12 Ways To Break Free From Being A Perfectionist | Dr. Isaiah Hankel | Focus, Create and Grow Your Way To Intelligent Achievement 12 Ways To Break Free From Being A Perfectionist | Dr. Isaiah Hankel | Focus, Create and Grow Your Way To Intelligent Achievement

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12 Ways To Break Free From Being A Perfectionist

“If you wait for the perfect moment when all is safe and assured, it may never arrive. Mountains will not be climbed, races won, or lasting happiness achieved.”

Maurice Chevalier (Singer and Actor; The Big Pond)

“I did absolutely nothing, and it was everything that I thought it could be.”

Peter Gibbons (Played by Ron Livingston; Office Space)

“Have no fear of perfection – you will never reach it.” 

Salvador Dali (Artist; The Persistence of Memory)


Chasing perfection can ruin your life.

In 3 months I went from living in a friend’s basement and waiting tables to living in a penthouse, driving a Cadillac, and traveling the world. Then, I threw it all away.

After college, I took a year off to work while waiting to hear back from the medical schools I applied to. I didn’t get a fancy job though or anything that would look good on my CV. I got a job as a waiter. But it paid off because I ended up serving two really successful entrepreneurs who offered me a position as their research assistant. Things were great at first because they flew me to big conferences and took me out to big business dinners and introduced me to big names in the industry. They also bought me a new wardrobe, gave me a luxury car, and moved me into a fully furnished penthouse with a killer view. I was only 25. I’d meet rich people who were much older than me in the building’s elevator and listen to them say in disbelief, “Wow, you live here?” Life was perfect.

But over time I started to get treated more like a butler than a research assistant. I’d get called over at night to program their DVD player, change their laundry, or clean up after their house was recarpeted. I started getting in trouble a lot too. I’d get yelled at for not using the right dinner fork or for being slow to answer urgent requests like “help me restart my computer” at 9PM. Every part of me wanted to quit but I kept thinking that only a fool would walk away from such a perfect life. I gained 20 pounds from the stress and stopped being able to sleep. Finally, I snapped. I cleaned the Cadillac and the condo, gave back the keys, and drove a rental car to the Oregon coast.

The Pitfalls Of Perfection

There are no benefits of being perfect. Recent research shows that perfectionism causes poor health. For example, a longitudinal study that followed 450 people for 6.5 years found that perfectionism predicts early mortality. Another study of 1,206 people found that perfectionism negatively affects work performance, social relationships, and psychological wellbeing. During this study, participants were evaluated on their perfectionist tendencies and then divided into three groups based on the results: Extreme Perfectionists, Moderate Perfectionists, and Low Perfectionists.

The biggest finding was that only 19% of Extreme Perfectionists rated their self-esteem as high, while about 40% of people in the other groups rated their self-esteem as high. Also, 75% of Extreme Perfectionists are afraid of criticism and 50% of them believe that other people’s opinions are more important than their own. On the other hand, only about 10% of Low Perfectionists are afraid of criticism or believe other people’s opinions are more important. And, surprisingly, Extreme Perfectionists had the lowest work performance rating.

12 Ways To Break Free From Perfection

The perfect life doesn’t exist. Most people are addicted to chasing a hazy vision of what they think would make their lives perfect. Usually this vision includes lots of money, high-level connections, the perfect car, the perfect house, the perfect job, and exclusive access to the coolest events. These people are so busy chasing this vision that they never consider what they’re giving up along the way, or whether or not their vision will actually fulfill them.

Stop chasing some impossible ideal. And stop chasing someone else’s definition of the perfect life. Instead, chase growth. Chase experiences. Chase a breakthrough in your own thinking. If you find yourself stuck chasing perfection, don’t worry, there’s always a way to get unstuck. Here are 12 ways to break free from the perfect life:

1. Sabotage Yourself

I recently did a series of video interviews with my best consulting clients. Some of them had never been on camera and were really nervous. They were trying so hard to look and speak and act perfectly that they froze up. So, I told them to fail on purpose. I had them actively spaz out or say something dumb. Once they messed up on purpose, they relaxed and everything started to flow.

