Letting go of perfectionism and welcoming mistakes doesn’t mean that you need to lower your standards. Research shows that having high standards is not necessarily problematic, but intensively self-scrutinizing and worrying about your own mistakes and others’ judgment can be extremely costly. If you notice that you are spending so much time worrying about mistakes or over-analyzing your work (or body or parenting skills…) that you aren’t taking risks or are procrastinating on tasks, dreams, or goals, it may be time to focus on the “good enough” rather than the perfect. Remember, change and greatness don’t come from playing it safe and small. If you try to structure your life in a way that avoids or minimizes mistakes, you may stay in your comfort zone but you’ll be destined for sameness rather than change.
Many successful people are perfectionists. At the same time, they have the ability to say “Done is Better Than Perfect” and just complete and wrap up a project. What is the best way to overcome the stalling and procrastination that perfectionism causes? How does one overcome the fear of potential critique or the fear of not being successful? In this interview series, called How To Get Past Your Perfectionism And ‘Just Do It’, we are interviewing successful leaders who can share stories and lessons from their experience about “how to overcome the hesitation caused by perfectionism.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Melissa Ming Foynes.
Dr. Foynes (https://melissafoynes.com) is a licensed psychologist, holistic coach, international educator & consultant, as well as a trauma-informed mindfulness, meditation and yoga teacher. She owns two businesses: 1) an online holistic coaching business that integrates evidence-based tools from different schools of psychology with wisdom from complementary and alternative medicine and 2) a therapy practice specializing in trauma, grief, and loss. In addition to her advanced training in various Eastern and Western healing modalities, she received her PhD from the University of Oregon, completed fellowships at Yale University School of Medicine and the National Center for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, has held academic appointments at the medical schools of Boston University and Harvard, and has contributed to the enhancement of programs and practices in various healthcare organizations through several national-level positions.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I grew up in the Boston area in a working-class family, which instilled in me at a very young age the importance of a strong work ethic. In addition to a focus on hard work, I also developed a desire to be financially independent and emotionally self-sufficient. As a highly empathic and emotionally sensitive person growing up in a high-stress environment, some of my earliest memories center around feeling the weight of the suffering in the world in a deep way. It always brought me great joy to serve others and it helped counteract some of the sadness I felt in witnessing others’ suffering to feel as though I was one of the forces in the world contributing to alleviating pain. To be successful, I had to learn how to personally cultivate resilience in the face of life stressors, tame my driven, perfectionist, and self-critical tendencies, and balance my care for others with care for myself.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Dr. James Hollis once said: “Ask yourself of every dilemma, every choice, every relationship, every commitment, or every failure to commit, ‘Does this choice diminish me, or enlarge me?’ Do not ask this question if you are afraid to find the answer. You might be afraid of what your own soul will require of you, but at least you then know your marching orders.”
I love Dr. Hollis’ words because they speak to the human experience of fear, and how so often we are understandably ruled by fear and allow it to dictate our decisions and behaviors. In other words, we choose the path that keeps us small — the one that feels safer, more known, and less risky in order to avoid feeling afraid and preserve our egos, even if that means giving up on what we truly want and need, staying in jobs or relationships that no longer serve us, and feeling out of alignment with ourselves and our soul’s calling. On some level, some part of us knows that we are capable and deserving of so much more, yet we settle even when it comes at great cost to us mentally, physically, and spiritually.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
In Sebene Selassie’s book “You Belong” she talks about the concept of “self-love” and what it truly means to love ourselves. So often the word “self-love” gets tossed around without us truly understanding what it means to love ourselves or how to work toward enhancing our ability to love ourselves. Many people are guided by the misconception that loving ourselves requires us to be inauthentic — to pretend we love something about ourselves that we don’t — or to focus on celebrating ourselves in a way that is necessarily loud and bold. On the contrary, true self-love involves an authentic acknowledgement of ALL parts of us, including the parts of us that are hard to love. Also, self-love can be a practice that we quietly engage in without anyone else knowing.
Sebene talks about how loving ourselves doesn’t mean simply tolerating ourselves or the parts of ourselves that we don’t like, it involves affirming and caring for the whole of who we are, including and especially through the moments in which we make choices or engage in actions that bring about shame or pain. It’s not about condoning our own harmful behavior or recusing responsibility, nor is it about stating empty platitudes about ourselves that we don’t believe in. It’s about finding a way to appreciate our intrinsic value and worth, even with our mistakes and missteps.
