What No One Tells You About Letting Go of Perfectionism

Do you ever feel like there’s something rotten inside you? Like something has “gone bad” in your mind or heart – as though it’s an avocado you let sit out too long or a half-eaten loaf of bread you forgot about? It’s an unsavory discovery.

Recently, this “rottenness” manifested in the form of a generally cranky disposition. I was bumping into things and frustrated and tired and not feeling quite like myself – something was off.

Sweet James was the gentle observer of my frustrations. Over the past few years I’ve learned to not blame others for my frustrations quite so much, but it’s still a temptation. The opportunity to blame-shift and deflect my overall crummy feeling onto someone else has its appeal. But I’ve done the blame thing enough – sorry, Mom and boyfriends of seasons past – to know that any sense of relief I’d experience would be momentary and fleeting. Instead, I usually feel worse than before – because now I’m still frustrated and I’m feeling guilty and embarrassed about my juvenile behavior.

So, rather than get angry with James, I got curious.

Cultivating Curiosity

As an introspective person, I’ve always been curious by nature. I like to know the origins of phrases and why people act the way they do. The former curiosity is easily satiated by a quick Google search. (For instance, yesterday I learned that the “North Beach” neighborhood in San Francisco got its name from its origins as an actual beach until the coast was augmented. Fascinating!) But the quest to uncover why we humans act the way we do is much more complicated and requires getting comfortable with the uncomfortable.

My experience with anxiety has taught me that any uncomfortable feeling, emotion, or situation has the potential to reveal some truth. Whenever I feel the familiar sensations of tingling hands or shortness of breath – the tell-tale signs of anxiety for me – I ask myself, “What is my anxiety trying to tell me right now? What do I need to discover?”

I applied that same curiosity to my crankiness. There was something for me to uncover, something to understand about my present state, but I had to do a little digging to get there.

  1. First, I admitted my frustrations to James. Simply telling him how I was feeling and that I didn’t really know why I felt that way allowed me to invite him into deeper communication with me. Instead of shutting him out, blame-shifting, or hiding my feelings, I let him in. To his credit, he’s amazingly patient and such a sensitive soul. He knew exactly what I needed right then: a hug and a listening ear.
  2. Second, I prayed – and honestly, I think it would have been better to start there. I shared my frustrations to God. I asked him what this was about. Why was I being so short with myself? Why was I not as open to answering James’ questions? His inquisitiveness is one of my favorite things about him, and yet each question – no matter how innocent and well-meaning – got me feeling all sorts of pent-up and frustrated.

“What’s the nutritional benefit of a coconut?”

“Do we toss this or compost it?”

“Should we take Judah or Kirkham?”

“Why didn’t the waffles rise the way they were supposed to?”

This man is full of curiosity, and I adore him. But his questions today revealed something I didn’t want to admit: I did not have the answers. I didn’t know anything about coconuts or how to dispose of them, and I had no idea what was the best way to get to the coffee shop. Couldn’t he just Google it? That’s what I was going to have to do, and man, I just didn’t way to. I wanted to know – right off the bat – without having to dig.

Reflecting back on this, I knew what was happening. It was that old lie of perfectionism rearing its ugly head again.

Despite the hard work I’ve done to recover from perfectionism, there is still a part of me that likes to be right, that wants to have it all figured out, that doesn’t want to admit that I’m a work in progress.

But the truth is that progress is so much better than perfection. The very belief that perfection is attainable is a lie. It’s impossible! There is not a perfect person to have walked this earth – save for one. And he was also God, so who are we to think we can be like him?

And yet we want to, don’t we? We want to be like God – that’s the original sin in the garden after all – and we want to define “good” for ourselves. We think “good” looks like having no cellulite or a higher-paying job or more status or a different apartment. But in our pursuit of those things, we get really lost and confused and just plain burnt-out on having to be and do and have m-o-r-e.

Letting the Perfectionist Fallacy Die

We can’t have our perfectly-constructed, immaculately-decorated cake and eat it too. The way I see it is we have one of two options: we can keep living this life of constant striving, trying hard, inevitably failing at times, and getting frustrated with ourselves and others. Or we can let the perfectionist fallacy die. 

Personally, I’m trying to choose the latter. I can attest to the merits of letting go of perfectionism, but I can also speak to its hardships. It is so hard to let go of the desire to “appear” perfect. To let our pride die. To grieve the loss of the life we dreamed up in our perfectionist delusions. To shred the tape of negative self-talk that plays over and over in our minds.

