How I’m Learning to Heal My Inner Perfectionist

Over the years, I’ve gotten to know my inner perfectionist very well. She makes color-coded to-do lists, has a heart rate of a thousand miles a minute, and juggles multiple balls in the air while typing a bulleted email. When the creative part of me volunteers to complete a task, my inner perfectionist shakes her head and raises a finger to her lips.

“Shh,” she says, happy for another task to complete. “I’ve got this.”

Friends, let me tell you: She don’t got this.

My inner perfectionist is efficient, but she is a sprinter and not a marathoner. I likely summoned her in my youth to win favor from authority figures at home and at school, and I kept her around when I realized she could garner me success. Now she is still running in her decades-old running shoes, trying to win a race whose finish line keeps edging farther away.

At long last, I am trying to give my inner perfectionist a rest. I am wrapping a cozy shawl around her shoulders and gently closing her laptop. 

“Come,” I say. “Let’s write some poetry and dream for a while.”

My inner perfectionist looks suspiciously at me; her eyes drift back to the closed laptop. I smile; I have come prepared. 

“Tell you what,” I say. “I’ve made you a list of lessons to keep in mind while you rest.” Her eyes brighten. She loves a list.

Lesson #1: Perfectionism won’t save me.

Deep down, I used to think that perfectionism would save me from harm. 

I knew that making a wrong move could be costly for Black people, for women, and for Black women. We’ve been told that wearing the right clothes and talking the right way and going to the right colleges and living in the right neighborhoods would protect us from a host of dangers, from sexual assault to institutional brutality to stand-your-ground encounters. 

But the idea that perfectionism can save us is a lie. Sometimes, we drive carefully and someone T-bones us. We eat healthily and fall ill. We do every single thing “right” and still get laid off, or injured, or maligned. Just as importantly, sometimes we don’t achieve perfection and still manage to receive life’s blessings.

Understanding this has been important for my own healing. That’s because if I fall into the myth that perfectionism will save me, I also succumb to the myth that I deserve when something bad happens. Both scenarios are based on the lie that I – and only I – can invite positive situations and ward off bad ones. 

Remembering that perfection cannot save me has been oddly comforting. It has allowed me to loosen my grip on life’s steering wheel. Mistakes, I am learning to acknowledge, are sometimes inevitable – and there is always a path forward from them.

Lesson #2: I can find a path forward from my mistakes.

The prospect of making a mistake has often shadowed me like an impending storm. The storm looms overhead, threatening to empty a deluge upon my shoulders. When the deluge arrives, I often manage to accompany it with the dark clouds of negative self-talk; these clouds can make it nearly impossible to see a path forward form current or potential mistakes.

For example, when I got my first-ever set of nail extensions last week, I could not stop thinking about everything that could go wrong.

What if I get a nail infection at the salon? I thought, watching the clouds gather. That’ll just prove that I shouldn’t have gotten these nails, that I should have done better research. Why did I think I deserved to sit here and get my nails done on a Saturday when I could be doing other things and spending money on something more practical? 

If I get this emotional over some fake fingernails, imagine how worked up I can get over the prospect of sending an email to the wrong person or forgetting to write down one of my children’s events.

I am trying to stop my personal rainstorm by remembering that I can and do make mistakes, and that in all mistakes, both large and small, there is a path forward.

If I break a nail, I can have it repaired. If I send an email to the wrong person, I can follow it with a correction. If I forget to write down my kid’s event and we miss it, I can apologize, accept my child’s disappointment, and work through those feelings with them. 

Remembering this is allowing me to see the clouds lift and part. When they do, I can see that though mistakes can feel large as mountains, they are mountains that can be scaled. 

Lesson #3: Apologizing is a healing practice.

Being a perfectionist allows no room for acknowledging mistakes and therefore no room for apologies. I find that this can drive an invisible wedge between myself and the person I want to be, not to mention a wedge between me and the people I want to be in relationship with. 

In contrast, an apology can invite closeness. It is the opposite of gaslighting (a favorite tool of perfectionists when we’re trying to shift blame away from ourselves); an apology allows me to accept my own humanity by acknowledging that I may have had a part in someone else’s frustration or pain, and that I am as fallible as anyone else.

I’ve apologized to my kids for being snippy with them in a moment of frustration, to a friend for not being emotionally present during a tough time, and to myself for not standing in my own confidence earlier in life. I’m finding that apologizing invites a sense of vulnerability that helps me soften to soften my stance and be more reflective.

