Margaret Davis Ghielmetti: “Be kind to your perfectionism”

Be kind to your perfectionism: it’s been trying to keep you safe for a long time — probably since childhood. Be in acceptance of it versus making it wrong: making it wrong will not make it go away. Many successful people are perfectionists. At the same time, they have the ability to say “Done is Better Than Perfect” […]

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Be kind to your perfectionism: it’s been trying to keep you safe for a long time — probably since childhood. Be in acceptance of it versus making it wrong: making it wrong will not make it go away.

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 Margaret Davis Ghielmetti.

Margaret is an author, Moth-winning storyteller, solo performance artist, and photographer. She wrote Brave(ish): A Memoir of a Recovering Perfectionist to inspire readers that it’s never too late to learn to live our own lives — IF we dare to let go of outdated Roles and Rules we thought kept us safe. She also hopes to entertain readers with her adventures (and mis-adventures) as a traveler and an expat living on four continents . . . and to share what each country taught her (that she never would have learned on her own.)

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?

In my memoir, Brave(ish), I reference what I call The Davis Family Handbook, a metaphorical volume — inherited from my (strict but loving) parents — which dictated many of the life choices I made for decades. Some of the Handbook Rules were, “If you want it done right, do it yourself,” “Don’t air your dirty laundry in public,” and “Always put others first.” All good in moderation, but harmful in excess (and catnip to perfectionism.) Once I realized I was living bound to Rules which had compelled me to take on Roles that I no longer wanted, I revised The Handbook to reflect a more expansive and awake adult me.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

So many quotes I love! But one that’s taped to my laptop is, “A ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.” That informed my saying yes to the world — living as an expatriate on four continents, and visiting nearly fifty countries. It wasn’t always easy, but it was never boring, and I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

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?

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain allowed me to realize, “Hey! I’m not alone” as a (very social) introvert. It freed me to be more genuinely me: someone who loves people but needs to retreat alone to re-charge. Acknowledging that allows me to not squander my energy trying to be something or someone I’m not. It inspires me to lead and to Just Do It — in my own way.

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?

As a creative person, I live by Three Cs:

Commitment: once I get committed, I am very determined. I decided to write my memoir in one year and to publish it when I was still “only” sixty,” and I did it — with a lot of “butt in chair” and grit.

Contribution: my “come from” as an artist is to entertain my audience, and also to be of service. At the conclusion of a story that I told at The Moth, a woman from the audience approached to thank me. I’d shared about my infertility; she was trying to get pregnant. And — until that evening — she’d felt unheard. She said that I’d told her story and that it had helped her to feel heard, seen, and understood. I thought I would burst with happiness: my work had made a difference.

Curiosity: once I reclaimed my creative expression in mid-life, I was eager to try different outlets: improv at Second City, “live lit” storytelling with The Moth, solo show, Memoir in a Year, and — now — personal essays and coaching others to tell their stories. Each of these helps me to Connect (the most important C of all!)

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?

For me, perfectionism means zero tolerance for gray areas — in myself. I don’t mind if others fall short, but — for me — it’s: get it perfect or go home. Even though I’ve done a lot of personal growth work around this, I still can feel like a failure if I do something “only” 99% well.

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?

I’m very grateful for my perfectionism when it comes to my integrity: I work hard to make my actions match my intentions. I’m also grateful that I didn’t let anything fall through the cracks in caring for my parents at the ends of their lives.

What are the negative aspects of being a perfectionist? Can you give a story or example to explain what you mean?

I spend far more time on re-work than non-perfectionists even consider doing! My husband gently reminded of this when my book was written and nearing publication: I got engrossed in proofreading the manuscript (again!) even knowing that my publisher would be paying for a professional proofreader. There is always a part of me that wants to earn an A+, even when grades aren’t being handed out.

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?

Fear is what I recognize in many perfectionists. Fear that if we’re not perfect, we won’t be lovable or acceptable (or whatever our “old story” would have us believe.)

I recognize these very old defense mechanisms (a shout out here to wise guides and therapists!) as I struggle to live my best (imperfect) life.

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.

My book’s title is Brave(ish): A Memoir of a Recovering Perfectionist, so I’m a work in progress here. But this is what works for me:

  1. Be kind to your perfectionism: it’s been trying to keep you safe for a long time — probably since childhood. Be in acceptance of it versus making it wrong: making it wrong will not make it go away. When I was writing my book, and I’d actually feel my perfectionism creeping up to sit next to me at my laptop, I’d say as gently as I could, “Hey, thanks for stopping by. I know you want the best for me, but why not go get a relaxing herbal tea — on me! You take a break, and I’ll be here doing my thing the best I can.”
  2. Ask yourself what’s the worst thing that could happen if you don’t do something perfectly. Then “play that tape” all the way to the end. When my husband and I lived overseas, and friends visited us in every exotic locale, I believed that the world would end if I didn’t provide the perfect guest experience. But, in fact, even if folks didn’t see dolphins when snorkeling in the Red Sea, or the Tuscan gelateria was out of whatever fantastico ice cream flavor I’d promised, or even if I forgot to pack bug spray for the jungles of Northern Thailand . . . our guests may have been disappointed or frustrated for a moment, but they got over it. They forgave me. No one died. And the world kept on spinning.
  3. Remind yourself of WHY you’re committed to something, then let your higher self and your purpose buoy you up and pull you forward, past your fear. A quote I love is, “Courage is fear that has said its prayers.” This applies to letting go of perfectionism, too: it takes courage. My WHY as an artist is to entertain and to offer inspiration, hope, and the knowledge that we are not alone. During my solo show, “Fierce,” about growing up with my mom, I forgot a few lines. Lines that I had written and I had rehearsed — a lot. I thought this was unacceptably imperfect. But — after the curtain dropped — an audience member approached me to say that my show had moved him to Just Do It in re-connecting with his mom. My WHY is not to offer a mistake-free experience, but — rather — to connect.
  4. Know that everything is a choice. That knowledge removes a lot of excuses for me. In preparing for this video, I asked myself was I really going to allow my perfectionism to convince me that I needed to fuss over my thousandth revision until I got it 100% perfect? Or would I choose to believe that what I was offering was — in fact (I hoped) — “good enough” . . . and then choose to send it out into the world? 99% versus 100 % is a choice.
  5. Lastly, as much as I think we should be kind to our perfectionism, we also gotta be kind to ourselves. Imagine what you would say to someone you love if they were to fall short of perfection. Then apply that gentle standard to yourself. None of us is perfect. We’re not meant to be perfect. We’re human. So be nice. Be you. Share your gifts. Just Do It.

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?

Be YOU. Share YOUR gifts. Tell YOUR story.

I believe we could all benefit from knowing one another better. Really better.

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!

Ooh, the fantasy lunch party! Please invite Brene Brown (she’s freed so many people to be themselves, including me.)

If you can book a bigger table, please include Simon Sinek, whose Start With Why is pure inspiration.

Also Cheryl Strayed and Elizabeth Gilbert: Wild and Eat, Pray, Love so inspired my own memoir blending literal and spiritual journeys. Not to mention that Cheryl’s book, Brave Enough, delights my book, Brave(ish)!

How can our readers follow you online?

Margaret Ghielmetti (LinkedIn and Facebook)

MargaretGhielm1 (Twitter)

margaretghielmetti (Instagram)

Author of Brave(ish): A Memoir of a Recovering Perfectionist

(She Writes Press, September 15, 2020.)

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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