Perfectionism is not always about needing things to be perfect. It can look like an “all-or-nothing” mentality that keeps us from creating the change we want.
My working theory is that everyone struggles with perfectionism: it simply manifests differently for different people.
We all have our things that we are extremely particular about. Even folks who are super laid-back or happily disorganized or go-with-the-flow still have very defined preferences for certain aspects of their life.
I think it’s the root word “perfect” that throws people off. Very few people actually try to make everything to be absolutely perfect with no flaws at all times.
But, we do all sometimes have the belief that things have to be a certain way in order for us to be content or satisfied. Things have to match our personal standard in order to be acceptable — and that’s a sneaky form of perfectionism.
In this Truth for Teachers podcast episode, I’m going to share three thought patterns that you may recognize, explain how they’re actually tied to perfectionism, and give you some strategies to shift your thinking.
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1. If I can’t do something all the way, then there’s no point in doing it at all.
This is the mentality that keeps us from starting things. We look around at an area of the home or classroom that needs to be organized, or a pile of papers that need to be graded, and think:
I’m not gonna be able to get through the whole thing now, and it’s overwhelming to think about how long this it’s going to take.
It’s too much for me to do right now, so I’ll just wait until I have more time.
I don’t want to do a good enough job. I have this standard in my mind of what the outcome should be, and I’m not going to bother doing this task if I can’t do it exactly the way that I think it should be done.
That’s perfectionism. That’s holding yourself to an arbitrary standard of what is acceptable to you.
The truth is that you can’t give 100% to everything you do, and if you wait until you have a long uninterrupted block of time to tackle a big project, those big projects will just keep piling up because you don’t have that many long uninterrupted blocks of time.
If you reframe the situation, it’s much easier to get started. Figure out the minimum viable product and work toward that, or set a mini-goal for yourself.
I know I’m not going to be able to grade ALL of these assignments, but if I relax my standard about writing a detailed piece of feedback for every single student on this one assignment, I could knock that out now.
Success begets success, and productivity begets more productivity. When you let go of the idea you have to do something “right” or else it’s not worth doing it all, you’re able to get so much more done.
In reality, there aren’t that many things in life that are so important that we have to get to our level of perfection or contentment in order for the task to be complete.
2. I tried to get a new and better habit established and then I forgot or slacked off, so I guess this approach just isn’t going to work for me.
You know how this goes: “I’m going to ___ three times every week.” Then you skip two times, and then you give up on yourself. Your self-talk might sound like this: “Now I haven’t done it in two weeks, so I feel weird about trying to start now. It feels like I’m not going to be able to keep up this habit. I don’t want to try and then fail again.”
This, too, is a perfectionist mindset. You’re expecting yourself to have a perfect track record, even though no one else has always had a perfect track record in everything that they’ve attempted to do.
I hear this mindset a lot with members of the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. They’ll say, “I was doing so good with my list-making system or with not bringing work home or with managing my email, and then the basement flooded or it was report card week or something else happened and threw me off, and I never got back on track.”
Behind that mindset is the assumption that this is only happening to them–that everyone else starts a good habit and then keeps up with it indefinitely, so it must be some moral failing or laziness in themselves that makes them somehow deficient.
I don’t think anyone would describe themselves quite like that, but this is the underlying mentality. It’s the idea that there’s something wrong with me. Other people can do it and I can’t.
The truth, though, is that humans always make progress inconsistently. “Two steps forward, one step back” is a cliché for a reason. It’s that way for our spiritual and personal and professional and relationship development — any time we resolve to handle a situation a better way, we do it better one time, then we at some point slip back into the old way.
We don’t learn things at a consistent pace or develop habits consistently. We have “on” days and “off” days.
So, when you make the decision that you want to create some sort of change in your life, and then find that you are not able to implement that change consistently, you CAN interpret that as a failure, get discouraged, and decide either the strategy doesn’t work or there’s something wrong with you and your situation is just impossible.
Or, you can recognize that this is a sneaky form of perfectionism: Your expectation for yourself is that you will keep up perfectly — which may be interpreted as consistently — when in fact, being inconsistent with progress is normal and in no way insurmountable.
If you’re trying to eat healthily and you end up having two donuts, it doesn’t mean the whole day is ruined. Just make sure the next thing you put in your mouth is healthy.
If you didn’t use your to-do list system today, start making a list right now for what you’re going to do this evening. Don’t write off the entire day because of one slip-up. Get back on track now, in this moment.
You see, perfectionism is not being able to be flexible and bounce back after you mess up. You have to recognize that this is what’s happening, release yourself from the guilt of not doing things exactly how you had hoped you would do them, and keep moving forward.
With professional growth, you don’t need a clean start in the form of a brand new school year, as in, “I already messed things up with this group of kids, I’ll just make a change in August” or “This year’s almost over, oh well, I’ll do better next year.”
Don’t wait until next month or even next week, because you’ll just come up with more excuses and raise your standards higher and higher for what you want to accomplish. The new school year will start and you’ll have that new expectation along with 500 more, and you’ll end up not taking action again.
