015 07:02 pm ET | Updated Jun 14, 2015
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The earliest evidence of my perfectionism can be found in my 4th grade journal.

Each night, I would open it and begin composing my homework assignment for the next day. And if I made a single mistake, like a misspelled word or a jagged letter, I refused to cross it out. Instead, I would tear out the entire page and start from scratch. Neither my mother nor my teacher ever pointed out that this was an odd and unfounded behavior because they never witnessed it. Some days, I would be forced to stay in the classroom at recess to finish an assignment. Why? Because if the page didn't look perfect, I wouldn't even turn it in.

While this obsession with perfection has no doubt been exhausting, there's a reason why I clung to it throughout my childhood and my young adult life. Any flaw in my work signaled a voice in my head: "You'll never get ahead if you keep making mistakes." It didn't help that I was an only child with a single mother -- conditions that inevitably come with immense pressure.

Of course, there are no homework journals in your 20s, so perfectionism manifested itself in other ways, like avoiding work projects because I was afraid I won't get it just right. Ditching a networking event because I left my business cards at home. Bailing on an acting audition if I didn't feel like my monologue was flawless. Missing a couple squats or lunges in my choreographed strength training class and I was convinced I had ruined the whole thing. When it came to my diet, I became increasingly strict. One bite of white bread or a cookie and I felt as if my life had spiraled into chaos.

It's no way to live, I'll tell you that.

People like to idealize perfectionism. They convey it as an endearing quirk, a Woody Allen-esque neurosis. But here's the thing: Striving for excellence and setting unrealistic expectations for yourself are very different things. The former is actually ambition. The latter is a crippling condition, and it can be a dream-killer if you're not careful to cure it.

The fact is, most perfectionists don't even realize they are one. They're convinced that their fixation just means that they are more determined or hard-working, and it's the factor that's going to help them to advance in the world. The irony is that perfectionism may be precisely what's holding them back from success.

So as I became increasingly aware of my undeniable perfectionism, the question became: Why was I like this? Where did it stem from? And how could I change it?

In the 1980s, Stanford University social psychologist Carol Dweck ran a series of studies to determine why some children remained motivated when faced with a challenge, while others who are equally capable crumble at the first sign of difficulty. She and her colleagues gave children a number of taxing tasks and puzzles, and listened to what the children said out loud. What they determined is that kids fall into two modes of thinking: the "growth mindset," which views success as changeable and dependent on effort, or the "fixed mindset," which believes they have a set level of intelligence and therefore, fixed potential success. Interestingly, when those in the latter group came across problems they couldn't solve, they also could no longer do those they had already answered before -- and so impacted were they by their failure that some couldn't recover that ability for days. If that doesn't demonstrate how paralyzing perfectionism can be, I don't know what does.

Fortunately, Dweck and her other researchers found that they could get children to switch over from the fixed mindset to the growth mindset. All they had to do was set certain expectation from the get-go. That meant telling them ahead of time that it was a tough exercise, and they may make some mistakes, get confused or feel dumb at times -- but assuring them that they will learn a lot of useful things in the process. It was only those children who were trained to blame their errors on insufficient effort that learned to persist in the face of failure and eventually succeed.

Dweck performed more than three decades of systematic research to answer questions about perfectionism and perceived potential. All of them pointed back to one core conclusion: The key to success isn't necessarily in ability, it's in whether you view ability as something that can be developed, as opposed to something inherent that must be demonstrated. Approaching everything with a growth mindset motivates us, and can mean the difference between accomplishment and defeat. This is a crucial thing for us perfectionists to keep in mind. Because perfectionism can, if you let it, crush your creativity.

Life is an everlasting learning process. But if we do not continually acknowledge the obstacles we will eventually need to -- or have already -- overcome, in addition to what we can gain for trying, then living is bound to feel like a game we can never win. In other words, the most important thing for a perfectionist to remember is that we are all a work in progress. And when we surrender to the moment, accept that we cannot control everything and embrace the uncomfortable state of uncertainty -- that's when we're able to flourish.

When I read about Dweck's work with those students, I think about my 4th grade self. I can see her, pigtails askew, painstakingly penning her assignment because she is so fearful of a messy page. I wish I could tell her what I now know, which is this: A crossed out word or a jagged letter isn't going to hinder you from success. What could hold you back is neglecting to turn in your homework.