I find her writings about self-love to be so powerful because like so many people, my early life experiences led me to internalize the belief that I wasn’t lovable along with a tendency toward an inner harshness and self-critical attitude when I made mistakes. It took me many decades to undo this conditioning, to realize my inherent worth, and to understand what it truly means to love myself in a way that helps me cultivate resilience in the face of setbacks and failures. When we are able to truly love ourselves, we don’t have anything to hide or prove, which helps us non-defensively receive constructive feedback from others and examine it in a way that helps us grow. We are also more able to withstand rejection, judgment, and criticism from others without our self-worth eroding in the process. It hurts, but it doesn’t destroy us. With true self-love, we recognize that our actions are a part of us, but they do not define the core of who we are, which also helps us recognize the true imperfections of being human.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Perseverance. I truly believe in the value of ongoing dedication and commitment to one’s goals. Oftentimes it is through our mistakes and failures that we become clearer about what we want and how we can grow and improve. When we give up, we buy into the idea (whether it’s ours or someone else’s) that we’re not good enough, that we don’t have what it takes to be successful. Perseverance is an act of trust and faith in ourselves, an envisioning of what is possible beyond the confines of our immediate circumstances, as well as a commitment to continuing to learn and do what is needed to create the life we want. Justin Michael Williams once said, “Both fear and faith require you to do one thing: to believe in something that you can’t see and that hasn’t happened yet.” Essentially, the same skills that help you listen and follow fear, can be channeled into listening to and following faith and trust instead. So, if we’re going to believe in one anyway, why not choose faith rather than fear? For me, perseverance involves not presuming that failures or setbacks are a sign to give up, or that I am on the right track. When I have failed at something, or it doesn’t work out how I had hoped or wanted, I often remind myself that these obstacles are often a part of the path, and that forging a new path in business and in life necessarily means occasional failure. I connect with the deeper reasons I am engaging in these pursuits to help me stay motivated in the face of difficulty.
Vulnerability. Taking steps toward our goals and trying to make changes in ourselves and the world around us is always a risk, because we can’t predict the outcome and no one can guarantee our efforts will feel worthwhile. Taking risks and consistently showing up in life and business requires a willingness to be vulnerable — when we express what we truly want and take steps toward our goals, we risk being ignored, criticized, or feeling disappointed in ourselves. But when we are not willing to be vulnerable, we end up living restricted, narrow lives and deprive ourselves of the color and richness of human experience. The reality is that we don’t get to selectively choose which emotions we experience in life — so if we limit the fear by refusing to be vulnerable and to step outside our comfort zone, we also limit our joy. I think a willingness to be vulnerable also helps us to prioritize process over outcome; when we are able to fall in love with what we are doing and enjoy it as is, it stings less when something doesn’t work out and our pride in ourselves and joy in what we are doing doesn’t rise and fall in accordance with the feedback that we are and aren’t getting from the outside world.
Self-compassion. As imperfect beings, we all make mistakes and hurt others. How we treat ourselves in response to those mistakes helps us recover and make different choices the next time. For example, if we are so caught in self-blame and self-hatred that we end up losing our zest for life, withdrawing from relationships, and giving up on our dreams, that doesn’t serve us or the world around us. However, if we are able to have a sense of compassionate understanding for WHY we might have made that mistake, that not only helps us hold ourselves accountable for those actions, but also helps guide us toward how to repair the harm we’ve caused and work on changing such that we reduce the likelihood that a similar mistake happens in the future. It’s a growth-oriented mindset that helps us recognize our shared humanity in a way that cultivates resilience, enhances motivation and well-being, and propels us toward action. It also helps us have more empathy for others in a way that builds intimacy and connection rather than fosters separation and conflict.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Let’s begin with a definition of terms so that each of us and our readers are on the same page. What exactly is a perfectionist? Can you explain?
While there is some controversy in the field of psychology about how best to both define and measure perfectionism, several decades of research have resulted in general consensus that perfectionism is a complex, multidimensional concept that involves both personal and interpersonal traits. Based on some frameworks that emerged in the early 1990s and have been researched and refined since then, perfectionism involves the tendency to set excessively high goals, accompanied by overly critical evaluations that involve concern over mistakes and doubts about actions.
