Leftover shades of purple at the bottom of a watercolor painting palette.

Working with the Inner Perfectionist

Some of my favorite topics to work on with clients are those I’ve struggled with throughout my own life. Perfectionism, for example. My inner perfectionist and I are still learning this tango, but we’ve come a long way in balancing the give and take needed to foster a healthy relationship.


For most of my years I succumbed to the will of my inner perfectionist, which, ultimately, kept me fearful of trying anything new or unfamiliar and steeped in the shame of my perceived failures. I hid this quite well, I believe. My perfectionist was an overachiever when it came to our ability to keep up appearances.


Once I recognized the limitations this was putting on my life, not to mention the mental and emotional turmoil it was causing, I did my best to shoo that inner perfectionist away. “We don’t need you anymore,” I said. It’s possible I thanked her for her service before releasing her from her duties. How naïve.


Over many years of attempting to rid myself of this burden, what I bottom-line learned is that my inner perfectionist is here to stay. So, if I couldn’t fire her (because, let’s face it, she’s me) what was I going to do?


I did what every good manager does with a disgruntled employee who is wreaking havoc on the company’s productivity. I gave her a promotion. Then I promptly put her on retainer and sent her off to the Bahamas on an all-expense-paid vacation, assuring her that I’d call her back the millisecond she was needed to complete an all important task.


My inner perfectionist has a pretty big ego. It took some convincing for her to consider this as the best approach for all involved. I finally won her over by accepting that, well, it’s the truth.


There are times when I want my work to be the absolute best it can be. This is where the inner perfectionist can shine, and I’ve learned very much to appreciate what she brings to the table. There is no denying she is uniquely suited to this work and, in fact, I could not do it without her.


But while I assured my inner perfectionist of how utterly invaluable she is in these particular situations, I also had to convince her that, during all other times, she would need to conserve her energies because, if she continued to exert all her energy on all the tasks all the time, she would not have enough left to do the best job possible when her skills were truly needed for that one very important thing that (I had to emphasize this point more than once) I could not do without her.


My inner perfectionist now has the best job on earth. I pay for all her vacations, wherever she wants to go. I keep her on retainer. And I only call her back when I need her to do that one specific job she is so uniquely qualified to do.

While I’m working on a first draft, for example, my inner perfectionist is off on a tropical island, sipping a mai tai while sinking her toes into the warm silky sand and tilting her sun-kissed face toward the soft ocean breeze.


But I don’t have to worry. The second it’s time to polish that draft for submission or publication or whatever the final stage of the project is, she’ll be there to do it. More than anything else, my inner perfectionist loves her job. And the good news is, she can time travel.


She’ll return at a moment’s notice to pour her heart and soul into the task she is so good at. When she’s finished, I can be certain that I have the best possible product or outcome I can have, and then my inner perfectionist gets to go back on vacation while I bumble around on a new draft or any sort of learning venture in which I fare much better without her contribution.


It turns out she does enjoy a nice vacation when her particular skill set is not needed, and she can trust me to take care of everything else.

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