4 Ways to Recover From Perfectionism for Overachieving Mistake-Haters

4 Ways to Recover From Perfectionism for Overachieving Mistake-Haters


I don’t like to make mistakes. To be clear, I hate making mistakes.

I hate making mistakes so much that I’ve spent the last five years teaching Radical Candor, the training company based on the best-selling book by Kim Scott. I’ve taught tens of thousands of people from around the world – CEOs to individual contributors and everything in between – how to get and give kind and clear feedback.

By feedback, I mean both praise and criticism.

And by criticism I mean those things we could do better…what we often call, mistakes.

I am someone who needs to teach people to actually force myself to do the things that mean the most to me. Of course I also want to help people!

But I’ve also found that teaching something is a great way to hold myself accountable. It’s why I teach mindfulness and breathwork meditation, and why I’m in my second year of a Qi Gong teacher training program.

And so, while I hate making mistakes – but know that learning from mistakes is how we grow – I teach people how to ask for and receive criticism, and how to provide feedback that actually builds more trusting relationships.

In our Radical Candor workshops, I share lots of stories about mistakes I’ve made. For example, the time I thought I was the GOAT (greatest of all time) when it came to marketing and communications. I was a new manager, recently graduated from Harvard Business School. My ego was as well-fed as the plump squirrels on the perfectly-manicured HBS campus.

"Squirrels of Harvard University (mostly Harvard Business School)" by Corey Seeman

My team had just launched a new website. After a meeting where I updated the CEO and CFO on our progress, my boss checked in to see how I thought it went. “It was great!” I declared triumphantly.

After congratulating me on the website launch, the conversation went in an unexpected direction. I learned that I was so busy focusing on the “important” people in the meeting (the CEO and CFO), that I totally ignored my team.

Turns out they were really pissed at me and I had no idea.

This is just one of a host of stories I’ve shared over the years about mistakes I’ve made. On top of all those stories, and constantly asking for feedback after workshops, you’d think I might relish making mistakes a bit more.

Alas, while the sting doesn’t last as long as it used to, the initial “gut punch” is still there.

This should not be breaking news. In my first grade report card, my beloved teacher noted that I was very (two underlines!) sensitive to criticism. Also very competitive.

Notes from my first grade teacher re: my sensitivity and competitiveness.

From an early age I didn’t like getting criticism. Now, I’m spending my days teaching it.

What is it about getting criticism that’s so difficult?

Having asked thousands of workshop participants this question, I’ve found a few key buckets of responses:

  • How the feedback is provided: it needs to be specific, clear and about someone’s work product or behavior, rather than about our personality.
  • A relationship based on caring personally: we need to trust and/or respect the person who’s providing us with the feedback; to feel like they are sharing this with us to help us grow.
  • Readiness: Sometimes people might be pressed for time or not ready to hear it.

And then there’s the one that especially resonates with me, which is that we feel embarrassed and/or defensive when we receive feedback. I believe what’s happening here is that feedback is hitting the third rail where our personal identity and self-worth reside.

So even if the feedback is provided in a way that’s specific, sincere and about our work product or behavior, we still might not hear it that way.

Someone might say: “This email needs to be shorter” … and I hear “you’re a terrible person.” Or, “this paragraph is not clear” and I interpret that as “you have no idea what you’re talking about.”

I’m not alone. I like to ask attendees of our workshops how many people are like me and hate to make mistakes.

There’s always lots of hands.

Then I invite the audience into my ever-expanding, currently imaginary Recovering Perfectionist club.

I get a bunch of hands there, too.

What do I mean by perfectionism? It’s the idea that even the slightest mistake we make sets off a cascade of yes/no dominos which land in a final pile that screams to us, “You’re a piece of crap.”

How one mistake leads us to feeling like crap about ourselves.

If you’re looking for an actual definition, a perfectionist is someone with "excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations,” and according to the meta-analysis from that study, perfectionism is increasing over time (from 1989-2016.)

After decades of “work” on myself; thousands of hours (not to mention $) of personal development workshops, meditation retreats and “shelf-help books” (the ones that help your shelf more than you); and teaching mindfulness and emotional intelligence for ten years, I’ve discovered an essential truth for those of us who struggle with perfectionism.

Spoiler alert: going to Harvard twice doesn’t fix it. (I tried.)

There’s a part of you that doesn’t feel like enough.

There’s a part of you that feels like you need to be perfect to be enough.

A part that believes that for you to be loved, you need to be perfect.

So the root cause of why it’s hard for me to receive criticism or make mistakes comes down to simple (mistaken) math:

1 mistake (action) = 1 unlovable piece of crap (identity)

But wait, there’s more! Not only does making that mistake mean that you see yourself as unlovable, along the way you take a bullet train to Shouldsville.
I should be perfect.

I should be able to do this perfectly.

I should never make mistakes.

That trip to Shouldsville turns out to be The Shame Train.

It’s no wonder The Shame Train has so many riders, especially those of us with perfectionist tendencies. We got lots of rewards for our external achievements. Society showed us that our worth was based on our output. On how many straight As we got, our job title, the number of likes our vacation photos got on Instagram.

We’ve been trained to see ourselves not from a place of internal “enoughness,” but on how well we fit into what the world tells us success “looks” like.

This means that we have a choice:

Option 1: We stop doing things because we’re afraid of messing up. So we feel like crap because we’re not doing what we really want.

Option 2: We do do things, but because they’re not perfect we feel like crap about ourselves.