Typically, perfectionism is thought of as having 3 key dimensions: self-oriented perfectionism (i.e., requiring perfection of the self), other-oriented perfectionism (i.e., requiring perfection of other people), and socially prescribed perfectionism (i.e., belief that others require perfection of the self).
In defining what perfectionism is, I think it’s also important to clarify what perfectionism is not. Perfectionism is different from conscientiousness, self-discipline, organization, and achievement. Perfectionism involves a certain kind of rigidity in which perfection of oneself and/or others is not only expected, but demanded, so much so that the need for perfection and concern with being and/or appearing perfect can be so compulsive that imperfection is not tolerated.
The premise of this interview series is making the assumption that being a perfectionist is not a positive thing. But presumably, seeking perfection can’t be entirely bad. What are the positive aspects of being a perfectionist? Can you give a story or example to explain what you mean?
Research shows that different aspects of perfectionism can have negative, positive, or neutral effects, depending on the circumstances. Two of the most commonly studied features of perfectionism include perfectionistic strivings (e.g., more of a self-oriented striving for perfectionism which involves setting and pursuing exceedingly high self-standards) and perfectionistic concerns (e.g., concern about mistakes, which can include intense self-scrutiny and preoccupation regarding the judgments’ of others, feelings of dissonance between one’s expectations and actual performance, and negative reactions to imperfection).
In general, research shows that perfectionistic strivings (e.g., high self-standards) tend to be associated with more positive outcomes than perfectionistic concerns (e.g., worry about mistakes, self-scrutiny, preoccupation with being judged by others in response to imperfection). For example, research shows that perfectionistic strivings can promote academic achievement, athletic performance, and problem-solving skills; however, they can also increase anxiety, stress, and workaholism. Perfectionistic concerns, on the other hand, tend to be associated mostly with negative outcomes like low self-esteem, mental health problems including eating disorders, and academic burnout.
This research highlights that setting and pursuing high standards for oneself (e.g. perfectionistic strivings) are the aspects of perfectionism that have the potential to be the most helpful, whereas intense levels of self-scrutiny, worry about how others will judge you, and high levels of distress when you are not perfect (e.g., perfectionistic concerns), are the aspects of perfectionism that are the most problematic. For example, holding yourself to a high standard can help motivate you to move forward toward your goals, commit to the quality of your work, uphold values of integrity and hard work, and help you find pride in your work.
However, if you are so focused on the quality of your work and over-analyzing it that you end up getting stuck in the process and not completing projects (e.g., high self-scrutiny), or you are so worried about what other people will think of you that you don’t take risks or have a hard time soliciting and integrating constructive feedback (e.g., perfectionistic concerns), you will miss out on the opportunity to make progress toward your goals and to grow as a person and improve whatever you are offering to the world professionally. Ultimately, being guided by high standards in a way that you wholeheartedly believe in and is consistent with your values is helpful; however, this pursuit of greatness also needs to be balanced with the recognition that anything you do will inevitably be flawed. Without this acceptance, you may become so driven by self-criticism and fear of negative feedback that you won’t share your offerings with the world.
Oftentimes it is through mistakes and feedback that we get clearer about our vision and what matters to us most, as well as how to change something to make it even better. There are numerous examples in the business world of people who released a product that flopped, and how that failure ultimately gave them important insights that led them to develop something even greater and wildly more successful.
What are the negative aspects of being a perfectionist? Can you give a story or example to explain what you mean?
As stated above, the aspects of perfectionism that tend to be the most harmful are intense self-scrutiny, preoccupation with how others will judge you, and high levels of distress when you are not perfect. These characteristics can lead to anxiety and low self-esteem, procrastination, incomplete projects, stuckness, resistance to asking for and receiving constructive feedback, risk aversion, and lost opportunities. In essence, these types of perfectionistic tendencies may help you maintain a false sense of control and security over the outcome of your work and how it will be perceived, often at the expense of not achieving your goals as fully as you could and missing out on the growth and transformation that comes from true risk-taking and vulnerability. It can also lead you to not enjoy the process of creation and creativity, and cause you to tie your worth to external measures like the end result of your work. When we can separate our identity and true value from what we produce and how the fruits of our labor lands with others, we can arrive at a more stable sense of self because we are more deeply connected with our intrinsic, inherent, worth, which is not defined by the results of our actions.
From your experience or perspective, what are some of the common reasons that cause a perfectionist to “get stuck” and not move forward? Can you explain?
