Tips for How to Get Past Perfectionism and Get Unstuck

If you read my previous blog post, you've heard all about what perfectionism is, the different types and manifestations, how it hurts us, and where it might come from. While knowing can be half the battle, the other and more uphill part of the battle is, 'what do I do about it now?'

As somebody who has had to make deliberate changes in my own life to combat the barriers I built for myself with maladaptive perfectionism, I've experimented with quite a few different approaches to get past it myself. Today, I'm going to share some tried and tested tips that can be very helpful in shifting our perspective so we can work to move beyond harmful perfectionism and become productive in healthy ways that feel good.

*First, and as always, I’m not a mental health professional. I'm sharing what I learn based on what has helped, or not helped, me on my journey as well as my continued reading and research. if you are particularly struggling, or your health is at risk, you should talk to a qualified health professional.

This blog post also exists as a YouTube video. You can watch it here.

Healthy Striving

It's helpful to define what in fact we are working towards when we try to end our perfectionistic tendencies. When we get in the car to drive, having a destination is pretty important so we can know when we are getting close, and also when we have accidentally found ourselves off-roading in entirely the wrong direction.

When letting go of perfectionism, it's not about giving up having high standards. What we want is to shift away from the unhealthy over-application of standards that are a part of perfectionism, which can keep us stuck or burn us out trying to live up to our adopted expectations, into what's called ‘Healthy Striving.’ Healthy Striving is working towards things with enthusiasm where the level of effort is chosen and goals feel achievable. It’s motivated by the desire for positive growth rather than fear of failure or humiliation, and it's achievements that feel satisfying rather than being requirements that must be met to prove your worth.  

My first suggestion on how to reach healthy striving is a direct spin off of my story of being stalling out in my life and art career due to my fear-based perfectionism. It paralyzed me and kept me from making progress. After realizing that I was struggling to create any art at all because I wasn't confident it would be good enough to spend the time on, I decided to flip that realization on its head. For a couple of months, I put aside some time every day I possibly could to deliberately create some garbage art.

Make Some Junk

For me, this was choosing to focus on JUST MAKING with the purpose of making it not be good. Whatever came out of this practice wouldn't be going online in my portfolio or Instagram. The outcome didn't matter, I completely removed it as a factor. It was a time to get my hands dirty, to let go of expectations, and experiment beyond what I ever would be willing to do before when I was so hung up on the safety of making something 'good.' And... create some real trash I did. 

What did making garbage art do for me? First, it was actually fun once I got in the swing of it. It helped me to find some of the joy and natural flow in creating, part of what drew me to making art as a youngster in the first place. Second, by letting go of the finished product, I discovered new ways of experimenting with my mediums and started to incorporate collage in my paintings, and played with unexpected textures and combinations. This ultimately became crucial in my art going forward. I became looser in my approach and more open to the possibilities of process.

If you have ever watched any of my art making live streams on YouTube, you may have heard me say, 'well, this could end badly,' as I through caution to the wind and add in that crazy thing that I would have been sure would ruin a piece in the past. (That should probably go on my tombstone.) I became more realistic about the creative process, and was very honest with myself and others about how not everything will, or has to, end up being a masterpiece. If I've let go of control enough to be productive making art, and only 2 out of every 3 pieces I make in a months time are good, I'm still coming out way ahead of the 2 or 3 ok pieces I would create in an entire year when I was living in my stuck-zone. 

If I can make myself let go of the final outcome and say, 'maybe it will work out, or maybe it won’t, and I’ve decided that either outcome is ok,' because I know I can always begin again or paint over what didn't work, that's where I know room for growth happens.

While you may not be a visual artist like I am, finding ways to incorporate that mindset into your own life and goals may be helpful for you as well. If you don't see how you can translate that idea for your own particular situation, that's ok, I have more tips to try. We are all different, and for me it took doing a handful of different things.

Recognize the Irrationality of it All

If you can try to recognize your specific perfectionistic behaviors and beliefs, you can start to challenge them, and start taking small steps to let them go. Just be sure to only tackle one at a time to keep it manageable. That alone might be your first challenge if you're a perfectionist that sees things as all or nothing. But, as we should know by now, all or nothing thinking often sets us up for failure.

