Perfectionism is harmful. Brain research shows that at birth, the brain is wired to track success and discard failure. But a perfectionist focuses exclusively on failure (you didn’t do it right, you idiot) so we never learn, and continue to create and do exactly what we don’t want to.
W. Timothy Gallwey, author of The Inner Game of Work, notes that we can change any habit if we “take off our judgmental glasses” and simply increase our awareness of what we are doing. Awareness without self-judgment, he claims, creates change all by itself, because the brain is a self-correcting mechanism. The more we bring notice to ourselves, the more the behavior will disappear. For instance: oh there I go again, being so worried about doing it right, that I’m not doing anything at all. It’s as if we were a newspaper reporter, objectively stating the facts. The trick is to do it without beating ourselves up.
Think of it this way—when a baby taking her first steps falls down, she doesn’t say to herself: stupid baby, you just fell over. Rather, she just picks herself up, incorporates the learning, and tries again. That’s why she learns so quickly.
We need to begin to get ourselves off the perfectionist meat hook. This starts by understanding that when we treat ourselves to the same encouraging manner we use with a child learning algebra, or a new sport, we actually increase our capacity to do things well.
That’s how my friend Allison broke free. One day, she heard her five-year-old daughter say, “I can’t do anything right,” after failing to separate an egg properly. Allison said, “I heard myself, and I knew history would repeat itself unless something changed. I took her in my arms, dried her tears, and urged her to try, try, again.” After that incident, she began telling her daughter, “Oh well, mistakes happen.” Soon she was saying it to herself as well.