How To Let Go Of Perfectionism & Still Be Good Enough


Maggie Sim

Maggie Sim

Do you find it hard to let go of perfectionism?

Do you worry about failure and making mistakes?

Do people tell you that it is hard for them to meet your high standards?

Maybe you know someone like that, or have worked with someone like that? Well, I certainly have!

A long time ago, I worked with someone who had perfectionistic tendencies. She found it impossible to submit work that she felt was not perfect. She checked and re-checked her work and every error that she spotted, no matter how insignificant, would lead to more rounds of checking. Team members got really frustrated working with her as she asked for rounds and rounds of re-work because she was not satisfied with the work quality. We struggled to meet deadlines agreed with clients. Team morale was low.

“I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence, I can reach for; perfection is God’s business.” 

Michael J. Fox

Why you should read this

You might be struggling with perfectionistic tendencies and these could be limiting you in some way. You are not alone as many people experience these tendencies in various intensity levels. Trust me, it took many drafts before I hit the ‘Publish’ button!

For the rest of us who are not wired the same way, we might find it stressful or frustrating to be around perfectionistic people. They could be pointing out our mistakes so frequently that it makes us feel lousy about ourselves. Or it feels like they have very high standards that are hard for us to meet. Or dealing with them feels like we are stuck and not progressing – they are unwilling to move on to the next step unless things are perfect or close to perfect.

Whether you are struggling with perfectionistic tendencies or working with perfectionistic people, this blog-post will:

  • give you an entry-point into awareness about their focus of attention, motivations and fears
  • highlight how perfectionistic tendencies could be empowering or limiting
  • share 3 Quick Tips on how to let go of perfectionism

This is not about putting you into a box, it is about understanding the box that you are already in, and how you could navigate your way within the box and out of it.

What are perfectionistic tendencies

Fears and motivation

Perfectionistic individuals are motivated by maintaining high standards, being right and seeking excellence. When they do not get these things, they may become irritated and resentful of themselves and with others.

They tend to fear making mistakes, failure and being not good enough. Their inner critic is likely to be strong and they tend to get upset with themselves (and others) when things turn out wrong.

Focus of attention

People with perfectionistic tendencies tend to focus on:

  • what’s wrong or right
  • getting or doing it right
  • being good or correct

They dislike:

  • mistakes or errors
  • mediocrity or lax standards
  • laziness or sloppiness

They are likely to have some or all of the following gifts:

  • precise and thorough
  • principled and accountable
  • highly-organised

Is having perfectionistic tendencies empowering or limiting? It really depends on how they are using their gifts.

Healthy focus: empowering

When perfectionistic individuals have a healthy focus, they set high standards, do what is right, play by the rules and work super hard to achieve success.  In a nutshell, they use their gifts in a healthy way to strive for excellence.  

As their focus of attention tends to be on ‘what’s wrong’ and ‘mistakes’, this naturally leads them to look at those things first. They may be in a profession that requires them to look for errors (for eg, auditing, quality assurance, lawyering, compliance) and this ability makes them great at their job.

Unhealthy focus: limiting

When perfectionistic individuals have an unhealthy focus, they tend to be critical, have rigid thinking and find fault. The fear of making mistakes and failure may limit them in the form of procrastination, avoiding challenges and lacking creativity.

On the work front, they could be perceived as being demanding, hard to please, and difficult to work with. The tendency to look for ‘what’s not right’ can also create unhappiness and dissatisfaction in personal relationships.

If you are working with perfectionistic individuals, remember that they are genuinely worried about being wrong and making mistakes. Instead of dismissing their worries, acknowledge their concerns and check in with them using the questions in Quick Tip 2 below.

How to let go of perfectionism

Quick Tip 1: Acknowledge and celebrate successes – knowing you are good enough

Letting go of perfectionism - acknowledge and celebrate success first
Letting go of perfectionism

Practise celebrating success. Acknowledge ‘what has gone right’ BEFORE talking about ‘what has gone wrong’. Know that you are already good enough.

Some reflection questions that you will help you practise acknowledgement and let go of perfectionism.

  1. What has gone well? What did I/you/we do well?
  2. What am I/you/we proud of?
  3. What did not go so well for I/you/us?

If you are working with individuals who tend to criticise and fault-find, you could use these questions with them. Even if they deny that anything has gone well, they would still have had to consider what has gone well in order to answer your question.

Quick Tip 2: Seek progress, not perfection – use the 80/20 rule to let go of perfectionism

Letting go of perfectionism - use the 80/20 rule
Letting go of perfectionism

Stop shaping it and start shipping it! Give yourself permission to let go at the 80% mark and keep 20% room to make mistakes, get feedback and grow.

Excellence is not perfection. It is about being very good at what you have chosen to do, and acknowledging that there is room for progress. Perfection is an abstract, fixed point that is theoretically possible and realistically impossible. Excellence is progress, perfection stagnates.

Some reflection questions that will help you practise giving permission to let go of perfectionism:

  1. What is the right thing for me/us in this moment: excellence or perfectionism?
  2. What is the opportunity cost if I/we do not stop now and what would be different if I/we do?
  3. By not letting go, what is the failure that I/we am/are worried about?

Quick Tip 3: Focus on the relationship – connection over perfection

Letting go of perfectionism - focus on the relationship
Letting go of perfectionism

Focus on getting the relationship right, not the task or thing that has to be perfect.

You might think that you are being critical to help other people improve. Regardless of our good intent, when we show up in our relationships with criticism, rigidity and judgment, our relationships tend to suffer. Not everyone receives your good intent arising from words that sound critical and harsh to them.

When you feel the urge to point out a mistake, or criticise something, just pause for 30 seconds and ask yourself these questions:

  1. What is the right thing to say for my relationship in this moment?
  2. What will I lose if I say what I want to say in this moment?
  3. How could I say what I want to say so that the person sees my good intention instead of taking it as a criticism?

These questions will help you re-direct your attention to the relationship when giving feedback.

Book a chat

If you are struggling with letting go of perfectionism, you will want to know how coaching can help you. Please feel free to contact me here or email me at maggiesim@holdingspace.sg if you would like to have a further chat about it.

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