An Action Plan for Staying Ahead of Perfectionism

On a Friday afternoon I packed my Honda Element with everything I needed to eat, sleep, climb, and make art in the desert. A camp kitchen, food, four gallons of water. Climbing shoes, crash pads, sunscreen. Paints, pens, an empty sketchbook.

While rolling on an empty stretch of highway from Colorado to New Mexico, I began recounting my last two trips to this climbing destination, both less than positive experiences. On these trips I became engulfed by feelings of frustration. I developed obsession with certain climbs I couldn't finish. And both times I nearly injured myself from refusing to let. go. of what wasn't working.

And the kicker -- it was all in my head. Aren't we humans so strange sometimes?

This isn't just about climbing. I believe how we react in one moment often applies to other areas in our lives. I can be a perfectionist when it comes to climbing, but I can also be a perfectionist when it comes to business. And art. And almost everything.

As I turned onto a nameless dirt road at nearly midnight, I decided this trip would be different. And I didn't just hope for the best -- I made an action plan on how to handle my thoughts and emotions. And I've gotta say, it worked! I finally went to the desert and didn't cry. This is big.

I want to first say, if you identify with perfectionism even a little bit, it's OKAY.

It's okay to be frustrated. It's okay that your emotions get the better of you sometimes. This doesn't make you a bad person; it doesn't make you less. Everyone has their stuff. Okay? Everyone. You are a completely whole, beautiful human who's worthy of all the love and happiness, even if you get competitive and have negative self-talk in your head that won't shut up sometimes.

You're probably either nodding your head and totally relating, or this is all complete gibberish. If you deal with perfectionism (and who doesn't in this highlight-reel digital age?) I hope these steps might help you get ahead of it next time it decides to pay a visit.

  1. Set a non-results-based intention before the event. If you get frustrated and down on yourself every time you put a paintbrush to a blank canvas, or if, like me, you easily lose your head to frustrations when you can't accomplish a goal, get ahead of it. BEFORE you go into the situation, prep yourself for what's about to happen, and set an intention for the event. Instead of going in with the goal to paint a specific scene or subject, maybe your goal could be to play with a new style or color simply to see how it feels. Shift your goal from the final product to the process.
  2. Ask friends to hold you accountable. Tell a friend what your new intention is for the event. Ask them to be there for you if you need to go for a walk to tak a deep breath or jump on the phone for a quick laugh. Ask her to help remind you of what your clear-minded self wanted out of this experience.
  3. Stay emotionally aware throughout. Check in with yourself regularly. You can even set a timer on your phone for every half hour. When it goes off, take note of any potential triggers, take a deep breath, and recenter.
  4. Find your triggers and work with them. One of my biggest climbing triggers is when I am still working on a climb that everyone else in my group has completed. In that moment I find it SO easy to get down. When I find myself in that situation, instead of feeling self-conscious or envious, I ask a friend for their help. "What do you think I could do differently?" "Would you be able to watch my footwork here to see if it could improve?" I also set a try-limit for myself. I am going to give this three more tries, and then wrap it up, whether I finish the climb or not. 
  5. Walk away. When you find yourself slipping into that state (which might happen sometimes despite all your best intentions), put your hands up and walk away. It's simply not worth it. You can always come back and try again.
  6. Try to see the bigger picture and focus on something else. Hardly anything is THAT important that you must be flawless. Put your attention on something totally different. When I'm knee-deep in perfectionism, I have tunnel vision, and once I'm there, I can't get out unless I totally change my focus.

Although this was a very specific example of a situation when I dealt with perfectionism, I see how this approach could work for art, relationships, business, and more. I hope you find some solace and motivation in it, and remember, you are not alone. It will take time and practice (a key point for a perfectionist to remember when attempting to beat perfectionism). ;)

I'd love to hear how you deal with perfectionism. If you have any go-to methods for beating it, please feel free to comment!

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