This is what no one tells you about recovering from perfectionism: It’s really hard work, but it is so worth it.

“Learning to let go, I’m convinced, is one of the keys to happiness. This is because invariably letting go of something tangible means letting go of some delusion that drove us to covet that tangible thing in the first place (e.g., wanting to become famous because you need others to love and worship you to be happy).” (Alex Lickerman, MD, Psychology Today)

Letting go of these delusions – or illusions, you might say – is critical to finding contentment. Illusive pursuits of perfection limit us by keeping us stuck in a pattern of constantly needing more. The antidote is letting go of that addiction to more and getting grateful that we have enough. Changing our focus to thanks – instead of self-pity (oh man, am I guilty of that one) – transforms our minds and frees up space to receive joy and love instead.

Things have to die in order to bring new life. That’s how it is in nature, and that’s how it is with us. The decay of dead things is nature’s way of mining old materials for new uses. Decomposition provides the nutrients needed bring about new life – just as fertilizer is critical for the growth of healthy crops. Decomposition is nature’s way of recycling, and without it, life would end as we know it.

“Whether we like it or not, endings are a part of life. They are woven into the fabric of life itself, both when it goes well, and also when it doesn’t. On the good side of life, for us to ever get to a new level, a new tomorrow, or the next step, something has to end. Life has seasons, stages, and phases. For there to be anything new, old things always have to end, and we have to let go of them.” (Henry Cloud, Necessary Endings)

The same is true with us humans. We have a choice – we can either let the rottenness we sense inside of us rot us to the core. Or we can choose to let those things die and bring way to new life. We can choose to open our palms, let go of the illusion of perfection, and instead embrace the little deaths that bring about a .

Sarah Ban Breathnach, author of Simple Abundance, puts it this way: “You were never in control and never will be. Let go of that illusion so that you can cut your losses and move on. Acceptance of the inevitable – as difficult and painful it might be today – is the first step toward an authentic trade-off.”

When we let go of the illusion of control – the false belief that we can get close to perfection – we open ourselves up to a life of peace, contentment, and much bigger things than we could have imagined.

“See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” (Isaiah 43:19)

I’ll be honest something I don’t perceive it. Sometimes I fail to recognize what God is doing because I’m so myopically focused on my own discomfort – my desire to have a different body or a book contract or just a good night’s sleep. But when I choose to get comfortable with the uncomfortable, when I get curious, and when I let the old perfectionist habits die, I can move on and move toward a better way of living.


Death to Life

That’s what this recovery process has been like – it’s been a series of little deaths. I know that sounds dramatic, but anyone who has tried to let go of the desire to be perfect can attest to it. It can feel like you’re losing little pieces of yourself – or you’re losing your sense of identity entirely.

And, in truth, you are.

But you’re losing those old ways of finding self-worth – the constant performance and people-pleasing – and letting them give way to a more peaceful, sustainable source of your self-worth.

I lose sight of that from time to time, which is why I have to write and why I have to be in community. I need people – and God most of all – to help remind me of the truth. That He’s putting the pieces of my life together, that He’s good, that I can trust Him, and that His love for me is beyond my comprehension. I’m so grateful for His patience with me. He waits and gently helps me as I reorient myself and set my sights on Him.

When I do, I can see again the new thing He is doing, how He’s already brought about streams in the wasteland, and how He’s continuing to make a way in the wilderness.

May He prove himself faithful to you in your wilderness – in your series of little of deaths. Death to self, death to the need to be right, death to the illusion of perfection. And may you find new life springing up from the fertile soil of this surrendered way of living – surrendered to the life-giving power of His steadfast love.

Want to join me in the process of moving from perfectionism to peace? From “I’m not enough” to “I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be?” Sign up here to be the first to know about updates on Enough.

3 thoughts on “What No One Tells You About Letting Go of Perfectionism

  1. I really like how you got curious about your feelings! That’s a good way to handle situations where it would be easier to get frustrated or irritated. Trying to determine exactly why you feel the way you do is helpful. I have similarly been trying to do more of that in my relationship with my boyfriend. It seems to be beneficial!

    • Thanks, Emily! It’s funny how our first tendency (or at least mine) is to hide…much like Adam and Eve in the garden. But when we open ourselves up in vulnerability, the reward of connection is so great.

  2. Pingback: This Is The Joy | Waiting for the end of the sentence…

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