It’s a double bind, or what I like to call, The Crap Trap.

Feel like crap if you do, feel like crap if you don’t.

So while I haven’t actually started my Recovering Perfectionist club, I just might…when I figure out how to make it perfect.

In the meantime, here’s Option 3: Breaking Free of The Crap Trap aka 4 Tips on How to Recover From Perfectionism for Overachieving Mistake-Haters.

1. Accept that some part of you will always want to be perfect.

This is great! You have a strong desire to push yourself. To be the best you possible. Congratulations! You’re amazing!

I’m swinging from the chandeliers for you!

And oh how I wish I could end this article here. It would save lots of imaginary trees and be a whole lot easier on all of us.

But there’s another part of that desire to be perfect we need to talk about…

2. Accept that some part of you may never feel like enough.

About ten years ago, I was selected to be one of the first 30 certified teachers of the Search Inside Yourself mindfulness-based emotional intelligence program developed at Google. There was a rigorous year-long training program, including neuroscience, research, embodied meditation practice and coursework with the top scholars and experts in the field.

This was the first program of its kind, several years before companies were aware of, and invested in, the value of mindfulness at work.

There I was, in a room filled with “the best of the best”: neuroscientists and Ph.Ds. and MBAs and successful entrepreneurs (long before the word “founders” was a thing).

There were lots of laurels we all could be resting on. If we were the laurel-resting type.

But instead…we were walking around the large conference room, singing aloud what our unique version of “not enoughness” was. So that as we heard our friends, we could sing back to them the opposite of how each of us felt on the inside.

So yeah, there was a hotel ballroom filled with Highly Successful People singing back and forth to each other:

You are enough
You are loved
You are worthy
You are beautiful
You are enough

It makes for a great scene in the sitcom of my life.

It was also one of the most meaningful and moving moments I’ve experienced. Because it speaks to this universal sense of “not enoughness” that seems to be part of the human condition.

I’ve tried every self-help strategy and here’s where I’ve landed: there is some part of me that will probably never feel like enough. When I stopped trying to be someone who never felt like enough (with a tendency to use confusing double negatives), I could finally relax.

One of life’s greatest paradoxes is that when you finally decide that it’s OK that some part of you may never feel like enough, life gets a lot more fun.

3. From Not Enough to Not Yet aka Me and Ms. Take, A Love Story

Carol Dweck’s book Mindset was written in 2006 and changed my view of myself and the world. Dweck shared in a TED Talk how there was a high school in Chicago that rather than give out failing grades, which result in you feeling like crap about yourself, they gave the grade “Not yet,” which helped you realize you were on a learning curve, you just weren’t there yet.

Dweck describes how, in looking at the electrical activity of students with a fixed mindset – rather than a “Not yet” or growth mindset, which means you believe that “your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts” – they ran from difficulty.

By the time Mindset came out, I’d spent more than half my life working on myself to rewire the perfectionism, people pleasing and running from mistakes to keep up the image of being perfect. These neural grooves run deep.

I’ve heard it said that Zen Master Dogen laughingly called life “one continuous mistake.” So I’ve decided to create an imaginary teacher, I call her Ms. Take. You can call her Miss Steak if that works better for you.

But maybe you’re a vegan, or a traditionalist like me, who believes that one’s marital status shouldn’t be how society defines you.

That’s OK, society makes a lot of Miss Steaks. Missed Takes?

My take is that the only way things are going to change is if those of us people-pleasing, perfectionist, sensitive mistake-avoiders start making a few more mistakes.

Wrap up of first grade: still sensitive to criticism...

I do my best to take care of that kid who cried when they received criticism. As every bit of programming speaks in my ear, “Not enough! Not enough!”, my current self lovingly reminds that sensitive kid, “Not Yet.”

Then I like to imagine me and Ms. Take having a good laugh about it over a meal. Of course, french fries are involved.

French fries are always a good fall-back item.

4. You’re Not Who You Think You Are / Practice is Perfect

Finally there’s my favorite go-to move, a little recovering perfectionist jiu-jitsu. Well, technically, it’s three moves. Overachieving habits die hard!

First one is that rather than calling myself a Recovering Perfectionist, I reframe it so that what’s actually perfect is the practice. I focus on the effort I put into something – for example,  writing this post, being open to feedback, and then actually publishing it – rather than judging my worthiness by the outcome of my efforts.

Because when I judge my worth by outcomes, I end up with a lot of unpublished articles. This is why this is my first post!

So I practice doing my best with everything that I do; AND I practice choosing to see myself as worthy, no matter what happens with the stuff I do.

Second, I acknowledge that I’m human. I’m going to mess up all the time. What matters is what I discover along the way. So I’m less a Recovering Perfectionist and more a Discovering Practicer. The word should probably be Practitioner. Look at me and Ms. Take having some fun!

Finally, I do my best to remember I’m not who I think I am. There’s a part of me that can observe my thoughts.

There’s an even bigger part of me that knows it’s connected to everything. I am reminded of this when I practice Qi Gong, when I walk on fire (I’ve done it 6 times), whenever I see hummingbirds, like I did this morning.

I stopped in my tracks and looked at its ruby red wings flapping – some 50 beats per second. My thoughts slow down and as fast as the hummingbirds wings are moving is as slow as time stands still.

In that paradox of stillness, I connect to the part of me that knows I can’t make any mistakes, really. That everything – including me, including this moment, including the dog poop I stepped in so I could see the hummingbird more closely – is perfect, just as it is.