The Antidote to Perfectionism-Based Excellence

When it comes to our professional lives, we all want to be taken seriously and be viewed as competent, efficient, and valuable to our team, colleagues, or company. This is a basic, universal human need.

But problems arise when you begin attaching our self-worth to your levels of competency and productivity. Sometimes it takes years before this is clear to you and those around you. 

For me? It took about 26 years and almost 3 degrees.

My self-worth was based on the quality of what I created, a strong work ethic, and “big” career goals. Specifically, these goals involved climbing the ladder of academic achievement by getting a Master’s degree and then pursuing a Ph.D. in psychology. 

There were plenty of respectable motivations for doing this; I wanted to teach at a university, mentor college students, and inform people through research. But for all the honorable motivations, there were plenty of inadequate ones to which I was consciously unaware.

I wanted to be viewed as highly intelligent and important, to be commended and rewarded for the quality of my work, and to feel that rush of pride when I told people what I did for a living. Mostly, I was afraid ofinadequacy and incompetence. 

 It was only after I left the doctoral program that I began to see how much these hidden, misguided motives were driving me. In fact, they drive many of us more than we know. 

The Negative Impacts of Perfectionism

Perfectionism shows up differently for different people. Perfectionists are often mistaken for just high-achievers, but there are critical distinctions. 

First, it leads to all-or-nothing thinking in which phrases like “never good enough” or “always procrastinating” are constantly echoing as self-criticisms in your head.

Perfectionists tend to be driven primarily by fear. Rather than a desire to achieve, you operate from a place of fear of failure. This fear is what propels you to achieve and obtain more and often leads to burn-out.

Perfectionism pushes you toward certain ambitions so that you can maintain a sense of worthiness. It leads you to believe you need more education or more expertise before you are credible enough.

As humans, we like to attach our identity to things we believe we can control. There is nothing fear loves more than convincing you that control is the key to life satisfaction. The irony is, of course, that we can never control outcomes.

There is wisdom in former NBA star Michael Jordan’s question, “Why would I think about missing a shot I haven’t taken yet?” In other words, what is the point of worrying about failing at something you haven’t even tried yet?

But when you succumb to fear-based perfectionism, you stop paying attention to how you feel, what you want, and what makes you happy. When self-image takes precedence over creativity and joy, you allow perfectionism to triumph.

“You can’t stop here,” anxiety whispers.

“You must achieve more,” perfectionism adds.

And before you know it, some of your dreams no longer belong to you.

Another danger of perfectionism its sneaky, covert nature. It evolves into almost indiscernible forms; it is merely a form of anxiety dressed in fancy clothes, clipboard in hand, reprimanding you for not trying hard enough or producing enough.

Perfectionism disguises itself in big ambitions and pretends to be the superpower not the villain, like an unhealthy, codependent relationship with an addict whose drug of choice is constant approval.

It also tricks you into believing it’s valued in society. Unfortunately, in many ways, it is valued. At least on the surface. But the value of what you produce can be at the cost of your well-being, mental health, and relationships. In fact, research suggests that those higher in perfectionistic tendencies experience more anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation.

Some of the harmful beliefs we acquire over time are “I am worthy of respect only if I am smart” and “I am worthy of being taken seriously only if I consistently work hard”. These are dangerous lessons. They are lessons I am still unlearning.

The Antidote to Perfectionism

I’m sure you have a laundry list of reasons why you worry about failing or not meeting expectations (even the ones you set for yourself). I do too, most days.

But trust me when I say from experience: only in releasing the illusion of control do we find the freedom to be the most authentic version of ourselves.

You might be too busy asking “how do I want to be seen?” to stop and consider “how am I already best equipped to serve people?” It wasn’t until I withdrew from the Ph.D. program that I began to acknowledge the credentials and experience I already had.

When you are too focused on all the things you think you “should” do or “should” become, you miss out on finding what truly fulfills you.

Instead of frantically searching for purpose, what if you can find purpose in where you currently are? What skills do you already possess that you’re passionate about? What are you already qualified for? What would you do with your life if you believed that who you are right now is already enough?

Believing you are worthy without all the extra stuff like degrees, awards, resume lines, or job titles is the only way to move forward. This is a radical idea in our culture but, more importantly, it is our antidote to perfectionism.

