Four years ago, we bought a small 6-acre farm, and over the years we have proceeded to fill the barn with horses, cows, chickens, and recently goats. When we first moved to the farm, we had horses and a recurring chore is mucking out the barn stalls. For the uninitiated, you use a pitchfork to scoop the manure out of the shavings and then gently shake the fine-tooth pitchfork to release the shavings while keeping the manure in the pitchfork. Sounds simple, right? Wrong.
A typical day mucking out the barn took me two times longer than it took my husband because I wanted to shake that pitchfork just so, making sure not to trash the good shavings. Of course, due to the extra few jostles, pieces of manure would fall back to the ground. So, round and round I went on the quest for perfectly clean stalls that might appear in magazines and movies.
One day, after spending about two hours working to clean three stalls, I was feeling particularly defeated and frustrated, when I had a mini-breakdown – I mean an epiphany. Was I a prisoner to poop because of my perfectionism? Did I really have nothing better to do with my time than to get every crumble of manure out of the barn? Pausing for a moment, I mentally scrolled through the last 30-something years of my life and saw how perfectionism had really been more of a liability than the superpower I thought it was.
As a child, anything less than an ‘A’ would wreck me with shame; as a teen, if the scale went over a certain weight I was disgusted; as a young adult, if I did not fit into the mold I envisioned, I would deny real emotions to meet an unrealistically ideal version of myself. Small, humble, apologetic – those words could sum up my first 30 years of life.
Now to be fair, I credit some of my professional success to the long hours I work to make tasks as flawless as possible and that relentless voice in my head telling me that my work was never good enough, so I needed to hustle harder and do better. Those characteristics always landed more work on my plate, since the boss knew I would not be satisfied with “good enough” and could turn something less-than-stellar into something that would be appreciated. Perfectionism, a lack of boundaries, and an allergy to the word “no” made me a go-to resource.
The flip side of that mindset, according to Psychology Today, is that “As perfectionistic tendencies increase, there is a greater likelihood that symptoms of depression and anxiety will be experienced.” In other words, perfectionism can also create depression and anxiety. Although it may seem that perfectionism is a shiny badge of honor, I have learned that it is actually weighty armor that can slow us down and hold us back from genuineness.
As I have grown more confident, I can see now that more success has been garnered from being imperfect than from being perfect. Removing my armor and being vulnerable, connecting with people, practicing empathy and accountability, those are the actual characteristics that have propelled my career.
If you want to join the journey to becoming a recovered perfectionist, I would love the company. Here are a few things I am working on right now:
1. Be thoughtful without trying to read minds. When working on a project, it is essential to be thoughtful and consider what the customer may ask for next or want to see so that we can prepare accordingly. However, I no longer spend countless hours worrying that if I don’t have every answer the customer will think, “She has no idea what she is doing,” or “What an imposter.” Prepare thoughtfully, but without wasting energy worrying about what someone else may think.
2. Get comfortable with good enough. Oh, this one is hard! Currently, my team has been creating a lot of training material and the old me would take the lead and send the buttoned-up, shined and polished product to my team for the final technical edit. To practice more balance, I have decided to get the training material started and sent over to my team in good enough shape and let them build the training out further. Honestly, at first, I felt shame sending work over that was not in tip-top shape, especially to the team who I should be leading to excellence. Quickly, though, I realized that I had been performing a disservice to my team by not letting them have more of a stake in doing the work they were hired to do. Using some of their creative ideas has made the training materials even better than they would have been if I forced projects to a nearly-complete state by myself. Good enough can be good enough.
3. Practice gratitude. When my inner voice sings “Never Enough” from The Greatest Showman and chirps that my work is not detailed enough, that my body is out of shape, or that my effort was not at the level of performance that I expect of myself, I battle back with gratitude. If I hear my work was not detailed enough, I counter that it is good enough for now and can be built out further as time allows. When a mean little voice says how out of shape I look, I thank my legs for getting me out of bed, my eyes for looking at my beautiful children, and my arms for opening so easily to those I love. Turn grumblings into gratitude and allow yourself to let go of nagging, perfectionistic thoughts.
That day I spent hours cleaning out the barn, immediately following my epiphany my horse walked right into the stall and pooped. At that moment I realized that there is always going to be more, ahem, “stuff” to take care of. My advice? Sift through it, do the best you can, and then let it go. Another pile will undoubtedly come your way.