During my job as a research assistant, I stopped being able to sleep from the stress of trying to live up to the perfect life I thought I had. I would lay in bed watching the hours go by, feeling like a failure for not being able to force myself to get a perfect 8 hours of sleep. “That’s one less hour of sleep you’re getting Isaiah…that’s another hour…and another.”

After quitting, I was able to overcome my insomnia using a cognitive behavioral therapy technique that involved forcing myself to stay awake (instead of trying to sleep). The act of changing my focus to staying awake made me feel my tiredness and falling asleep naturally followed. You can use this same technique to break free from anything you’re trying to do perfectly. The next time you feel the need to do something exactly right, stop, think, then fail on purpose.

2. Publicize Your Mistakes

When I first started living the higher class life that my new job came with, I noticed myself trying to portray a perfect image. I tried to hide where I came from and how old I was. I spent a lot of time worrying about being taken seriously when I should have been focused on learning and growing.

The best way to break free from the time suck of trying to portray the perfect image is to openly publicize your mistakes. Authenticity builds trust. The key is to be open and vulnerable in a way that makes YOU uncomfortable, not other people. Sharing factual information transparently accomplishes the former, sharing weepy and overemotional personal details results in the latter.

Have you ever had a dream where you’re naked in public? You’ll know you’re being vulnerable in the right way when you feel like that. It won’t happen over night but eventually you’ll get used to sharing your mistakes.

3. Play Out The Worst Case Scenario

After I quit my job and moved out of the penthouse, I went to graduate school. And at the beginning of my 4th year of school, I started having kidney problems from the stress of trying to graduate. This made me start to look at my life very differently. It also made me start asking new questions. What if my life didn’t go perfectly? What if I didn’t graduate? What if I went bankrupt from all of my medical bills? What if – GASP! – I died?

These worst case scenarios made me freeze up and do nothing except mope around for a few weeks. But then I decided to stop running from these scenarios started acting them out. I pretended that I was bankrupt (see #5) and sold everything I had, which was mostly just a bunch of junk I collected over the last few years. Then, I gave up spending 18 hours a day in the lab trying to graduate and instead, just showed up to work during normal hours. And, I started living every day like it was literally my last.

Playing out the worst case scenario showed me that, even if I don’t do everything perfectly, life still goes on. Life was still fun without a lot of possessions and the University didn’t close it’s doors if I wasn’t there 18 hours a day.

4. Get New Friends

Breaking free from a limited group of friends can help you break free from a limited mindset.

When I started having health problems in graduate school (see #4), I decided to stop hanging out with the same old groups of people. I’d been hanging out with mostly other graduate students for the past four years. I didn’t realize it at the time but this limited network was enabling the idea that I had to be perfect. I felt pressured to be the perfect graduate student and to follow the perfect academic path.

During my last year in school, I joined a Crossfit box, a book club, a hiking club, a meditation club, and a golf club. I also started hanging out with people who didn’t go to the University. This expanded network helped me see life from a different point of view which helped me recalibrate my ideals for the better.

5. Tear Down Your Business

I know a lot of people in business and entrepreneurship who have failed massively. Some of them were forced to file for bankruptcy when it’s the last thing they wanted to do. Others actively decided to drive their businesses into the ground to escape from a lifestyle they hated. This latter scenario is more common than you might think.

Sometimes, the thing you’re building goes from being your pride and joy to being the bane of your existence. When this happens, stop building. And, if necessary, start destroying. You should never be at the mercy of something you created. The key is to not get your self-worth so tied up in a business venture that you refuse to ever quit.

Don’t be a perfectionist. Don’t be afraid to dismantle a dying project and start over. Tear down broken things before they break you.

