It took me years to admit that I had perfectionist tendencies. I’ve always preferred to define myself by my positive qualities, like my flexibility and open-mindedness. However, once I began experiencing challenges in both my professional and personal life, I needed to take a closer look at other personality traits that I often ignored, namely, my need for control, order, and success.
After college, I began teaching high school English. During my first year, I spent hours lesson planning, yet hadn’t put in the time to get to know my students, which resulted in weak classroom management, a lack of trust, and conflict and discipline issues. I had little classroom experience and struggled daily to balance the chaos and unpredictability of teaching 16-year-olds with my own need for perfection and order.
Over the years, and with the encouragement of a therapist, I’ve learned that my need for perfectionism is rooted in a fear of failure and a need for control. In letting go of these, I have realized that making mistakes and giving myself grace has helped me live a more stress-free life. I began journaling a few key phrases that, over time, became mantras for my everyday life.
When I find myself falling back into old habits of craving perfection, these mantras help me remain centered:
I choose peace in this present moment
In moments of conflict, I often try to micromanage the chaos. For instance, I frequently misplace things in my home. When I notice my car keys are not on the key hook where they belong, I tend to take my frustration out on whoever is near, or spiral into a fit of “should have put it in the right place” and “could have saved more time if I didn’t lose things.” I almost always become upset with myself for making a mistake, instead of focusing on solving the problem.
When I take a deep breath and tell myself that I’m choosing peace, I can concentrate my energy on working toward a solution. I learned this by practicing mindfulness and meditation that focuses on intentional breath work. I’m asking myself to stay positive and calm, rather than focus only on the conflict.
It is all a gift, it is all grace
A good friend of mine says this frequently and I adopted it as another way to keep a positive perspective in moments of adversity. Especially in classroom teaching and in coaching cross country and basketball, work will inevitably come up that I’m not necessarily paid to do, but is an essential part of the job.
Often after a weeknight practice, one of my players’ rides home will be late. I used to get frustrated by this — I’m usually hungry, tired, and ready to go home. I would obsess over the rest of the evening: I would get home later, which meant I would have less time to plan my lesson for the next day, which meant a later bedtime, which meant tomorrow could be brutal. It was a self-centered spiral.
Yet, once I began viewing the time as a gift to get to know my player better, I began to appreciate one-on-one conversations that I otherwise wouldn’t have. Shifting my mindset to viewing unplanned events as moments of grace and not interruptions has allowed me to remain positive.
I’m going to do a good job, but I don’t need to do a great job
My therapist opened my eyes to this one during a period of stress when I felt overwhelmed with too many duties and responsibilities. I had chosen to take on marathon training while teaching, coaching, and planning a wedding. I wanted to do each task perfectly, but it was draining me. She encouraged me to find one or two areas in my life where I could fulfill my job by completing all the requirements well, but not putting pressure on myself to go above and beyond.
The perfectionist in me was mind-blown. I was allowed to do a job well but not super well? This was a huge comfort to me. Certainly, there are times when it is necessary to do your absolute best, but it is unrealistic for me to expect myself to be perfect at everything.
During this particular time when I became overwhelmed by too many goals, I chose two areas of my life in which I was willing to just get the work done, not earn a gold star. For example, I place a high value on working out, but instead of hitting the gym five days a week, I cut back to three. That big project proposal I had been putting off for weeks because I wanted to fine-tune all the details? I simply cranked it out in order to meet the deadline. I’ve learned it’s okay to give myself permission to not always go above and beyond, especially during busy seasons.
Make the burden light
One session, my therapist asked if she might use a Christian perspective to help me with my feelings of overwhelm. Often, my perfectionism will tell me: “You must do this now and you must do it exactly right or else everything will crumble!” Rather than let this pressure exhaust me, she suggested, I could start telling myself that I don’t need to let a task crush me.
She offered the biblical quote, “Come to me all who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Though I am not an overly religious person, I appreciate this perspective, especially with my Catholic background. I can take the time I need to balance my life with rest and give myself a break when I feel that need for control creeping back into my daily tasks.
Though I am no master in adhering to these reminders, I’m growing in my understanding of how to recognize when I need to change my mindset to avoid perfectionism. It’s not always easy, but in the end, embracing imperfection has been worth the challenge.