I had an interesting conversation with another musician friend the other day, she said that she loved listening to my podcast over and over, and that she gained new insights with each listen.
It struck me that there are layers to this work and to the things I’m teaching here on the podcast. Our brains change every day, every week, and so it makes sense how we see things on a deeper level with repetition.
She said she wanted to start a podcast but was too scared and we talked about how it is a big deal, putting your voice and your ideas out there, but it’s worth it.
And all of this led to the topic of perfectionism. This is something I coach myself on a lot, both as a musician, as a mother wanting to be the best mom I can be, and with body image. I see it in my clients as a life coach as well, how prone we are to perfectionism and so I want to share these lessons I’ve learned with you today.
I remember reading Chip and Joanna Gaines first book, the Magnolia Story, and Joanna talked about how there was a time when she wasn’t enjoying her children once they fixed up an old home that was really her dream style home at the time in a nicer neighborhood, a nicer home than they’d ever lived in before.
She felt exhausted and stretched thin all the time. And she’d follow her kids around cleaning up after them all day. She’d lay down on the couch and wonder what it was all about. It struck me, as it struck her, that we tend to do this as moms, we have a perfectionist illusion that our homes should always be tidy, children should clean up after themselves, we should have more energy, life should look a certain way.
I thought about how much Joanna walks the line of perfect design and getting things up to a certain standard, but enjoys her children and creates spaces for real families.
And then I contrasted her approach and how she’s adapted her perfectionist tendencies to meet her own needs as well as her clients, in such a way where she enjoys being herself more than those earlier years. I compared her approach with another design icon, Martha Stewart – they have completely different approaches to creating a well-designed life.
I won’t go into detail about the conclusions I’ve drawn personally about Martha Stewart, I have a deep respect for her. But I will say, if I were invited to a dinner party on the same night, and I had to choose between enjoying the evening with Joanna Gaines or Martha Stewart, I would pick Joanna’s dinner party. I know it would be executed most excellently and at the same time, it would be relaxing and enjoyable. The vibe would be such that I could just be myself.
Perfectionism doesn’t let people do that, just be themselves.
Martha Stewart was taught by her dad that if she wasn’t going to do her best, then it wasn’t worth doing. That’s one of the things she is known for.
There’s some truth in that.
But there’s also a lie.
Hmmmm, If you aren’t going to do your best, it isn’t worth doing.
Let’s examine that concept a little deeper. There’s a lot missing. It stems from a fear of doing things half-ass, not doing your best, second-rate work, I understand where this concept is coming from.
But I disagree.
There’s no such thing. Unless, someone’s opinion states that the thing is perfect.
And so the question becomes, who decides what is perfect is what is not?
Do you see the illusion?
Perfectionism leads you down this rabbit hole pursuit that is not about finding the best in yourself. Instead, It becomes an obsessive pursuit of hiding the worst in ourselves, those parts that tell us that nothing we do is good enough.
Or – even more subtle, perfectionism tells us that something is wrong with us and needs to be fixed, that something has gone wrong, when nothing has really gone wrong.
Perfectionist illusions are a real thing that I see everywhere in my students thinking. And they mess with people.
They mess with your ability to enjoy yourself, to approve of yourself and the things you create in the here and now, whether it’s art, or a career, or your beautiful amazing body, or a family, or a relationship, or your children, or your home, if we’re engaging in perfectionist illusions, we’re shutting down our capacity to be happy – in hopes that things will be worthy of our approval someday.
Perfectionism has nothing to do with being the best you can be.
You may have told yourself that somewhere along the way. But it’s not true.
Really, what perfectionist illusions are, is a refusal to let yourself look at the truth of yourself, because you’ve developed a habit of being so critical, you don’t like what you see, you’ve taught your brain to hone in on the imperfections and told yourself that in order to like yourself, in order to approve, you need to change.
And when we don’t like what we see, we start imagining what we wish we could be and what we wish we could be like in order to approve of ourselves.
Perfectionist illusions are lying to you if they are telling you that you could be better, and you should be better, and then presenting to you the illusion, a false unrealistic version of what to reach for, and that someday you can approve of yourself when you reach that illusive ideal.
Do you do this in certain areas of your life?
A good question to ask is . . .
If you find yourself mired down in getting the details just right in your life, and you are losing sight of the bigger picture, you might be indulging in perfectionist illusions, assumptions, and someday thinking.