Recognize the black and white thinking that perfectionism entails. All or nothing, good or bad, perfect or failure. It’s a cognitive distortion, which is an irrational internal mental filter or bias that negatively influences our behavior and how we see the world. Believing there’s only perfect or failure, and internalizing lack of perfection as a personal fault or flaw sets us up for discontent and harms our mental health. The whole world exists in shades of gray, and every other color. It might be worth it to try deliberately pursuing those other shades of outcomes and actually see if you can make mini goals out of that.

Practice Failing

WHAT IF you did something (relatively inconsequential) deliberately badly? As I said above, a specific version of doing this, making junk paintings, has helped me to get over the paralysis of starting a new painting. But there are a lot of other ways that you can practice getting comfortable with the feeling of not being perfect or not being the best at something.

What if you show up 5 minutes late to a get together if you're the person that always must be 5 minutes early, or run your errands on Wednesday instead of Tuesday if that's always been the day that errands must be done. What if you set the goal to get a B instead of an A on a paper? What if you didn't mop the floor before your friends come by? Will they REALLY see you as any less of a friend? 

Try it in some safe way (ie, don't put yourself in harms way) and see how it feels.

Be. Realistic. About. The. Stakes.

I mean that. What are the for-real stakes? It can feel like people will see us in a way that we can never recover from if we don't do things a certain way, but is that actually the truth? Be honest, we aren't talking about our perceived beliefs. 

Make it Bite-Size

Break big goals down into smaller and easily digestible bits and tasks. I've found it useful to take big overwhelming things and write out checklists including even tiny elements of the bigger project.

Do I need to make a new video? That's a big thing that takes a lot of time and energy and I want it to be great. That's a lot, maybe I'll start tomorrow.  OR, I can break it down. The first few items might be to pick a topic, collect some notes, find some resources that I'll use. And the list can go on all of the way until I hit publish on the video. I can do those first three items this afternoon in between other tasks, and hey, what do you know, I made some progress.  Maybe I'll feel like checking off a few more items while I'm at it, but by making it nibble-sized, it's tackle-able.

Also, checking off all of those items on a checklist can feel really good for that perfectionist in you.

Make it Rewarding

Celebrate small victories. I'm not saying to go out and buy a designer handbag every time you accomplish something, but find ways to make progress rewarding and reinforce the good feelings of moving forward in a healthy way. Did you cross 5 things off the checklist today? Heck yeah, have that ice cream cone, or watch that guilty pleasure movie on Netflix you secretly have been eyeing. 

Maybe even celebrate small losses, because failure, or even just having a mediocre outcome, is important for us to learning and growing. Also, a failure means that you did the thing. Try to remember there are very few successes come without some failure on the path to get there, often there are quite a lot. Be sure to take moments to cheers yourself for doing the thing, and then take the outcome as nothing more than data that you can use.

See Failures as Data

The most effective learning can be through experience. By actually doing something we can see what does or doesn't work, what might go better a different way, what needs to be rethought or retooled.

And just like anything that we want to learn, or skill we want to perform, getting good at something requires practice so that we can refine our methods and skills. This can't happen if we can't accept doing something wrong, imperfectly, or just not particularly well sometimes.  Start somewhere. And then take what doesn't work as information, not judgement.

Letting Go of Control

Control can be hard to give up. At work or at home, let go of the idea that only you can do the job right. Be realistic about the stakes of what you are working on. Keep in mind the big picture when you find yourself stuck or bogged down on refining the tiny details. When we can't see the forest for the trees, (like when we can't finish a project because some small element of the project isn't JUST RIGHT) we need to be realistic about how much that detail impacts the big picture. Is it nice, or is it necessary?

Also, be realistic when using that impassible detail as a way to not have to move forward with the bigger project out of fear, in which case, take a few deep breaths, and look at what bite-sized task is next on your project's to-do checklist.

Set Boundaries

Where can you say no? If you take on too much because you want people to see you a certain way, like a good team player, or a go-getter, or the sail that keeps the whole ship on it's correct course, start to feel out where you can either share some responsibilities or get some help. Or... draw a line about the amount of work you can continue to take on. (Scary, I know.) 

Can you delegate some of the workload you’ve taken on? Even if it's inconvenient to teach somebody else a task up front, is there somebody else that absolutely can or maybe even should do that work besides you? Also, if you simply weren't carrying all of that extra weight anymore, would the ship really sink? (Back to those realistic stakes.)

