Michelle Elman on perfectionism and how to break free from it

Michelle Elman
By Michelle Elman,
updated on Sep 8, 2023

Michelle Elman on perfectionism and how to break free from it

Beneath the surface of striving for perfection, could lie insecurity, procrastination, and self-doubt. But it’s time to stop the cycle. Columnist Michelle Elman shares the underlying causes behind perfectionist behaviour, and what you can do to break free from it

In my eyes, being a perfectionist doesn’t exist. It is a fancy way of disguising the truth: the fear of judgement and rejection.

The problem is, people have started identifying with perfectionism, and once you turn it into an identity-level belief, then it is harder to unlearn. In reality, it isn’t an identity, it is a habit. It is a behaviour we have repeated that has become our norm, and is used as an excuse to hide behind how scary putting yourself out there can be. When you use it at an identity-level, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Perfectionism can be used in a few ways. The first is using perfectionism to put people down, making you feel you are better than others. Usually, you would have experienced a person like this at school. The one who slows down the group project, who will moan you aren’t doing enough, and then take over, usually redoing everything you have done because ‘I’m a perfectionist’ – usually with a sentence about how you might be OK submitting mediocre work, but they are not.

This behaviour and reaction stem from the ego. The ego’s job is to protect your unconscious, so the ego takes a superior approach in order to not reveal the insecurity lying beneath it. Again, because perfectionism can be about fear, they may project their fear and insecurity on you to feel superior. They see it as them simply having higher standards than you, but it’s not about that. They might act like they are better than you, but that’s not why they are doing it. They are doing it because of a need to be in control. They are unable to trust that your work is satisfactory, because the grade means so much more to them than it does to you. Their self-worth depends on that mark being good, because their self-worth is not internal. They do not believe they are good enough in themselves, and therefore if they perform well enough, or do enough for others, then that will fill the void where their self-esteem should be. Remember it’s about the fear of rejection, failure, and judgement.

The second way perfectionism is used is to never get anything done. This is when being a perfectionist results in immobility. Work never gets submitted, because it is too overwhelming to begin with. It is still motivated by the fear of rejection, but how it presents itself in behaviour is ‘Why bother trying if I am going to be rejected’ or, even worse, ‘If I reject myself then others can’t reject me.’ It’s the illusion that if they wait until they are ready, then the piece of work will be perfect, but since humans are not perfect, and you could always improve on something, it results in being at a standstill.

I know an author who missed her deadline five times, because her work wasn’t ‘perfect’. We got our first book deals at the same time, and I have three published books to my name, and one on the way, and she still hasn’t got her first book out. One of the ways I am able to hit submit is to remind myself that 95% of the time is wasted on perfecting the last 5%. You can be twiddling on small details forever, but ultimately, they don’t make a big difference. You will always grow and evolve. I see each book as a time capsule of what my writing was like at the time. Of course, over time I will improve, but you only improve by doing. My fourth book should be better than my first, but the reason people don’t hit send is because it means you will be seen, which is scary – especially if you don’t like yourself, or feel good enough as you are!

Similarly, when I was training to be a life coach, I had got a full client roster by the time a colleague had launched their website. In that same time, I had redone my website five times, because as I began to grow a client list, I started being able to see what specialities I wanted to focus on, but I learned that by getting started. I got started, and learned on the go, whereas they let an imperfect website stall them. This demonstrates that one of the key mindsets to nip perfectionism in the bud is to remember that no one ever feels ready. The concept of ‘ready’ doesn’t exist. Say yes, and figure it out later. If it doesn’t go well, you will learn, but at least you tried. At least you didn’t miss out on the opportunity.

Finally, the best advice I have to put an end to perfectionism is to get a hobby you are rubbish at… and make no attempt at improving. Allow yourself to enjoy something for the fun of it, let yourself enjoy time that is not productive or improving towards a goal, and allow yourself to be seen, even when you look silly or you aren’t at your best. You will have a whole lot of fun doing it!

Love Michelle x

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Michelle Elman

By Michelle Elman

Michelle Elman is a five-board accredited life coach, most known for her campaign ‘Scarred Not Scared’. Her new book, ‘The Joy of Being Selfish’, is published by Welbeck in February.

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