For me, as a classically trained pianist, I learned the art of perfectionism. I am really good at analyzing and scrutinizing my playing, honing in on mistakes, and then taking mental notes so I can go back and practice and refine and strengthen the weak areas in the piano piece.
In college, the professor over my scholarship, she was very keen, enthusiastic, and full of zeal, she was a neat lady – and she was keen on interrupting our masterclass performances with suggestions and feedback, and she was a little micro-managy with her feedback. Maybe a better word would be ‘overzealous.’
I think I internalized her voice in my piano playing, because I soon was able to anticipate what she would say when listening to my fellow colleagues play, as well as anticipate her feedback in my own playing.
This could be either a blessing or a curse, yes?
It could serve me and help me improve, or it could turn into a shadow side of shutting me down from ever enjoying actually playing the piano in front of her.
At the young age of twenty, I’m sad to say that it did the latter, and I soon developed the habit of dreading when it was my turn to play in masterclass.
I see this a lot in the Arts. Creativity gets shut down with too much criticism, whether self-inflicted, or from others. After four years of that, gritting my way through, I was developing a strong teaching philosophy that would inform my signature teaching style, more nurturing and affirming while also setting high goals for my students to reach for. This formula has proven successful in many regards as a piano teacher, and a songwriting and performance mentor in my music studio.
But I also see its application in my roles as a life coach, and a mother of my three teenagers.
Since most of the people who come to me for coaching are wanting to engage in personal growth in some area of their life, I can say generally speaking that my clients already have a tendency to expect a lot of themselves.
This is not a bad thing.
I love people who have high expectations of themselves.
But when does it cross the line into what I call Perfectionist Illusions, assumptions and someday thinking.
It crosses the line when you stop enjoying being you because you are so focused on your flaws, you lose sight of the bigger picture of what makes you amazing.
I used to engage in perfectionist illusions as a young pianist. I would picture myself in masterclass with said professor, and I would fantasize about myself playing my pieces so amazingly well, her jaw would drop, and she would be utterly speechless with my incredible playing, she wouldn’t have anything negative to say, I’d even hear what she would say to my colleagues, something to the tune of, “be like Danielle. . .” haha it’s really quite amusing how convoluted these little fantasies and illusions of mine would play out in my head.
Notice the someday thinking in that illusion, too. . .
And then, my perfectionist illusions would morph into assumptions, where the thinking would pretend or assume to know what other people would think, or pretend to know how things should go. I call this kind of thinking ‘perfectionist assumptions’ because what happens is - we have a predetermined idea of how we think things should look. My assumptions about myself would be that I should be able to get to a point as an undergrad, where I would be above reproach, or I would arrive someday, as an amazing pianist who transcended feedback.
Now, looking back it sounds a little ridiculous to think that I secretly assumed this could be possible, but back then, it didn’t seem ridiculous. It felt compelling and alluring and it was like the future was dangling this amazing carrot on a string in front of me, the only thing is, that carrot kept moving, the closer I would get to it.
All of this has led me to conclude that the imagination is an extraordinary thing. The human brain’s capacity to employ imagination is quite remarkable.
I actually don’t think there’s anything wrong with employing the imagination. It’s a beautiful capability of the human brain, and it is the birthplace of art and creativity and possibility.
But when we attach to our illusions, our assumptions of how things should go, and our ‘someday I’ll arrive’ type thinking, our imagination fantasies gone wild, as a standard for what we want our lives to be like, when we use our illusions against ourselves, there’s the problem.
Perfectionist illusions are lying to us.
They argue with reality.
You’ve heard me say it on previous podcasts, when we argue with reality, we lose, but only one hundred percent of the time. That’s a principle I learned from Byron Katie, she’s so wise.
And she’s right.
What I learned about my perfectionist illusions as a classical pianist, is that it wasn’t about getting better. It wasn’t about improving and growth. Instead, they were about protecting myself from the terrible feeling of not being good enough.
That is the lie of perfectionism.
Perfectionist illusions are so alluring and addictive because they protect us from seeing the truth of our flaws, the pain of where we fall short, and the gap between where we are and where we want to be.
Often times, seeing this gap will shut us down from engaging in our pursuits before we even get started.
Because we’ve set ourselves up for this high ideal, this perfectionist illusion, we only give ourselves one option for success – and we set ourselves up for failure ahead of time, without realizing how we are sabotaging ourselves. It’s black and white thinking on steroids. Either perfection or failure. Either the gold medal or none of the training and the workouts counted.
