Breaking Perfectionism


“I had a cup of coffee,” I announced to my husband as he got home from work Friday afternoon.

“Good for you,” he replied without a hint of sarcasm or condemnation. It was the exact opposite of how I felt.

I’d endured a week of dietary restrictions – no wheat, dairy, corn or coffee (oh, blessed coffee, how I love thee). I’m not even sure how it happened. One minute I was swirling in a cauldron of unnamed emotions and the next I was popping in a k-cup of French roast.

I knew that he would react that way, that he’d see it as no big deal. This is a man who gets up every morning by 4:00 so that he can work out and get home in time for me to go jogging with the dog. Then we get to spend some time together as a family before he goes to work. He’s a walking billboard for We Make Time For What’s Important. But he’s disciplined, not regimented. As he puts it, “Discipline without joy is work, not pleasure. And no one wants to work.” He saw my having a cup of forbidden coffee as a step in the right direction.

After 20 years together, my husband knows how I usually approach goals. I plan, schedule, organize and color-code. I strategize and attack. Contrary to what you may think, I don’t regimen myself because I’m afraid of failure. In fact, I propose that many of us aren’t afraid of failure at all but are averse to erring. It’s the slipping and backsliding toward the bottom that we can’t bear. We clutch our bloody fingers into the side of the cliff and any amount of regression is unforgivable. Once we fail, we’re relieved. We can stop. It’s irrefutably over. There’s no place to go but up.

If success is the opposite of failure, perfectionism is the self-sabotage that prevents us from achieving either. I love a good story about how someone succeeded only after failing over and over. In hindsight, I appreciate my failures and see how everything needed to happen just the way it did for me to learn something invaluable. Trying to prevent risks or mistakes is really just an attempt to avoid feelings that I don’t want to feel like frustration, anger, discomfort and embarrassment. If you think about it, there are infinite opportunities to make mistakes between the top and the bottom and the prospect of having to endure these feelings over and over can be daunting. Failure starts to look good. Or even better, not trying at all.

That’s not to say that a good plan isn’t important if you want to reach a goal. But when focusing on the details becomes a way to block unwanted emotions, it’s a form of numbing. In fact, it’s a socially accepted form of numbing as we live in a society which values workaholicism and excessive busyness. When there is no joyful outcome from our efforts, it’s time to take a deep look at our motivations and intentions.

An example is when I first got sober. I went to five AA meetings and I was warmed by the honesty and truth I saw. I knew that AA saved lives. I also knew that I was nowhere near ready to surrender to the process. I instantly wanted to be the poster child of AA. I wanted to attack it like a goal and even though I couldn’t express at the time why that was dangerous for me, I knew to take a step back and find another way to stay sober. If I had kept going to meetings, I may have ended up at the same place of surrender but I’m proud of myself for making an unpopular choice that was right for me and for my sobriety.

When I was first told that I needed to restrict my diet, the thought of obsessing over what I was consuming felt wrong, even if I would reach my goal. Sure, I could probably manage to do it “perfectly” for awhile but I knew I’d eventually mess up and be very hard on myself over it. Just the thought of planning it down to the smallest detail caused my chest to tighten and I knew that anxiety would keep me from giving my attention to what my body and spirit were trying to tell me. When I had that cup of coffee, part of me wanted to berate myself but it many ways, that cup of coffee set me free. I’m learning that missteps are not only survivable and forgivable but can be liberating. And I’m not giving up.

27 thoughts on “Breaking Perfectionism

  1. Ahh, that all-or-nothing thinking, I’ve heard something of those types. Obviously I jest, I believe my picture is used in the dictionary as the example of this type of thinker! I find your story inspiring, because you forgave yourself and moved on. Many of us have a much harder time with that sort of thing (again, speaking mainly of myself on this one). I will re-read this as I gear up to eliminate one of my many food vices!


  2. I needed to read this tonight. I’ve had a rough day that has ended with me thinking I need to change a lot of things…but that change feels like I’m standing at the edge of an endless drop. It feels like it has to be all or nothing. Thanks for the reminder that it doesn’t have to be. Blogging saves lives 🙂 Enjoy the coffee.


