perfectionism

It's Time To Let Go: Letter to a Perfectionist

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Dear perfectionist, 

I know what it’s like to walk in your shoes.  I call myself a “recovering perfectionist,” but most of the time I’m not sure what makes me different from someone who’s not “recovering”.

There are days where the drive to achieve, to do more, to get it right overwhelms me.  And there are days where I’m able to give myself more grace.  But often, I have no idea what kind of day it’ll be when I wake up in the morning. 

So when it is a tough day, I need something to hold onto. A reminder to give myself grace. And the words that have been coming to mind repeatedly have been simple: It’s time to let go.

Can I share these words with you, my perfectionist friend?

Let go of the “have to”s.

You have a to-do list that will never truly be finished.  Your thoughts tell you all the things you have to do before you can truly feel settled.

Problem is, that list will never be fully completed.

Maybe they’re saying, “I have to do this or else I don’t matter” or “I have to do this because this is the right way.”  In some way, your value or worth is tied up in completing tasks or accomplishing goals.  If you don’t finish, you’re not worthwhile.

What do your “have to”s sound like?  And are they really true?

Remember this: worth and value are inherent in who you are as a person.  You cannot attain more value by performing better, beating everyone else, being the best, producing perfection. 

Let go of expectations.

My guess is you have pretty high expectations for yourself. 

Likely you beat yourself up for the smallest of mistakes and have high standards.  You question and doubt yourself.  But those high expectations set you up for a crash when you inevitably can’t meet them. 

And what about your expectations of others?  Are they a mirror of your expectations for yourself?

Do you judge others for not doing what you’d expect them to do?  Not producing the quality of work you would do yourself?  Allowing their failures to define who they are?

Careful, perfectionist, for this will cost you relationships.  No one can live up to these high expectations, especially if they don’t know you have them.

Perhaps your expectations of others don’t even come close to the standard you set for yourself?   Why is that?

If this is true, use this knowledge to set more realistic expectations for yourself.  When you’re beating yourself up for yet one more failure, ask yourself how you’d speak to your best friend.  Their words wouldn’t be nearly as harsh as you are to yourself.

We are our own worst critic, after all.

Let go of “doing it right.”

Answer me this, perfectionist: how often have you found yourself obsessing over details? How much extra time do you end up spending on that project?

Is it worth it?  What is it costing you?  Time with your family?  Peace and calm?

What you produce is not the same as who you are.

It is okay for you to make mistakes.  Making a mistake does not mean that you are a mistake.

Let go of control.

This is a hard one for you, perfectionist.  You know that if you’re in control, what you need will get done, and it’ll get done right

But my goodness, carrying the weight of the world gets heavy sometimes.

There is so much that’s outside of your control. 

The weather.  A crisis situation you didn’t expect.  The choices and responses of others.

If you try to grasp at control in everything, you will fail.

I know letting go of control is scary.  It can feel unsafe, as if you’re giving up your security.  Focus instead on what you can control: your thoughts, your feelings, your actions, your attitudes.

Let go of all or nothing thinking.

Perfectionists tend to have pretty rigid thinking patterns.  Remember the “have to”s?

All or nothing.  Right or wrong.  Good or bad.

These false dichotomies trap you in an endless tug-of-war where you always lose.

Acknowledge the “and.”

This document can have a typo and I still did a great job.

I can love you and forget to stop at the store to pick up the thing you asked. 

I can be a good and worthwhile person and still make mistakes.

Let go of doing it all yourself.

You aren’t responsible for carrying the world on your shoulders. You aren’t Superman or Wonder Woman.  You need help.

“But if I let someone else help, what if they do it wrong?  What if it’s not the quality I know I can do myself?”

True, they might make mistakes.  They might not follow exactly the same path you would. 

But perhaps an exercise in releasing control and learning not to be perfect is to ask someone for help.  Notice how it feels when you let them complete the work you believed you had to do. 

Let your kid do the dishes one night.  If there’s a little bit of food left on them when you pull them out of the cupboard tomorrow, you’ll know you’re in a good place. 

Let go of comparison and being the best.

It’s so easy to look at someone else’s life and believe that they have it all together while you’re completely falling apart.  Social media is a beast for this, as friends post photos or comments about their most positive moments and neglect to mention the struggles.

It’s impossible to be the best at everything.  To have the perfect family vacation every time.  To have a flawless body.  To be #1 in your line of work. 

What if you thought of it as giving it your best instead of trying to be the best?

And know that your best will change in different seasons.  Your best as a mom of littles isn’t quite the same as your best was when you were single and had much more time on your hands.

Let go of letting go.

I know where your mind might go with this letter, perfectionist.  It might just be one more yardstick you apply to your life to which you’ll never measure up.

Have a little grace for yourself.  You’re not going to be perfect at letting go.

Give it a try.  A little at a time.  Celebrate your victories and learn from where you go wrong.

Let yourself experience moments of peace by not adding to the demands on your life.

You’re going to be okay.  I believe it.

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I know how it feels to be overwhelmed by anxious thoughts and exhaustion from striving to be perfect.  Did this letter resonate with you in any way?  Have you been trying fruitlessly to let go of your perfectionism and move into a place of more peace and grace?  I’d love to help.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to set up an appointment at my Ann Arbor counseling office. 