Cultivating Flexibility

Challenge your ‘rules’ about how things ‘should’ be done, and figure out how you can build some flexibility into it. There are many things in our lives which don't in fact have a right or wrong way, or time, or situation in which they must be done.  

Sometimes we never think to challenge ourselves on why we think something must be a certain way.  And when we finally do, it can be uncomfortable, but becoming more comfortable by trying more often to approach things in a flexible way is genuinely good for us. Having mental flexibility is associated with higher resilience to negative experiences and stress, greater emotional regulation and adaptability, and higher levels of creativity! Who doesn't want that?

Get Out of Your Safe Space

Challenge yourself to try a new thing, or to do things in a different way. This can be trying a new hobby where you can mindfully go into it to practice removing any element of judgement or competition from the outcome. Or experiment with different ways of approaching something you already do, if you can.

Another exercise that I did a few years ago to help myself get over my blank page paralysis was what I called 'the Inspiration Project.' I painted 100 portraits of 100 inspiring people... in 100 days.  That was one a day, so I couldn't sit and hem and haw, or put off until tomorrow when it came to making creative decisions. There were only so many hours that I could dedicate to these paintings in a day (I still had other responsibilities and work to do), so I couldn't get hung up on doing things the old way.

Not being able to get hung up on small details and fuss about how I'd handle things, I had to jump in and make risky creative decisions on the fly. The stakes weren't super high, because while I did post this project on Instagram and eventually on my website once it was done, I was approaching it as an exercise. Giving myself these NEW restrictions that I never worked under before actually gave me a lot of room to grow in a short period of time, and from the first to the last painting, there's a huge leap in my ability.

FridaKhalo.JPGThe first painting of the 100 day project
The last painting of the project

No matter the outcome, if you do try something new, maybe go get some ice cream afterwards, because you did it. And I'm proud of you. You should be proud too. I remember I gorged myself on take-out ramen once I finished the 100 day project, but that whole project was admittedly a little more extreme in scope than it probably needed to be. I just ran with the momentum while I had it.

When Good Enough is Actually Great

We want to find a level of ‘done’ that can be measured as good enough, where we practice accepting that good enough truly IS good enough in some circumstances. Of course, most of us don’t do work that is life or death, so if that is you, I’m not saying to lower standards there. But being able to recognizing when perfection isn’t necessary or helpful is important.

Wrangle that Inner Voice

Try to catch negative self talk and judgement when it happens and work on stopping that voice. Those little self judgements can easily become self fulfilling prophecies. We tend to assign ourselves so many 'shoulds' and 'coulds' that do nothing but make us feel bad.

Let’s get a little woo for a minute: Did you know that positive thinking IS actually associated with positive action and outcomes? It's important to try to work at countering negative self talk with a positive affirmation about yourself. Heck, make it two! Think of it as gentle and loving corrections to a misbehaving side of ourselves. Granted, it may feel silly and awkward to do at first, (it always did for me), but it gets easier with practice.

Reach Out and Touch Someone*

And last of all, I highly recommend talking to somebody that can give you a different perspective, such as a mentor, or a supportive person who can help you work through how else you could view and approach situations that you know trigger maladaptive perfectionism. Or as I would say to myself… ‘I love you, go to therapy.’

I’ll be honest, doing the research for this video has actually helped me to see where I need to tackle perfectionistic behavior in other areas of my life besides in my art creation. So if you’ll work on it, so will I. Share in the comments what behaviors you are trying to change, or what may have worked for you in the past.

And remember, change is rarely a straight line. Changing habits is hard. Changing our brains is REALLY hard. So recognize not just every win but every genuine effort.

And most importantly: you’ve got this.

*For the youngsters: this is a reference to an ancient phone ad, don't actually touch random people without knowing it's ok. Consent, ya'll!

Who am I?

My name is Lynell Ingram, and I'm an artist that creates mixed media paintings that combine figurative art with colorful symbolism, surrealism, and a bit of dark humor to break down the stigmas of women's mental illness.

I also write and YouTube create videos.  If you are interested, you can see my most recent body of work and shop for limited edition prints and original art, and be sure to sign up for my newsletter, where I send occasional emails to let you know when I have new blog posts, videos, artwork, offer exclusive sales and discounts, and often include a peek behind the curtain of the artist's studio.

Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.