    1. I know what you mean. The black/white, all or nothing attitude has always left me resistant to change. That and always trying to follow rules or guidelines to get somewhere. If we can just find our own way and be ok with it being messy, we’ll get where we’re going.


  3. Oh wow Karen. This one hit me hard this morning. This is me. This is what I do. I did this in recovery for a long time and still lean that way – I’m the one who chose the route you declined for your own sobriety. And I completely get what you’re saying. My entire first year was pretty much an experiment in white-knuckling: being the program poster child. I was going to do it THE BEST EVER. I’m still stuck in this sometimes. My therapist called me on it recently when I said I was afraid of disappointing my sponsor and she would say I had failed my recovery (at a SMALL infraction). He said something like, “I didn’t know that you could fail recovery.”
    I am slowly, slowly learning to check this mentality. It’s coming with a copious amount of self-compassion.
    I am going to go re-read this now. Maybe more than once today. Thanks for sharing this!!!


    1. I’m so glad this resonated with you! The pressure we put on ourselves is astounding. I always thought perfectionism was just about not wanting to fail but for me it’s about not wanting to feel. I agree with your therapist that you can’t fail at recovery and I’d even say that failure can’t exist if we’re able to move in a different direction. Lists and planning and organizing and achieving are all great for some purposes but not when what I really need to do is get in touch with something authentic inside. Thanks for your thoughts!


      1. That’s the thing that really got me. I am a huge list maker, huge planner, huge organizer. I write lists constantly. I write lists to budget. I try to organize the next month of my life. But something clicked when you said that it’s a distraction from feelings. Wow. Yikes. Ouch. But so good. I will carry this with me, I know. Next time I start writing a list I hope I remember to sit with my feelings, first. I think most of the time for me I’m terrified. Of what, I don’t know. I’ve been too busy avoiding it. It will be interesting to find out.


          1. I’m reading this again today. I’m nearing the end of my school semester (and thus, graduation) and I find myself absolutely obsessive over details. And it is really not working for me, but I don’t know how to stop. To hold a little less tightly and still get everything done. So I’m trying to read this post again today and come back to… what is it I’m avoiding?


            1. You may not find the answer until you let go of the details and the control, which of course us what’s so hard. Wanting to know what you’re wanting to avoid before you give up control is a form of wanting to be in control! Mark Nepo said on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday that in learning to ask for what we need, we learn to be more accepting of what we’re given. An interesting paradox and it makes me think of why I hold on to routine so tightly. When I’m trying to be in control, I’m not asking for help. I’m not acknowledging my needs or I’m trying to meet them myself. Not sure if I’m clear in my own head so this may not make sense!


              1. No! That completely makes sense. It’s funny actually. I really needed you to say what you did. I have a time of quiet every morning with my coffee and journal, and what came to me today was that I need to ask for help. But of course, I get to this time of day and have completely forgotten that idea. In fact, I can look at my schedule and that idea will fly out the window. I’m very used to doing things alone.
                So, all that to say, THANK YOU. Maybe now that someone outside of me said that, I will actually remember. 🙂 and if not, this post really made an impression on me, so I’ll be back again and see this conversation and remember. 🙂


  4. I love everything about this post Karen. You have such a refreshing, real, functional approach to life. In my mind I decide anything in the moment. I can always decide to change my choice later if need be. Excellence is all I see here. 🙂 Lisa


    1. I can totally remember what it feels like to be paralyzed by the pressure of making decisions because I didn’t want to make a bad choice. It’s freeing to know that choices just lead us somewhere and like you say, we can change it later. Thank you Lisa!


