How to tap the power of perfectionism

I am entering into one of those stretches. You know them. Bam. Bam. Bam. One thing after the next. It’s the time my extreme SJ envy comes out.  SJ, as in Sensing and Judging in the Myers-Briggs sense: SJ’s are Sensate people who naturally live in the land of reality (rather than my preferred position 10,000 feet above it all in the land of possibilities). And they are Judging people who absolutely love to plan, then work-the-plan, then finish the plan without delay and distraction. I much prefer to discover, digress, dig in, depart, deliberate. They experience and decide. I imagine and discover.

So, last night was one of those damnable Sundays, filled with anxious thoughts about all these projects in front of me and how I could ever reach the levels of excellence (or, see title above, levels of perfectionism) that I neurotically demand of myself. One of those Sundays that hearken back to my college days in New Haven, Connecticut and that mysterious dread about all the homework I hadn’t done that weekend and my need to somehow turn B’s into A’s. I still struggle with the pressure of perfectionism.

Yesterday, I decided to meditate in back to back sessions. And I heard this line from Tara Brach, “perfectionism is the prerequiste for….”

Let me stop here for our shared reflection.  Prerequisite for . . . what?  I’m thinking “cutting a perfect diamond,” or “playing a piece by Segovia at a recital,” or “torching the perfect creme brulle,” maybe? Perfectionism is the prerequisite for…? What?  What – do you think?

Here’s Tara Brach’s answer, “Perfectionism is the prerequisite for nothing but pain.” Wow!

If this R2L blog hits home, what might you do?  Three things:

  1. Get a chuckle at yourself!  This is life, after all. Who is perfect at anything?!!!
  2. Feel what it feels like to put so much pressure on yourself. Notice what it does to your breathing, your presence, your openness, your humor (see point one), or your ease. What it does to me is get me restless, anxious, and threatened.
  3. Have a gentle conversation with that part of yourself that demands perfection from you.*  The idea is to imagine “perfectionism” as a distinct character, like a real person within your psyche.  And then you write a dialogue between a caring, curious listener and this particular player named Perfectionism.  Here is a dialogue I have just written with these two characters, the caring curious listener represented as the (Q)uestioner below.  I’d love your thoughts on it:

Q: I’d like to talk to my perfectionist self? Is this you?
A: [Sitting up tall, clearing throat, looking professional]: Yes this is the Perfectionist. Who are you?
Q: A friend. I’m curious about you and perhaps I can help.  What do you bring to [Dan]?
A: Excellence. Drive. I push [him] to be his very best.
Q: May I ask: why is this important to you?
A: Well it’s important to me because that is my essence. If he’s perfect, everyone will love and respect him, so that’s what I work for. But I think it’s important to him, too, at least he acts that way.  Like he wants to be great, but then he turns me off.
Q: So you’re trying to bring him this push towards excellence, but he’s not listening?
A: Basically…no, he’s not!  He may start off right, but soon enough he scrambles, procrastinates, and fails to perfect his work.
Q: And how is that for you?
A: Frustrating. Sometimes downright infuriating.
Q: Does he ever meet your expectations?
A: On the absolute rarest of occasions he does (although I honestly can’t think of one). And many times, he quits on me.
Q: Ahh. I imagine that’s frustrating?
A: Yes.
Q: How well do you think your strategy – to agitate for perfection – works?
A: Honestly? Given your question about whether he ever hits my mark, not so well. More generally, I’d say he mostly just “tunes me out.” So, I guess I’m not helpful. And I’m certainly not appreciated.
Q: Why do you say that?
A: Because the louder I get and the more I try to get him on target – the more restless he gets, the more distracted, and the more balls he drops!
Q: So, if I’m hearing you right, he gets frustrated with you, turns you off, and in turn you get more frustrated with him. Yes?
A: That seems accurate.
Q: “Accurate,” but (or and) disturbing?
A: Yes!  Because I’m trying to help him.
Q: Given this little conversation, do you have a thought of how you can help him?
A: I don’t know.  Maybe try to hear him out. Maybe let him know I’m trying to help.
Q: I think that’s totally worth a try.

This is what I would describe as an “inner voice dialogue” or inner voice journal process.  The idea behind it is that we are not so much a single self, but more like a committee of people backstage, striving to play a part in the drama that is our life.  And my experience is that the better we listen to these unique voices and strive to appreciate their value, the more we can integrate them in a positive way; rather than have them harping on us endlessly without benefit to us nor satisfaction for them.  What do you think?  Does it seem sensible? I’d be happy to return to the theme if you find value in it!!!

May you be gloriously imperfect this week as you

Lead with your best self.



  • Love it! Brave and wonderful of you to write this one Dan. Thank you. I have found this process profound in examining myself. It brings me just that much closer to relaxing into being a limited human being – having a human experience.

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