How I Overcame Perfectionism: The Fastest Path to Nowhere

Consider Dr. King's words: 'Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase.'

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By Katherine Keller

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I have been a slave to perfectionism for as long as I can remember. I have a clear memory of being 8 years old and fighting battles against my very own perfectionist demons: It was Christmas time and our outdoor, multi-colored Christmas lights projected a bright light through my bedroom window each night.

Related: The First Step to Starting Anything Is Getting Over Your Perfectionism

So, was I the 8-year-old little girl who stared out of the window at the lights, my eyes full of amazement and wonder at this magical time of year?

No, I was using the Christmas-light source to stay up past my bedtime, to erase all the answers on my math homework and redo each answer perfectly, every number carefully rewritten with the precision of a surgeon. My bed sheets were full of eraser rolls as I proudly held up my perfectly completed homework to the red, blue, green and white Christmas lights for a final inspection.

There . . . now, I thought to myself. Now I can sleep peacefully.

Perfectionism also reared its ugly head throughout my teens and 20s, always offering me the lie that when you do things perfectly, everyone will be pleased. I held on to that lie; it became the motto of my life, in fact. And in some regards, it served me well.

I either did a task "right" (perfectly), or I didn't do it at all. Therefore, I was given some wonderful opportunities by my teachers and professors. They trusted me, knowing I would give 200 percent and make sure every aspect was completed and carried out with militarylike precision.

It wasn't until my 30s that I began to lose my battle against perfectionism, and the effects were crippling. In my youth I had less responsibility which meant fewer balls to try to keep in the air with perfect precision. But in my 30s I became a single mother of two, dealing with a big daily dose of housework, childcare, cooking, PTA meetings, soccer practices and dance rehearsals. To top it all off, I was attempting to build my own business, which added in meetings, websites, marketing, sales, accounting, social media and project management.

I could not do everything perfectly. In fact, I couldn't do any of it perfectly.

I was devastated. I could no longer hold on to the illusive promise that perfection had given me since childhood: the promise that joy, peace and happiness lay in the palace of perfectionism. I was overwhelmed that it was slipping through my fingers and I was powerless to stop it. I was losing my greatest comfort because being able to do things perfectly was my personal affirmation that I had control over my life.

I had to change myself: If you start to lose control of your car, your initial reaction is to hit the brakes. And that's exactly what I did. I hit the brakes on my life.

Related: How Perfection Can Ruin Your Business

My business had become stalled for years as I stubbornly remained in my personal purgatory of trying to figure out how to do everything perfectly: a perfect design for my website, the perfect layout for my newsletters, the perfect words to use in a sales pitch, a perfect schedule for social media.

Just when I would get to the point of feeling that I might have the perfect success formula figured out, I would notice that "successful person A" had a different approach or strategy. So, my perfectionism alarm would go off and say, "Uh, oh, maybe your formula isn't perfect. Better go back to the drawing board a bit longer."

This went on for years and, full disclosure, it is something I still battle. However, I have removed and exposed the mask of perfection for what it really is . . .fear. The paralyzing pursuit of perfection is rooted in fear. That means the fear of making a mistake, the fear of disappointing others, embarrassing ourselves and feeling unworthy.

It is a fear that can disguise itself as salvation, only to bind you to a life of dispirited mediocrity.

I have since learned that if you are looking for the fastest path to nowhere, the pursuit of perfection is the optimal way to go. It will keep you busy but not make you successful. It will make you feel that you are making progress even though you are still back at the starting block.

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that, "Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase." That goal you have doesn't have to be perfect, and you don't have to have it all figured out. Just let go of the control and the fear. Break free from the illusion of perfection and take the first step.

Related: What Great Brands Know: Stop Waiting for Perfection

Katherine Keller

President of Katherine Keller International LLC

Katherine Keller is the president of Katherine Keller International, an online marketing, branding, copywriting and graphic design agency. She also works with small business entrepreneurs, building their success mindset and overcoming fears.  

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