I Am Not God: Reflections on Perfectionism and Impostor Syndrome

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I am a recovering perfectionist.  If I'm honest, “recovering” is a bit of an optimistic term.  In reality, perfectionism is an ongoing struggle.  Every time I put out a new blog post or article, I spend way too much time reading and re-reading every line to make sure I don’t have any errors.  (News flash: there are always a few that slip through the cracks.)  I obsess over word choice and the nuance of certain phrases.  (News flash: I’m not a trained journalist or anywhere near writing the next great American novel.)

Sadly, these same perfectionistic tendencies apply to my work as a counselor.  A few months ago I wrote a blog post about the importance of being instead of doing, largely because it is a message that I need to remind myself of often.  The self-imposed pressure to be perfect started in my academic years and has extended into my personal and professional life.

Perfectionism builds its foundation on the fear that who I am is not enough and never will be.    I feel terrified that what I do will fall short, someone will always be better than me, and I will fail.   

Perfectionism builds its foundation on the fear that who I am is not enough and never will be. 

In general, perfectionism is characterized by impossibly high standards.  It can lead to procrastination, either because of the length of time it takes a perfectionist to feel like a project is complete, or due to the desire to avoid feelings of anxiety and fear of failure.  Beliefs of inferiority (“I’m not good enough”) and hopelessness (“why even try”) can be familiar friends to the perfectionist.

Also , the recent popularization of the term “impostor syndrome” adds another layer to perfectionism.   A recent article in Psychology Today about impostor syndrome describes it as the irrational fear of being found out as a “fake,” with a tendency to believe any achievement is due to luck or good fortune, even when the individual’s skill and talents say something to the contrary.

The article also talks about how those with impostor syndrome can fall into two different camps: overworking or procrastinating, both of which sound a lot like perfectionism.  All the hard work put in to try to prove oneself can lead to becoming drained emotionally and physically, and eventually to burnout.

The truth is this: there is nothing wrong with doing something well and to the best of our abilities.  What makes perfectionism a problem is when it is driven by anxiety and stress that are birthed out of our core shame that tells us our worth is tied to our achievements.  Both perfectionism and impostor syndrome are linked to an underlying sense of shame.  This might be brought about by a culture of high expectations of achievement and criticism in your family or school environment, or it could relate to societal pressures and comparison facilitated by the internet and social media.

What makes perfectionism a problem is when it is driven by anxiety and stress that are birthed out of our core shame that tells us our worth is tied to our achievements.

I can see this reality play out in my life in the beliefs like, “I don’t belong because I am not good enough.  I am tricking people into believing that I know what I’m doing when I really have no idea.”  When I’m living in impostor syndrome, I believe that my master’s degree, my years of specialized training, my experience with clients, and my enthusiasm for pursuing the best treatment for my clients is not enough.

How can we cope with this toxic mix of perfectionism and feeling like a fake?

  • Talk to someone – If you struggle with perfectionism and impostor syndrome, my guess is that you are not the only one in your circle of connections that has these feelings. Talk about your struggles with others and seek to encourage one another.

  • Practice mindfulness – When you feel a bout of perfectionism coming on, slow down and practice some mindfulness breathing. Give yourself credit for the skills and abilities you do have. Remind yourself of successes you’ve experienced, and instead of attributing them to luck, associate them with your hard work and abilities.

  • Embrace imperfection and failure – If you view failure as the worst thing that can happen, you miss an opportunity to learn and grow. Expect yourself to fail as part of the learning process. Choose to be okay with the “good enough” on a project you’re working on instead of working incessantly to make it perfect.

The strongest way that I am able to cope with these struggles is through prayer and re-centering on God.  It has been crucial for me to remind myself that I am not God.  News flash: I’m human. There are times when I feel insecure in sessions with my clients.  I compare myself to other therapists who have been practicing therapy longer than I’ve been alive, or that have personality differences from me that make them seem better suited to the work than I do.  I worry that I don’t have enough knowledge or understanding of the issues I’m treating, and so I read books and attend trainings and plan for clients until I don’t have any spare moments left in my day to rest.

It has been crucial for me to remind myself that I am not God.

All of this striving and working and trying to be enough puts all the responsibility for my life and the lives of my clients into my hands.  News flash: I am not God.  I will never be enough for my clients, because I am not made to be enough for them.  Only He is.  If I try to be God, I truly am being an impostor.

I believe that God is the One who heals.  He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds (Psalm 147:3).  He is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit (Psalm 34:18).  He refreshes our souls and leads us along right paths (Psalm 23:3).  He gives us rest when we are weary and burdened (Matthew 11:28).  By His wounds, we are healed (Isaiah 53:5).

God has invited me to be a partner in His work of healing, but it is not ultimately my responsibility to heal.  That’s His territory.  I am called to offer what I have to the best of my ability, knowing that as I trust in Him to do the work of healing, what I offer will be enough.

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Are you tired of the burden of perfectionism that is weighing you down and making you feel overwhelmed and depressed?  Do you constantly live in fear that others will find out that you’re an impostor, even when you are skilled in what you do?  Do you struggle to trust God and allow Him to do the work?  Here at Restored Hope, I believe you can experience freedom from perfectionism and impostor syndrome, which are made even worse by anxiety and depression.  Contact me at my Ann Arbor counseling office today to hear more about how we can support you.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or fill out the form here to find out more.