A Letter to a Perfectionist

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Dear Perfectionist,

I wrote this letter about three times before the words felt right on my tongue. I guess that’s perfectionism for you. It took three times for my thoughts to feel sound. It was a strange, self-reflective process that led me to this point, and I wonder if any of you feel like this too? My guess: yes.

The funny thing about perfectionism is that you don’t realize how much it has consumed you until you are drowning in your own thoughts, in your own words. Perfectionism is something I’m working on. And I’ll be honest, it hasn’t been easy letting go. It has taken a lot of time, reflection and personal strength to learn to see myself as more than my accomplishments. I have a tendency to be overly self-critical and it isn’t easy to let go of the unrealistic expectations I sometimes set for myself.

I have experienced a lot of what the perfectionist in me would consider personal failures. Sometimes this looks like a lot of self-evaluation, a consistent reevaluation of goals, and an overwhelming amount of criticism.

It has taken a lot of growth for me to learn how to reframe what I sometimes see as flaws to things I accept and sometimes even love about myself. There are definitely still days I struggle with the critical voice in my head, and when I do, I use the list below to calm myself and reset my personal expectations. So, to all the other perfectionists out there, here is my advice to you:

  1. Let. It. Go. One of the hardest things for perfectionists is letting go, but we need to do it. Whatever it is that’s bothering you, whatever little mistake you’ve made, let it go. There is no benefit obsessing over something you can no longer change, so focus your energy on something positive, like how you will adjust to any unplanned outcome in your way.
  2. Mistakes happen.  Learn to be okay with those mistakes; believe it or not, mistakes are the best way to grow. You are a work in progress, and as such, you will struggle and, sometimes, you will fail. It merely builds character; keep your chin up, you will get to where you want to go.
  3. Be flexible. Open yourself up to alternatives. As Robert Frost said, sometimes the road less traveled makes all the difference. When life takes an unexpected turn, it is okay to be unsure. Just remember that being unsure shouldn’t stop you from acting. One of the greatest talents is being flexible enough to roll with life’s unexpected punches. Never let an idea of how things should have gone stop you from adapting to how things are.
  4. Take a big step back and look at the big picture. Sure, us perfectionists love details, but sometimes the details aren’t as important as the whole image. It is okay to be focused on the small things, but remember that the small goals are meant to create a bigger picture. One mistake won’t ruin your plans, and all of the little mistakes we make on the road to greatness do not overshadow where we end up. Your mistakes do not define you, and when you get to where you want to go, there should be no shame in the ways you learned. Life can be a hard teacher, but you’re tough, and you will get there.
  5. There is a difference between high standards and perfection; know it. It is okay to start small and be proud of the small steps we take towards a goal. Sometimes, we need to be okay with the little things we do. Making flashcards or starting an assignment is enough. Sometimes, having high standards for yourself simply means doing better than you did last time. Reward yourself for the small things, and some days you have to accept that making flash cards is the best way to start your trek to a goal.
  6. Breathe. Everything is a process. When you get overwhelmed, which is completely normal and 100% okay, step back for a moment and just breathe. Take a big breath in for 4 seconds, hold it for 4 seconds, then exhale for 4 seconds, and repeat until you are calm. Feel your lungs expand, feel your heartbeat, just be for a minute. Let the weight of your fears slide from your shoulders and just exist. When you’re ready, go back to what you were doing.
  7. Forgive yourself. Forgive yourself for your mistakes, forgive yourself for all the things you cannot be. It is okay. Learn to love yourself despite your flaws; learn to love yourself because you are flawed. I know forgiveness is hard, and I know it will take time to be okay with your imperfections but there is a difference between being perfect and being successful. Success comes from growth, and sometimes growth comes from mistakes. If you were perfect, there would be nothing to aspire to be; it is good to be flawed.

Failure will happen. We are human, and we will make mistakes. The goal is to try and let go of the need to be perfect and allow ourselves to be okay when failure or mistakes happen.    

To all my fellow perfectionists, you are not alone. You can overcome any negativity that you may be feeling. You are worth so much as a human being, and when you make mistakes, I hope you have the strength and grace to let them roll off your shoulders. Remember to take pride in the little things; even the smallest step in the right direction is growth. If you can learn to love your imperfections, laugh at your mistakes, and grow when things get tough, you will 100% stun the world. And maybe even yourself.

Love, a former perfectionist