In this way, apologizing has become a healing practice all its own. It’s also creating more space for me to be resilient in the face of criticism.

Lesson #4: Criticism invites growth. 

There is a part of me that sees constructive feedback as part of the growth cycle and welcomes it with open arms. 

But there is also my inner perfectionist, who has honed the ability to avoid errors, learn quickly from past mistakes, and look at others’ success stories to draw lessons for my own.

In school, my inner perfectionist learned exactly what my teachers wanted and gave it to them with I’s dotted and T’s crossed. If I made a subpar grade, my inner perfectionist sought out my teacher to understand exactly what went wrong so that it would never happen again. Later, I used the same strategies to excel at work. This has made me an agile employee and dependable team member.

However, my inner perfectionist sometimes finds it difficult to be open to constructive criticism. After all, I often aimed to perform at such a high level that critiques from others were either unnecessary or exceedingly rare. But once I understood that being skittish of criticism prevented me from fully living into my potential, I started to seek out feedback more actively – first with a shaky voice, and then with a confident one.

Over many years, I have learned to receive this feedback with a few seconds of silence. This helps me avoid the urge to formulate a defense strategy. It also gives me time to remember that I have worked to build a sense of self that is strong enough to receive constructive criticism as an invitation to blossom.

I have especially appreciated these invitations when they come from my children. When they inform me that I should practice what I preach or explain to me that an edict I have enacted isn’t fair, I can take these parenting notes more and more in stride. They let me know that I am not a perfect parent, but I am a good one because I’m quietly teaching my children that they don’t have to be faultless to be in community. They get to be human. 

Lesson #5: Aim for an “A” in the things that matter most. 

Recently, I explained to my therapist that I don’t know what it’s like to strive for less than an “A” at school and work. I know how to give zero percent and 100 percent, but not much in between.

“Yes,” she said. “But what about the rest of your life?”

I paused. I thought about how I strived for excellence at work while putting my emotional needs on the backburner; how I wore myself out completing projects and was too tired to hang out with my family at night. 

I wondered what it would look like to strive for a 100 in self-care, or to excel in spending time with my kids. What would it be like to work for an “A” in laughing with my friends? 

I’m working to get there. I am starting by giving my inner perfectionist that break she so sorely needs. I am thanking her for being there, always, when I need her. She has helped me graduate high school and university, has helped me excel at work, has helped me manage family calendars and keep up with monthly bills. I am grateful to her and for her.

And I also acknowledge that I am more than my inner perfectionist. I am also an explorer, a thinker, and a dreamer. Finally, I am ready to know what it is like to pour myself into these parts of me, too.

6 responses to “How I’m Learning to Heal My Inner Perfectionist”

  1. From a fellow perfectionist, this speaks volumes! Lesson #4 I’m inviting in more and more. Helps keep my pride in check.

    1. I love this! Criticism can be such an invitation, and I feel like it gets easier to receive with time. It’s still not *easy* for me lol, but I’m getting there!

  2. Marleta Springer Avatar
    Marleta Springer

    At age 73 I am still working on my perfectionism! I am learning I don’t have to be all things to all people. Your writing helps me. So glad you are so wise at such a young lady!

    1. I’m so glad this helpful! And thank you for the kind compliment. I don’t quite feel wise yet, but I do feel like I am getting wiser!

  3. Helen Moore Montgomery Avatar
    Helen Moore Montgomery

    IRIE long ago when I was young married I marched to my perfectionist inner guide & I am certain I unintentionally made the hosts uncomfortable. Couples proudly invited friends to share dinner in their new homes, those years when smoking was prevalent. My perfectionist marched in & without a thought emptied ash trays sitting about, straightened pictures a bit tilted on the new walls, all the while the host quietly welcoming me as a guest. My perfectionist sat smugly smiling, I was good at fixing what others didn’t even notice. A call from a friend for dinner ended with I PROMISE TO HAVE THE ASH TRAYS CLEAN & THE PICTURES STRAIGHT. LIFE LESSON , I HAVE COME A LONG WAY & I HAVE MADE FRIENDS WITH MY PERFECTIONIST, THO’ I STILL OFTEN HAVE TO SIT ON MY HANDS.

    1. This makes me smile – thank you for sharing!

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