Black and white thinking is everywhere.
It’s so fascinating really.
I use my own life experiences in order to study my own mind, and then I share what I’ve learned with you here on the podcast in hopes that you can plug in your own scenarios of how you might be doing the same thing.
I often see similarities between myself and my clients and how we are all dealing with our human brains.
And I say this because I don’t want you to think that I’m just talking in theory.
Perfectionism assumes that we should be better than we are, we should be smarter than making mistakes, we should be above that, and that it comes easier to other people.
Here’s an example I’ve coached on in the last few months:
I had a mom want some coaching on her teenager, her senior in high school who doesn’t want to go to college. He doesn’t see the point. She didn’t like how she was having to nag him to apply to certain schools, how he’d missed the deadlines, and she was worried he’d ruined his future.
She was stuck in a perfectionist illusion.
She was assuming that all teens should want to go to college, and that college right after high school is the only path to success in life, and that if she were a better mom, her son would accept her influence – like so and so’s son and all the other examples she could think of.
If you’re stuck in a perfectionist illusion, your brain will tell you something has gone wrong. That something is wrong with how you parented him. Or that something is wrong with him.
The assumption is that all teens should want to go to college and should know that college is the pathway to future success.
And the someday thinking is the part where your brain tells you that your teen will be happy someday when he finishes college. Or that he shouldn’t waste his time.
The tricky thing about the illusion and the assumption and the someday thinking is that there is a thread of truth to it – that’s what makes it so alluring.
But in the context of the whole picture, when you take into account that young adults have their own agency, their own desires, their own timeline, their own lessons they need to learn, and their own motivations, then all the perfectionistic illusions don’t hold up.
Do you see the illusion in that kind of thinking there’s a right way to do college? It assumes that all teenagers should want to go to college right out of high school. It assumes that there’s a right path, which then assumes that anything that deviates from that path is wrong. And it assumes that if you were a good mom, if your parenting were perfect, then your children wouldn’t have a mind of their own, they would want what you want, and they would see what you see.
It can be so subtle.
And that’s where I want to challenge the assumptions a little bit.
Our perfectionist assumptions hurt our ability to enjoy ourselves and the people we love in a more connecting, complete way in the here and now.
I often wonder where these assumptions come from, and I’ve identified a basic, cultural script, or life path, that kind of feed our perfectionist illusions, with lots of underlying assumptions.
I mean, here’s the path, if we really break it down: And keep in mind, that this path is just a given for many of us without any real challenge.
Here’s what a lot of us think on default, how life should go:
We should grow up healthy and get an education, find a soul mate,
You marry someone who will be your best friend for life, and who will always want the same things you want, and romance will always be there, because you aren’t going to be the couple who falls out of love, and he won’t ever do pornography, or lose his job, neither of you will get sick, and you’ll both always be healthy and take good care of yourselves, and your children will grow up and go to college and get married and bring the grandkids home when you aren’t travelling with plenty of money in the bank and your paid for house, and you’ll grow old together, and maybe die within a month of each other because you are soul mates.
Honestly, That is not too far-fetched from how we hope life will go, how we assume it should go. We have a strong cultural script, or set of ideas of how life is supposed to go.
And so when life doesn’t follow this path, then we tell ourselves that something has gone wrong.
When really, what we’ve done is create an illusion, this idyllic standard for ourselves and the people in our lives of how life is supposed to go and how the people in our lives are supposed to act.
Back to the basic premise, the way to know if you are engaging in a perfectionist illusion is if you are holding your life, yourself, or the people you love, accountable to the illusion and feeling disappointed often or if you are having difficulty accessing the feeling of satisfied.
Life is hard to understand sometimes, the twists and turns it can take. Other people are hard to understand sometimes, you never really know what they’re going to choose. And That is the scary part in all of this right? When circumstances deviate from what you imagine how it should be?
So, now I want to talk about what women who’ve dropped perfectionism know, women who live in reality, what they think, who turn away from perfectionist illusions and assumptions, these are a few of the things women who create fulfilling lives for themselves know.
All of this is possible to operate from, and it is the solution to perfectionist illusions. I recently did a podcast episode on giving yourself permission, I received a lot of great feedback on it, and I want to add this one to the list of what you can give yourself permission to do, to drop perfectionist illusions, the assumptions that perfectionism is trying to sell, and you can drop the thinking that says you’ll start approving of yourself when…. Someday when …..tomorrow, when you’re finally doing everything you wish you would or you think you ‘should’.