As I mentioned above, I think one of the biggest barriers is fear — fear of not being perfect (and assumptions about what it means, or what might happen, when we reveal our imperfections). There are often many layers and layers to these fears; for example, the fear of not being perfect is often associated with fears of being judged or criticized, not being well-liked, or losing out on opportunities due to imperfections. These fears then drive us to make negative predictions about what will happen if we are judged, other people don’t like us, or we miss out on an opportunity. Will we feel shame that is too difficult to bear? Will it destroy our self-esteem? Will we have a hard time showing up at work the next day? How will we continue in a relationship following intense criticism or feedback? Oftentimes these “what if“ questions lead to catastrophic worst case scenarios that convince us to keep trying to be perfect in an effort to avoid these hypothetical negative consequences.
Another problem with fear is that the more you hide, the less practice you get with vulnerability and putting yourself and your work out there imperfectly. The inevitable criticism you will receive also becomes harder to tolerate. I still remember the first few times I pitched myself as a guest on other people’s podcasts. It was really terrifying and each rejection did hurt, but I soon realized that it was really the meaning I was attributing to the rejections that was causing the suffering, rather than the rejections themselves. When I stopped interpreting the rejections as a reflection of my value or ability to be successful, I was able to step back and see them more clearly for what they were — a lack of fit or poor timing. As my mindset shifted, the rejection truly did hurt less. In many ways, we can habituate to rejection and criticism; you can learn to take it less personally and become more discerning of what feedback is helpful and what isn’t. You can look for the kernels of wisdom, and leave the rest.
Here is the central question of our discussion. What are the five things a perfectionist needs to know to get past their perfectionism and “just do it?” Please share a story or example for each.
1. Identify all of the ways in which striving for perfectionism hurts you in different domains of your life (e.g., body image, emotional, physical, spiritual, sexual health & well-being, relationships, professional life, parenting), to help build your personal motivation for letting go of perfectionism. For example, striving for perfectionism often depletes you physically and mentally, creates a kind of self-focus that can be isolating and impair relationships with others, fuels avoidance (e.g., if you’re focusing on being perfect, you don’t have to sit with the anxiety associated with taking risks or putting yourself out there), takes you out of the present moment (e.g., you’re focused so much on the future outcome that your missing out on the richness and beauty of what may be happening right now), and derails you from what matters to you most (e.g., you procrastinate on dreams and important goals, the energy you dedicate to perfectionism takes away from energy you could channel into spending time with people you love or engaging in nourishing self-care habits, setting healthy boundaries, or taking a step back to look at the larger picture). Once you have a list of the reasons WHY perfectionism isn’t good for you personally, you can circle back to this list whenever you need reminders that have a deeper resonance and strike a personal chord.
2. Consistent practice can help break even the most ingrained perfectionistic tendencies. The more you allow yourself to show up in imperfect ways, the more you will enhance your ability to tolerate imperfection and recover from moments of imperfection. Start in low-stakes scenarios and work your way up to more anxiety-provoking ones. Sometimes we underestimate our ability to cope with imperfection and other people’s reactions to our imperfections. In addition, the consequences of imperfection that we imagine in our minds tend to be much worse than what they end up being in reality. It is only through practicing imperfection that we enhance not only our ability to cope with imperfection but also our confidence in our ability to survive it. The more risks you take, the more ease you will find in taking risks. The more you open yourself up to feedback from others, the more you will enhance your skills in gracefully receiving that feedback without feeling destroyed by it, even when it hurts. Purposefully practicing imperfection works.
3. Part of counteracting perfectionism involves leaning into and learning from your inevitable mistakes. Mistakes are an important part of how we learn, grow, and improve but only when we tune IN, rather than tune OUT. Research shows that if we ignore, cover-up, or avoid thinking about our failures (which can happen if we are overly attached to perfectionism), we actually won’t learn that much from failure. If you’re going to fail at some point anyway, it might as well be a growth opportunity. So, be willing to get up close and personal with your failures and mistakes so that you can be guided by their wisdom. Consider that imperfection also brings us together and enhances intimacy in relationships. Do you really want a friend or partner who is perfect? Are your greatest role models and sources of inspiration people who were perfect and seemingly never met the sting of failure or imperfection? Think about it. It’s often through the sharing of our struggles that we can relate to one another on a deeper level and more powerfully encourage and inspire one another.