  5. Karen, Really love this post, sister. It reminds me to ease up, lower my standards with myself, and once in a while, do the opposite of what my impulse is and accept our backslide as a part of the process. It’s refreshing to read this. You and I sound really similar in the way that we attack problems. Your having the coffee kind of reminds me of when I quit smoking for the last time (17 years ago). I kept a partial pack of ciggies on my mantle and knew that if it got too bad, I could always go over and have one. I didn’t. That partial pack of smokes sat there for a year when my husband finally threw them out. I notice it, like six months after that and exclaimed loudly, “Hey, where’s my pack of cigarettes?!” My husband looked at me, laughed, and said, “I threw them out six months ago. I figured you were over the hump.” We just started laughing about it. But again, I gave myself permission to have one if the craving got too bad and it turned out that I re-routed my behaviors, kicked the habit, and didn’t look back. I took all of the pressure off of myself. What sweet relief. I’m glad that you had the coffee and now you feel ready to push into the next level of your healing. Good job, honey!


    1. It reminds me of a Seinfeld episode when George Costanza started doing the opposite of what he would usually do and amazing things started to happen to him! Like with your cigarettes, now that I’ve told myself I can have coffee if I’m deperate, I don’t feel desperate. Reverse psychology works as well on me as it does my kids! 😉


  6. “Progress not perfection” – a small quote from Chapter 5 of the big book of AA – just after the steps are introduced. I’m so glad I heard that early on and have stuck with it throughout my recovery – I don’t have to do it perfectly, I have to strive to make progress and that is ok, that allows for times when it is less than perfect but ok – that is more than ok – that is progress and therefore top marks.


  7. I was laughing because I was saying in my head what your husband said to you directly. Same inflections too…ha ha. And that’s where the similarities end…getting up at 4am is only reserved for when I work the morning shift. Mind you, it would have been a different reaction if you announced that you’ve had 12 ventis from Starbucks that day.

    I understand what you lay out here, with this so-called slippery slope, with the tension of perfection keeping emotions taught and anxiety in the same place. I think for me the idea of perfection is what needs to be redefined. Obviously perfection is perfect – no room for error – black or white – pass or fail. For me, perfection is the imperfection of my being. And in being imperfect, I have the built in window to breathe. Now, that doesn’t give me a permission for me to cause damage to myself and others. I can’t take a drink to prove I am imperfect! That’s something that for us, is a non-negotiable. BUT, if I ever did pick up, I can come right back to what heals me. Those who relapse show us that we can still come back.

    I visited my mother the other day and she lamented about her weight gain – a side effect from her latest meds. She is very careful about her food intake. She counts points. But the other day she pulled a “screw it” and had much more than she normally has. I reassured her that it was ok – no harm no foul. She just had to recommit, if she wanted. It wasn’t the end of the world. For me, while I am *mostly* sugar free, I know that in some of the foods I eat, there is some sugar – for me, if it’s under 10g of sugar per serving, I am ok. I am not on a dietary restriction – it’s more like the booze, I just find myself addicted to obvious and large amounts of sweetness. So funny I should have a quarter of a tablespoon of cake the other day at a birthday party. In some ways, that my cup of coffee. Small enough to say “ahh” but not enough to have the obsession kick in. At it was freeing – like you. So I understand what you mean. We just have to grow out of this all-or-nothing mentality. The only place that stands is in my drinking. But everywhere else in my life – I am imperfect and love it.



    1. I thought about the process of relapsing when I wrote this. It occurred to me that the pressure I put on myself to not make mistakes serves me sometimes, like in sobriety. With all things that become unhealthy, they serve us for awhile and perfectionism is the same way. I see the beauty in imperfection now and like you say, it gives me room to breathe. If I’m overly focused on doing things just right, there will be no joy in the process or in the end. I relate to the sugar thing too. I briefly thought about cutting out all sugar and then realized that I needed another restriction like I need a hole in my head! You’re so right about the all-or-nothing mentality. Thanks Paul!


  8. I too love a good story of how someone tried and failed many times before finally getting something. It’s such a relief to know we can make messy mistakes and the world won’t stop spinning and, in fact, might go in a better direction. I’m glad you had your cup of coffee and I hope you enjoyed it. You made it sound so good.


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