6. Take A Road Trip

In the book Decisive: How To Make Better Choices In Life And Work, authors Chip and Dan Heath refer to the techniques that used car salesmen use to close big deals. One of these techniques is to get the buyer to make an emotional connection that overrides common sense, usually by taking the car for a test drive or by somehow pulling the buyer’s identity into the features of the car. The only way to avoid making an emotional decision once an emotional connection has been made is to gain some distance.

Don’t go to bed angry and other platitudes about sticking things out no matter what are nonsense. Only controlling perfectionists manipulate other people with emotional pleas to make them stay and solve everything right here, right now. Intelligent people take off.

Distance creates perspective. Very often, the best way to solve a problem is to leave it for a while.

7. Work Smart, Not Hard

Hercules is the Roman name for the Greek demigod Heracles, who was the son of Zeus. Hercules was conceived from an affair between Zues and a mortal woman named Alcmene. Zues’ wife, the goddess Hera, condemned Hercules when she found out about the affair and put a spell on him that made him kill his own wife and children. As a result, Hercules was sentenced to perform Twelve Labors that were thought to be impossible.

One of these labors, the 5th Labor, was to clean up King Augeas’ stables in a single day. King Augeas owned thousands and thousands of cattle, more than anyone in Greece. And the stables had never been cleaned. One version of the myth says that the smell of his stables was so bad that Augeas cut off his own nose to avoid it.

Hercules started to clean the stables by hand but after a few hours realized he was getting no where. There was no way he would finish in time. So, he went for a walk. While walking, he happened to come by two rivers, which gave him an idea. He quickly dug trenches around the rivers and redirected their flow towards Augeas’s stables. Within minutes, the rivers rushed through the stables and flushed out the mess.

Too many people are working so hard to be perfect that they fail to see the big opportunities right under their noses. Taking time step back, zoom out, and think about a problem from a different angle is much more productive than just doing the same thing harder and harder.

8. Stop Pushing

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was the king of Ephyra. Sisyphus was known for being extremely clever, even more clever than the god Zues. One day, Sisyphus was punished for his trickery by being compelled to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, and to repeat this action forever.

In high school I was obsessed with writing my name and the date perfectly in the upper right hand corner of the papers I turned in for class. On really stressful days I would erase and rewrite my name 6-7 times before finally stopping myself.

Chasing perfection is like rolling a large rock up a steep hill and watching it roll back down over and over again. You never make any progress. You just waste your life.

When you’re stressed, instead of pushing to be more perfect, stop pushing. Ask yourself, is the work you’re doing advancing you or destroying you?

9. Say “No” 

In a famous non-study, a Hungarian psychology professor wrote to hundreds of very well-known creators in the fields of art, literature, music, and movies, and asked them to be interviewed for a book he was writing. One of the most interesting things about the project was how many people said “no.” The professor contacted 275 creative people and one-third of them said “no” and a second third said nothing at all.

Pleasing other people by saying “yes” all the time is a sign of perfectionism. This behavior will drive you and your personal goals right into the ground. Peter Drucker said it best, “One of the secrets of productivity is to have a VERY BIG waste paper basket to take care of ALL invitations such as yours.”

Stop being the perfect friend, the perfect party guest, or the perfect shoulder to cry on. Start turning people down. Not everyone. Not all the time. But a lot.

10. Ask “Or What?”

A couple of weeks before handing over the keys to my Cadillac and condo, I started asking my bosses a new question: “Or what?” Anytime they yelled at me or told me that I needed to do something or had to do something, I replied, “Or what?” The first couple of times I asked this question they were totally confused and didn’t know what to say. They’d respond, “What do you mean or what?”

The reason I started asking this question is because it made both me and them consider the actual consequences of not doing something instead of just the imaginary what if consequences. It also put me face-to-face with the worst case scenario (see #3) of not doing something I was told to do, which was never that bad.

Things have a way of getting crystal clear when you ask “Or what?”

Is it, …or you’ll get fired, …or the project will fail, …or you’ll lose a big account? Probably not.

It’s probably more like, …or someone will get temporarily upset and …or nothing will happen and nobody will care.

The next time someone tells you that you need to do something or have to do something, ask them, “Or what?”