4. Boosting your skills in self-compassion and self-forgiveness will help you let go of perfectionism. It’s not a matter of whether you will make a mistake, but rather a matter of when, and how you respond to yourself in those moments of imperfection is critical. Imperfection is a part of being human. Even if you understand this fact on an intellectual level, when you are expecting yourself to be perfect, striving for perfection, and being harsh with yourself when you fall short of perfection, you aren’t fully accepting the reality that perfectionism is unattainable. In doing so, you’re actually setting yourself up for failure and a lot of lost time. Self-criticism and self-flagellation in response to mistakes keeps us stuck and steers us away from engaging in activities that bring us joy and a sense of meaning. If you instead accept imperfection as a part of the human condition and EXPECT mistakes, you will be more prepared when they occur, and can often respond to yourself with increased compassion and understanding as a result. This stance of self-kindness can then allow you to forgive yourself for what happened and move forward with new insights, learning and a commitment to change.
5. Letting go of perfectionism and welcoming mistakes doesn’t mean that you need to lower your standards. Research shows that having high standards is not necessarily problematic, but intensively self-scrutinizing and worrying about your own mistakes and others’ judgment can be extremely costly. If you notice that you are spending so much time worrying about mistakes or over-analyzing your work (or body or parenting skills…) that you aren’t taking risks or are procrastinating on tasks, dreams, or goals, it may be time to focus on the “good enough” rather than the perfect. Remember, change and greatness don’t come from playing it safe and small. If you try to structure your life in a way that avoids or minimizes mistakes, you may stay in your comfort zone but you’ll be destined for sameness rather than change. When you become too focused on attaining an unattainable standard of perfection, you limit your possibilities and deprive yourself of the success and fulfillment that is actually within your reach. Safety can be seductive, but it often leaves us feeling empty, misaligned, and regretful.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I would love to see a movement of self-compassion — an enhanced ability for all of us to be kinder and more understanding when we make mistakes. So many people get caught in perpetual cycles of self-blame and self-hatred, often taking on what isn’t theirs to own, staying miserable and unable to forgive themselves. As I’ve said previously, self-compassion isn’t about deflecting responsibility, but rather about holding ourselves accountable with the same level of tenderness that we might offer a small child or loved one. We’d still expect that child or loved one to repair and work on making a different choice or doing something differently in the future, but we’d also meet them with a sense of humanity and understanding for their actions, even when we don’t agree with or approve of them.
When we do the same for ourselves, we act as an inner ally rather than an inner enemy. This stance motivates us through support and encouragement rather than fear and shame. Increased self-compassion is also linked to reductions in burnout, depression, anxiety and shame, and increased happiness and life satisfaction. Research shows that self-compassion has three components: 1) mindfulness (e.g., acknowledging that you’re hurt or that you’re suffering); 2) common humanity (e.g., recognizing how your experience right now is part of being human and is similar to what others have gone through in the past, even with different circumstances); 3) self-kindness (e.g., showing yourself some kind of nurturance or support through a compassionate statement, physical gesture, image, or action).
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
Michelle Obama! It’s hard for me to sum up in a few sentences all that I love about Michelle, but one of her ways of being that really inspires me is her ability to maintain a connection to her inherent worth and to live her life in accordance with her values, even in the face of significant discrimination and other people’s doubts and skepticism. She lives a life of service, which I deeply admire, and has such humility about her accomplishments, while also celebrating her successes. One of my favorite stories about Michelle is how after the birth of one of her children she went to her employer asking for everything that she wanted that would allow her to have work-life balance and feel fulfilled as both a mother and professional, expecting that they wouldn’t agree…and to her dismay, they completely obliged. To me that story emphasizes the importance of knowing what you want so that you can go after it, and how taking risks from an empowered place often results in people actually seeing your worth more clearly and meeting your needs more closely. The extent to which you value yourself often shapes how others value you. Tapping into that inner wisdom about what we truly want and need, and not being afraid to ask for it, also helps us persevere even when we don’t get what we want. Once we stand in our truth about what we want, we can more clearly communicate our own boundaries and prune out what doesn’t serve us.
How can our readers follow you online?
Free 4-part video building resilience series: https://melissafoynes.com/free-series
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Thank you! It was an honor and pleasure to be interviewed for this important publication. Thank you for all you do to disseminate high-quality information about timely topics.