Someday thinking shuts us down from doing anything today. It disempowers us and shuts down our ability to love our reality in the present.
Did you know that Our brains get a dopamine hit when we make grandiose plans? They do. Think of how fun it can be to plan a vacation. Have you ever put energy into planning a vacation, anticipated the fun you’ll have, actually been on the vacation only to wonder why it isn’t as fun as you imagined?
The planning is the someday thinking that gives your brain a dopamine hit, it can be an alluring false sense of pleasure, and the planning can be more fun than the actual event.
All of that happiness and goodness is available to us in the present. If we don’t see that, then we might be caught in the cycle of perfectionist illusions and assumptions.
The way to get back into alignment with yourself, to build trust with yourself again, is to see the illusions and the assumptions for what they are, to become aware of them, and then practice being more present and believing in your ability to take the next few steps toward growth, versus the grandiose illusion.
You shift your focus from
You shift your focus from checking boxes, to taking action from a place of simply wanting to because it feels good.
Do you see the difference?
The perfectionist illusion will tell you that the big accomplishment is the prize, not the small concrete steps that get you there.
The perfectionist assumption is that you can’t be happy until you reach the big goal. The truth is you can be happy, and it’s conceivable that the small, concrete steps ARE the prize that can be enjoyable along the way.
Since big goals are built on a bunch of tiny failures, perfectionism will keep you from trying in the first place – because you’ll be too afraid of all the failure and what you make the failure mean about your self-worth.
Let’s stop doing that to ourselves.
Let’s shift our thinking in such a way where we don’t make failure mean anything about our self-worth, where we don’t take failure personally. We detach from failure and we’re able to manage the frustration that comes from things taking their time.
Perfectionist illusions are always coupled with a lot of impatience – both in the process and in ourselves. The illusions aren’t very good at sitting still with the present moment.
Again, this might be because of the dopamine hit we get when we fantasize in the illusion of someday. It’s way more fun to imagine succeeding than to actually be failing and doing the work required to see us through to the other side.
Just notice if you have a pattern of feeling impatient when it comes to your goals or your art, or your dreams, or whatever it is you are wanting to work on.
The impatience could be a signal of perfectionism assuming it should be happening faster, it should be easier, it should be less frustrating. All of that is false. Notice the brain telling you those things and label it. I see you perfectionism, trying to tell me this should be different than what it really is.
We really do need to start simple. We need to keep things small. And build from there. If we have a consistent success with the simple steps, the small steps toward progress, those small things will lead to the larger, with consistency, they just will.
Dismantle the perfectionist illusions by accepting success of the little things as ‘enough’, versus going big and grandiose and shutting yourself down before you start.
Practice telling yourself that the small things are beautiful, they are worthy and worthwhile, and practice the art of being kind to yourself.
Let’s approach goals and personal growth with less perfectionist illusions, less false assumptions, less someday thinking and more ‘here and now’ presence and grace. If you have things you are reaching for, goals you are striving toward but you aren’t succeeding, you aren’t enjoying it, I can almost promise you perfectionism is messing with you. And if so, I would love to help you with it on a more personal level. In the Dare Greatly Society, this is the kind of work we roll up our sleeves with. Doors will be opening soon, and I’d love for you to join us inside.
I have found that the only true way to enjoy the process of growth is to enjoy the process versus fixating on the actual outcome.
This includes enjoying all the cringy things I’ve done in the past, all the mistakes I’ve made and continue to make, all the times I’ve fallen short, and caused myself some disappointment.
How is it possible to say that I could actually enjoy looking back on my mistakes? Because I’ve cultivated the ability to frame them as the times I’ve grown the most.
I embrace all of me, all of my 50/50. And I embrace all of life’s 50/50. Of course it’s hard. I think it’s supposed to be. I know deep down that challenges are the reason for all of it, and that nothing has gone wrong when I fail.
This is what makes the pursuit of growth so worth it. Enjoying the human-ness in all of it.
Trust me here.
Perfectionism is over-rated.
Good-enoughness is amazing.
In this mini course, I'll take you through the Emotion Coaching framework that is a gamechanger for cultivating more peace. Plus you'll discover how to shift the 'frustration habit' and parent from a place of trusting yourself more.
In this free mini course, I'll take you through the Emotion Coaching framework I've taught hundreds of moms and dads for cultivating more peace. Plus you'll discover how to shift the 'frustration habit' and parent from a place of trusting yourself more.