11. Act First, Plan Second

John Perry, author of The Art Of Procrastination, notes that perfectionists are often the best procrastinators. And scientific studies show that perfectionism and procrastination have a compounding effect on psychological distress. This is because perfectionists are obsessive planners. They plan, but they never act. Their perfectionist nature keeps them from taking risks and finding personal happiness in a world where mistakes are inevitable.

Hand in your perfectionist badge for a iterationist badge. No matter how awful your first attempt is, you can always try again — you can always iterate. Do you think Facebook or Twitter or any other popular website looked like it does right now when it first came out? No. Facebook looked like this and Twitter looked like this. They put out crap and then iterated until they dominated. Iteration is how greatness happens.

The best way to stop procrastinating and stop being a perfectionist is to start chasing failure. Your biggest chances to fail or also your biggest chances to succeed or at least learn. Failure is really just success in camouflage.

12. Go Build Your Own Empire

Robert E. Howard is an American author who is best known for his character Conan the Barbarian. Howard’s Conan stories have been published in dozens of books and adapted into both movies and TV shows. In one of the movies, Conan the Destroyer, Conan agrees to go on a quest for Queen Taramis of Shadizar. During the quest, Conan’s job is to protect the Queen’s niece Jehnna. By the end of the movie, Taramis is killed and Jehnna is made Queen. Conan is offered the opportunity to help run Jehnna’s kingdom but he declines and instead, leaves to build his own kingdom.

The main reason I quit my job and left the penthouse and the car and the so-called high life is because it wasn’t right for me. That’s all. The people I worked for weren’t bad. In fact, I respected them very much. They had built an amazing empire that changed a lot of lives for the better. But it was their empire. It was their perfect life. Not mine.

Too many people spend their lives chasing someone else’s idea of perfection. These people are ruled, not by what they really want, but by what they think they’re supposed to want. As a result, they sacrifice all of their time to building up other people’s kingdoms.

Your goal should not be to be the best groupie, fan, or low level employee. Your goal should be to be a leader. Your goal should be to build your empire.

Have you ever found yourself trying to be perfect, or living someone else’s definition of a perfect life? What did you do to change the situation?

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You Comment, Isaiah Responds

  • kelvin murimi

    That is a really informative piece Dr.Hankel. I have to admit i am a chronic perfectionist and this right here is what i needed.Asking “or what?” sounds scary but i am sure one can easily learn with practice. Thank you for this piece.

    • http://isaiahhankel.com/ Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.

      Keep asking yourself that question Kelvin. It will help to put things into perspective.

  • Christopher Heinze

    I can identify with the worst case scenario practice, as this has helped me maintain the friendship I have with the woman I married almost 19 years ago. During the first half of our marriage, I worked really hard to be the perfect husband and eventually father. The stress of living up to this ideal while also trying to get settled into a job soon caught up to me in that we no longer liked being together and I even moved out for a while. We finally decided that the marriage was no longer working, so we decided that as far as we are concerned we are separated. By no longer trying to live up to the ideal of being husband and wife, we are able to provide a stable environment for our children and we continue to be good friends. We also now feel more free to pursue interests that may not include the other, because being completely together is no longer the goal.

    • http://isaiahhankel.com/ Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.

      Thanks for sharing that Chris. Trying to love up to something that you are not can be detrimental to your overall well being. What’s worse is when it starts to affect others. I’m happy things are better for you.

  • Nic Price

    I think # 3 is a great way to get in check with your self and simplify things. That one in particular really sparks a “I need to try this.”
    Growing up my dad would always tell me work smarter not harder. Probably one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever been given. But I’ve never really thought of it relating to anything other than physical work. Ill have to stop and see where are all the places in my life I can apply this.
    And #12, “But It was their empire” “not mine”, awesome thought to always keep in mind.
    Thanks Isaiah!

    • http://isaiahhankel.com/ Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.

      Playing out the “worst case scenario” in your head often exposes how frivolous the stress and worry really is. Most of the time we stress, it is over things that are not a huge issue. We play them up in our minds, but taking a step back can help to put them into perspective.

