5 Ways to Tackle Perfectionism: An Interview with Michelle Russell


Michelle Russell.jpg

This week I have the pleasure of interviewing Michelle Russell, who writes the fantastic blog, “Practice Makes Imperfect.” Since we talk about perfectionism a lot on Beyond Blue–because it’s so related to depression–I thought she’d be a perfect guest to interrogate on this topic.

Therese: What are five ways a person can tackle perfectionism?

Michelle: Here they are …

1. Compare yourself to others.

I know, this probably sounds surprising when the prevailing wisdom says not to. But we perfectionists need frequent reality checks.

Think about whatever has you firing on all cylinders and what you’re hoping to achieve. A report with absolutely no errors? A living room fit to be featured in House Beautiful? A body like the cover model on that fitness magazine at the checkout stand?

Now notice how many people are doing quite well, thankyouverymuch, without raising the bar so high. People really do have satisfying relationships in non-model bodies, successful careers despite the occasional typo or misjudgment, and comfortable, happy homes with undusted mantelpieces. It’s good to look around and remind ourselves of this from time to time.

2. Use the 10-Year Question.

If you catch yourself ruminating about something you think you’ve done or might do less than perfectly, ask yourself, “Ten years from today, will I even remember this, let alone care about how well it was done or whether it was done at all?”

In the extremely rare cases where you answer “yes” and “yes,” go ahead and give the doing or fixing your best effort, and then move on. Most of the time, though, this little thought exercise will help dissolve your worry, or at least shrink it down to a more manageable size.

3. Take some time out.

Perfectionists overcommit–to others and to themselves. See if you can find a way out of an upcoming obligation (or two, or three) that you don’t really want to do but think you “should.” Also, look at your own to-do list and see what you can defer for now, or even take off your list entirely. To get my post on this, click here.

Now don’t just fill up this time with other stuff. There will always be more stuff. Allow it to be “white time” (analogous to white space) during which you have absolutely no agenda. Do whatever your body and spirit want–take a nap, go somewhere for a change of scenery, stretch, dance, meditate, walk on grass, finger-paint.

Perfectionism stems from an overly self-critical mind. Give your mind a break and let it rest. Nurture the other parts of you–they deserve it. Gradually, your mind will learn that the world doesn’t end if you leave it to itself for a little while.

4. Take one tiny but direct step.

It seems counterintuitive, but there’s a direct link between perfectionism and procrastination. You’d think perfectionists would want everything done neatly, thoroughly and on time, right? Instead, we often feel such pressure to do things perfectly that we overwhelm ourselves before we even start. Then we keep ourselves occupied with a million other things so that we always have a handy excuse for why we’re not doing Whatever It Is.

Try picking one very tiny thing and just doing it. Make the thing so small that it doesn’t intimidate you. But make sure it points directly toward something you want. Don’t browse the Internet for workout shoes–go outside and walk around the block. Just once. But do it. A single baby step is worth more than any amount of beating yourself up over not taking any action.

5. Ask yourself what you’d say to a friend.

I have a friend who calls me on this whenever she observes me going into overdrive. “If I were handling everything you are right now,” she asks me, “and I started criticizing you the way you’re criticizing yourself, would you stand there and take it? Or would you tell me to go fly a kite?” (pregnant pause) “Then why do you let you talk to yourself that way?”

It’s a good question, isn’t it?

Therese: What is your biggest obstacle in “practicing imperfection”? How do you get around it?

Michelle: I’m hyper-organized (is there a medical diagnosis for that? oh, yeah, OCD) and a diehard tweaker of systems. I can spend hours and hours searching for the “perfect” planner and then customizing it for every possible contingency, but then never actually using it.

I also seem to have this need to “clear the decks” before starting on major projects. So no, I can’t possibly track my finances until I have all my stray papers filed so I can find them, which means going through the box of papers in the corner, which means pruning my file cabinet of outdated material to make room for the new, which means getting some WD-40 to fix the drawer because it’s almost stuck shut, which means a trip to . . . etc., etc.

One of my newest mantras has become “Just start somewhere.” I’ve realized (verrrry grudgingly) that the inbox of my life will never be empty. Things will never coalesce into a perfect starting point with neatly squared corners and no loose ends. So I continue giving myself pep talks about this. And slowly, very slowly, I’m noticing how small steps really do have a cumulative effect over time. That not everything has to be exactly the way I’d like it for me to experience progress.

My blog is a great example. I’ve never done anything like it before, and I’m completely intimidated by the technical aspects of it. I also wanted to have something like 20 posts in the hopper before I even launched, because I was afraid of getting writer’s block. But in April of this year I enlisted the help of some friends to set up the site, and just started writing.

Does the website look and function exactly the way I want it to? Nope. Are there sections I need to complete, or even create? Absolutely. Can I afford a professional site design at this point? Hah! But I didn’t let any of that keep me from starting, and I’m learning as I go. I’ve made some great online friends and received helpful feedback and advice, none of which would have happened if I hadn’t plunged in the deep end and just started somewhere. And I’m having fun!

Originally published on Beyond Blue at Beliefnet.com

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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