One thing I’ve learned from the Great British Baking Show is not to over-knead your dough.  As judge Paul Hollywood will tell you, an over-worked dough results in a loaf that is dense, stiff, and tough.  More isn’t always better.  In fact, more effort can be more damaging and detrimental than less effort.

Perfectionism makes it difficult to navigate the continuum of efforts, as there can always be something more to do.  Being able to gauge when to stop is unclear.  When I attended a conference many years ago, I heard a fabulous analogy:  Your car is filthy after some driving on muddy dirt roads so you take it through the car wash.  It comes out 75% clean.  Not good enough, so you take it through again and it comes out 87% clean.  Another trip through and your car is 93% clean.  Next trip into the carwash and it’s 97% clean.  You go through again and it’s 99% clean.  Another trip gets your car 99.5% clean.  Each time you drive through that car wash, it gets a bit cleaner but it will never be perfectly clean.  When do you decide that the car is clean enough?

There are a number of terms used to describe this determination such as cost-benefit analysis or point of diminishing returns.  Objectively, most would agree that there comes a point when a continued effort isn’t worth the minimal increase in return.  Subjectively, however, the perfectionist feels that there might just be a way to do a little bit better and the effort is worth it for any possible gain in return.

For the perfectionist, chasing the 100% often means losing sight of the intention of the activity itself.  Why are you up at 3am working on the handmade personalized Valentine’s Day cards for your child’s preschool class of 20?  The knee-jerk response falls along the lines of “Because I have to.  The party is tomorrow so they need to get done.”  Yes, the classroom party is the next day and the cards will be dropped into each child’s “mailbox” to be taken home.  However, the deeper questions are being skimmed over by this response.  What happens if the cards aren’t perfect?  What does it mean if the cards are less detailed or even *GASP* store-bought?

An exercise called “Downward Arrow Questioning” can help identify the core fears that drive the perfectionism.  Consider this a conversation with your “inner toddler”:

You:  I have to get these cards done just right.

Inner Toddler:  Why?

You:  Because it’ll be ruined if the cards aren’t right.

Inner Toddler:  Why?

You:  I want things to look right for my little Suzie at the party.

Inner Toddler: Why?

You:  Because other people might not like her cards and that could be upsetting.

Inner Toddler:  Why?

You:  I worry about Suzie fitting in at school and having friends.

Inner Toddler:  Why?

You:  Because I never felt comfortable at school and I want to protect her from that same hurt.

A-HA!  The perfect Valentine’s Day cards are a tool for trying to control a situation and to protect from a form of emotional discomfort.  What started as a fun crafty project to fill a wintery weekend and possibly bring fleeting smiles to the faces of little kiddos has been lost in the meticulous cutting, gluing, lettering, and glittering.  As if these cards will forever be displayed in the museum of preschool excellence and not dropped in recycling minutes after bedtime that same evening.

A lot of perfectionism is driven by the urge to control, as if by tightly regulating every detail it is possible to block any element of distress from creeping in.  However, the reworking and editing and fine-tuning and changing and adding – it all comes with its own pain.  A college student who labored and obsessed over a paper received feedback from the professor that they “wrote like a tortured hamster” and effectively lost the message of the paper in the over-worked writing.

To help regain perspective on the activity at hand, here are some questions you can use to check-in with yourself and the direction in which you’re headed:

  • What are you trying to achieve? What is your goal?

Is the goal creating the perfect Valentine’s Day card?  Or is it supporting little Suzie so she can enjoy herself at the party?

  • Will this matter in a day? A week?  A month?  A year?  Five years?  Ten?

Often what feels crucial in the moment loses its intensity once you’re able to gain some distance from it.

  • What is going well with this activity?

The negative self-criticism of perfectionism can blind you to the positive.

  • What else could you be doing right now?

Are your energies better spent on something else?

  • How would you know when you’ve reached 100%?

You may be chasing a feeling of “just right” that is ever elusive.

  • Can you aim for “good enough” and limit your efforts at 90%? 80%?

Focus on the main points, the overall intention.

  • Is this what you value?

Check in with your personal values and ask if these actions reflect who you are and what you prioritize in your life.

  • Is there a core fear or worry that underlies this whole situation?

Sit down with that Inner Toddler and try to answer all the annoying questions about why it feels like you have to do something a particular way.

Perfect isn’t permanent.  The tighter you try to grip onto it, the more likely it is to break or crumble under the pressure.  Instead, loosen your grip and focus on the experiences.  Embrace what you can gain in the moment and stop chasing the coveted Paul Hollywood handshake.