  • Tc Imes

    I have a long history of being guilty of trying to be a “perfectionist.” The stress and frustration I would feel slowly began to control my life. Like you, I had health problems that began to arise. For me, a combination of #8 and #10 have worked wonders.
    As a teacher, I now know it is impossible for each lesson to go as perfectly as I had hoped the night before when I was putting it together. Instead I began to stop pushing so hard for “perfection” and started asking myself “or what?”… or maybe “so what?”
    “So what” it didn’t go perfectly, “so what” there were behavior issues halfway through my lecture and it completely threw off the timing of the lesson. “So what?” I realized to stop taking it out on myself (or my students) and to understand that the perfection I was hoping for was IMPOSSIBLE! Understanding this concept and learning how to roll with the bumps has made my job much more enjoyable and I have become a more successful teacher. In addition, student “act outs” have dropped considerably since this change!
    Thanks for the advice, Isaiah!

    • http://isaiahhankel.com/ Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.

      Thanks for sharing that Tc, I am glad things have been better for you. Asking “or what?” has helped me a ton too. It puts everything into perspective.

  • Michael Smith

    Hi Isaiah. Really interesting piece and I’m sure relevant for a lot of people – including me – who can at times feel constrained by the need for everything to be perfect. Every time I hit ‘publish’ on my blog I wonder whether it could be ‘more perfect’ more polished; when I send a piece of work I wonder if I could have spent a little more time to make it just a little bit better; and I will always wonder whether the time could have been better. The reality is though of course, that it will never be a perfect time and circumstances will not be perfect. It will be good enough… and good enough for now.

    • http://isaiahhankel.com/ Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.

      Haha, I know exactly how you feel when hitting ‘publish’. I have those thoughts to this day. Reminding myself that it will never be truly perfect and that not all of my readers will bail if there is a fault helps ease my mind.

  • nawar

    I always claimed being perfectionist, because I thought it is the best way to approach life decisions. Being perfectionist is exhausting, and like you said Isaiah, very little work get done and lots of planning takes my energy. I think that acting fist plan later (see #11) is one of my favorites. I also should begin to evaluate the worst case scenarios before killing myself of guilt when I don’t do things perfectly.
    Thank you again for the inspiring article Isaiah.

    • http://isaiahhankel.com/ Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.

      You’re right, always worrying about being perfect is taxing. It also creates unneeded stress and heartache. Thanks for reading the article, I am glad you enjoyed it.

  • James McCracken

    I was really not expecting life lessons from Conan today.

    I think I have spent a lot of time over the past several months imagining what my empire looks like. I think it is really hard to think about what it is you want with advertisers constantly telling you what they want you to want.

    • http://isaiahhankel.com/ Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.

      Absolutely. Media has a tremendous impact on how we view our personal empire. The key is to focus on what truely matters to you and what you need to be happy. After you determine your core values and goals, you can better define what your empire looks like. Everyone’s is different.

  • Lindsey Surace MD

    Nice article. I particularly like the references to Greek mythology.

    • http://isaiahhankel.com/ Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.

      Thanks for reading Lindsey.

  • Matthew Hanson

    I have done better with this in the past few years, but I still am a chronic perfectionist. I hate it too.

    In high school I worked tirelessly to maintain my 4.0 GPA. I don’t know why, because it didn’t get me anything. I also stressed about this in college until my junior year when I recieved my first 3.8 in a class. It was the best thing to ever happen to me. I quit caring and was met with zero ill consequences… I wish I would have got this 3.8 in high school. It would have made things a lot easier for the future.

    • http://isaiahhankel.com/ Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.

      Great example Matthew, thanks for engaging.

  • Nic Price

    Matt Hanson, my brother as well was a 4.0 in high school and currently in his college career. He went through his junior year the same way. Then ran into a professor who was against him for reasons of ambition and proving some of the profs lectures wrong. Ended up getting his first 3.something ever. After that it was like watching someone i had always know, come to life into someone that loved life. I’m gonna share this Article with him tomorrow!