Why I Left My Ph.D. to Rediscover My Creative Calling

When the coronavirus pandemic began, this new way of life required all of us to adapt. One thing the transition did for me was strip away all the distractions I used to avoid acknowledging my own unhappiness as a doctoral student in psychology. With most worldly interruptions gone, my focus narrowed on my work with data and research. Even on a good day, I was merely complacent.

Something needed to change, but I was looking for every reason to stay in the program. After all, I had worked my entire life to be exactly in this position. What else would I be doing? But I still wonderedhow do we know if we’re experiencing universal challenges that can be overcome with time or simply a deep disconnect between our purpose and our circumstance?

One day as I was reading Glennon Doyle’s book Untamed, four words on the page jumped out at me:

Be Still and Know.

Something inexplicably powerful came rushing over me. I burst into tears. My mind let go, and my body took over. I ran my fingers along my upper left rib cage, just below my heart, where I have those exact words tattooed in permanent ink. A realization hit me like a ton of bricks: I hadn’t been still. That was the problem. I hadn’t been still in over a year. On the contrary, I had been hurrying, consuming, seeking, researching, and doubting. I was looking for advice in all the wrong places.

At that moment, I sat up and relinquished all control. I surrendered, letting my shoulders fall away from my ears, my lower jaw release its tension, and my eyelids close shut. And what I discovered was that I did know. I had known all along but never stayed still long enough to let the knowing land on me.

My intuition spoke loud and clear: This is not meant to be your path. This is draining your creativity and confidence. It’s forcing you to hold values that you don’t share. It’s stifling your strengths and capitalizing on your weaknesses. It’s forcing you into a box that you were never meant to fit inside. It’s time to go another way.

I began to understand my doubts were never about being intelligent or capable or resourceful enough. It was never about self-efficacy; it was about self-preservation. I knew I could finish the doctoral program. But at what cost? Four more years of misery at worst or apathy at best? That is never a cost we should have to pay. The risks of ignoring what we know to be true are so much higher than the risks of walking away from the career path we’ve built.

Although there was now a deep knowing I needed to change course, the fear that accompanied it ran just as deep. Withdrawing felt scary and risky, while staying felt safe and predictable. So, what do most of us do when faced with a predicament like this? We put off action. We delay the uncomfortable conversations. We avoid the difficult decision because of the uncertain outcome.

Of course, avoiding our problems only backfires. Hiding gives fear more power. When we refuse to act, someone pays the price. Every lie costs someone something. But surrendering control of the outcome does not mean we must surrender control of our choices.

When we make the decision to listen to our intuition and take a risk, we are also choosing to relinquish control. We can’t be free and controlled by fear at the same time. We can’t make the jump while still clinging to the edge. It doesn’t work that way.

When I finally gathered the courage to share my official decision to withdraw from the Ph.D. program, the responses were full of compassion, understanding, and support. I returned to the creative endeavors I previously gave up in pursuit of academic prestige.

In determining your calling or purpose, there are some important questions to ask yourself:

  1. What makes you forget time?
  2. What inspires you to speak, to act, and to listen?
  3. What makes you fall in love and breaks your heart at the same time? What scares you yet excites you?
  4. Perhaps, most importantly, what satisfies your curiosity?

It might take some exploring before you find your answer. But I have a feeling it’s the answer that has always lived inside of you. It doesn’t have to be the thing that pays your bills. It can be what you do outsideof the job that puts food on the table.

The truth is there is no valid step-by-step process on how to easily discover your calling. There is no universal checklist of things that must happen before you can know you’re on the right path. Just like falling in love, the answer is found in a gut feeling.

It will require great risk to pursue, but the strength of your faith will outweigh the fear if you let it. It will bring peace, not confusion. Connection, not isolation. Stillness, not hustle. And just like we might fall in love with a few of the wrong people before we find the right one, we might have to take a few wrong turns on the journey before we take the right one.

After walking away from my dream career in academia, I realized with a renewed clarity that my answer to all those important questions is one word. It’s one word that was stitched into my heart before I even had the capacity to write.

Stories. It doesn’t matter whether I’m reading, writing, or listening to them. Stories breathe new life into me every time. I was designed to tell them. Our lives are stories, unfolding before our eyes every day like the turn of a fresh page. Some chapters we write, some happen to us, some we love, and some we can barely get through. But together they equate to a masterpiece of beauty and destruction, victory and defeat, pain and euphoria. And to write the ending all it takes is the courage to own them all.