  • http://alexsinenko.com Alex Sinenko

    welllllll, I actually can agree that striving for perfection isn’t the way to go BUT I would rather giver another piece of advice to avoid it: creating perfection is pretty boring. What do you have to say about something perfect? That’s right —-Nothing! Only the imperfect stuff on our little big planet is worth talking about because it leaves room for improvement aka. progress ;D ———But nice post anyway 😀

  • Garett Manion, PharmD

    “Don’t work harder, work smarter.” This was the favorite quote of my 12th grade chemistry teacher. It has stuck with me ever since. I am always looking for a better/easier way to do things. I’ll never achieve perfectionism because how boring would that be? Learning from your mistakes is what keeps life interesting. Thanks Isaiah.

    • http://isaiahhankel.com/ Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.

      Exactly Garett. Making mistakes makes life more fun and keeps us learning. If everything went perfect all of the time, I would be bored out of my mind.

  • Matthew Donohoe

    “7. Work Smart, Not Hard” is perfect. The definition of insanity states
    “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Too many people are set on a daily schedule working their tails off. Although they may be working very hard, they may not be realizing their full potential. As one of my youth wrestling coaches often said: “practice makes permanent – not always perfect.” Sometimes is a ‘better’ way of doing things. Just some food for thought. Thanks Isaiah.

    • http://isaiahhankel.com/ Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.

      That’s a great quote. Practice does make permanent, so you have to be extremely conscious of how you are practicing. Doing the same routine job every day can create a rut that is difficult to get out of.

  • Clete Hanson

    I definitely get caught up being a perfectionist when I write. I can spend hours just thinking and putting nothing on paper. I find that when I chase failure and just start typing I can get rid of my awful ideas early on, which allows me to get to the meat of my argument. By failing initially I end up accomplishing more.

    • http://isaiahhankel.com/ Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.

      I do this exact same thing when I write. Starting off is always hard, so I usually just keep writing and then go back to edit. It’s much easier to edit an intro when the rest of the article is finished.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/pub/colin-white-ph-d/51/5b4/469 Colin White, Ph.D.

    This list is outstanding, but two items in particular caught my eye. Sharing your own mistakes, publicly, is something that we should all do much more often. Not only having the courage to admit your mistakes, but having the guts to share them publicly is not only something that makes you feel rewarded, but also something that allows you to grow. You had me do an exercise once (I forget what it was called) but I basically went through listing what I perceived as my embarrassing mistakes. Very quickly it became apparent that these things had helped me grow as an individual. Why should I hide them? The answer is, I shouldn’t.

    Get new friends is the second one that I think is very important. Be prepared to allow yourself to fit where you are meant to, not where you are supposed to. If that means ditching the current crew, so be it. Thank you for another insightful list.

  • Elizabete De Lima

    I could give you an example for each and every item on this list!
    I think that people should look back at the experience or event that made them into this “perfectionist”. Maybe walk yourself through that episode again. Was it really that bad? Is it all in your head?
    My favorite method on this list is #12: Build Your Own Empire!
    If there is something that you are the expert in, or something that you are so passionate about, go and build your empire on it. Why not? What is the worst that can happen? You learn along the way?…

  • edobr

    I love #6. I spend a lot of time trying to maintain a consistent schedule with my
    work and family that I kind of zone out and don’t think about the big
    picture. I always feel better after a short weekend away, even if it’s just visiting my mom a 100 miles away. The distance from my to-do list makes it easier to look at something differently and prioritize things. Or just to feel refreshed and unconstrained.
    I also like the advice about not letting emotional pleas tie you down. The one about “don’t go to bed angry” is such nonsense- who wants to argue into the night and get entrenched. I feel so much better after getting some sleep and then I’m ready to talk.

  • http://www.techno-pm.com Megan Wale

    Thanks for helping raise awareness about something that is so insidious in our culture. This article is so good for perfectionists and, really, anyone! Thanks again.