Just do what you can right now, even if it’s not exactly what you had envisioned. Maybe you can’t get your whole file cabinet organized, but you could clear off the top of your desk and be happy with the fact that you did it now instead of putting it off until you felt like you could do the whole thing perfectly.
3. I’m not any good at that, so I’m not going to try.
This sneaky form of perfectionism creeps in when we hear about something that created awesome results for other people.
Most of us have a lot of stories about what kind of person we are, what things we do, what things we don’t do, and so on.
What starts off as simple observations about history and preferences — observations that could enable us to live more authentically and happily — can turn into rigid rules where we don’t allow ourselves to experiment or grow outside of our comfort zone.
For example, you may have a story you tell yourself that you are not good with technology, or you could never be organized, or having a work-life balance is just impossible.
This kind of mentality closes you off to possible solutions. You’ve already decided that if you try to do something new in that area, you will fail, it will be a waste of time, and you will be either embarrassed or angry about the time and effort that you wasted.
What if you told yourself a different story? What if you told yourself, “I have struggled with technology in the past, but I know that learning this particular tool could ultimately save me time, and better serve my students. I have the ability to learn new things and stick with something when I really want it bad enough.”
This mentality does not allow perfectionism to hold you back. It’s loosening those restrictions on what you think success is supposed to look like so that you can explore something new.
If you are not a naturally organized person, your classroom next year will probably not look like what you see on Pinterest and Instagram. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t get organized in your own way–in a way that makes sense for you, even if it isn’t gorgeous-looking to everyone else.
You may not be able to have a perfectly clear desk and inbox zero every day — although I’d actually debate you on that, because I do think it’s possible! But I know sure that things could be better than what they are now if you release those standards of perfection.
If you stop expecting yourself to be perfectly on top of every message and every paper 24/7 and stop writing yourself off as a person who just isn’t a “together teacher,” I bet you can make incremental improvements.
Change the story you’re telling yourself.
Recognizing perfectionism and reframing it is especially important in light of the pandemic that’s turned our idea of “normal” upside down. You’re having to adjust to new mandates and policies and curriculum approaches right now more than ever, and the next school year is likely to be very demanding as well. It’s not going to be exactly like school years of the past.
So it’s crucial to let go of those old perfectionism stories that say, “If I can’t do it exactly how I want it to be done, there’s no point in doing it,” and the ones that say, “ I tried and it didn’t go well, so I guess it’s just not possible for me,” and the ones that say “ I’m just not good at that, so there’s no point in trying.”
If those stories didn’t serve you well in the old normal, they’re not going to work in the new normal, either. The teachers who believed that work/life balance was possible for them before, are also striving to make it happen now. The teachers who believed that prioritizing their self-care was essential before, are also striving to prioritize it now.
Your mindset can be the touchstone, if you will, throughout the pandemic and the various stages of “normal” that come after. Healthy, productive ways of thinking will help you thrive even when circumstances are constantly changing.
Be determined to hold to a belief that you are adaptable, you can learn new things, you can go with the flow, you can press through and do difficult tasks. That’s going to help you get through this time and next school year as well.
Small changes add up to big results. However, small changes require you to let go of the sneaky perfectionistic mindsets. If you feel like it’s not worth doing something unless you could do it all the way, and believe you must switch permanently to a new system with no slip-ups or falling off the wagon, and it can only be something that you’re already pretty good at anyways … you’re not going to be able to create change.
There’s nothing wrong with you or anything insurmountable in the way you do life. Consider the perfectionistic thinking that’s holding you back. Notice when you’re believing that small changes aren’t good enough, and assuming what you really need is a massive, sudden overhaul that you implement to your exact standard and meet for the rest of your life.
My friend, you are human, and that is impossible. Once you let go of what’s impossible, you set yourself up for real success.
Next year might be the most challenging school year yet, but you don’t have to figure things out alone. 40 Hour Teacher Workweek program has already helped more than 32,000 teachers. This can be the support system, community, and professional development resources you need to approach your teaching in a new and more productive way.
Please apply if you don’t want to pay out pocket!
You can also check with your school to see if there are unused PD funds — perhaps set aside for a speaker or a conference that was canceled — as those funds likely have to be used by June 30th or given back to the state. We can process a purchase order for your membership or even a membership for your entire team. If you need PD for next school year to help you adjust to remote teaching/hybrid expectations, see if your admin will use school funds to cover the cost.
Click here to learn more about ways to enroll in the course at no cost to you, including via DonorsChoose.
Whether you’ll be teaching remotely, working on a staggered schedule, using a hybrid model, or some other new reality … 40 Hour will connect you with emerging best practices and a community of other teachers who are committed to being truly intentional with their time and staying focused on what matters most.
And the best part?
Whenever the fall-out from this crisis is behind us and social distancing is no longer a concern for schools in your local area, you’ll STILL have access to all the resources you need.
The July 2020 cohort is also going to get all the “regular” materials which are designed for face-to-face instruction, so you can utilize them as soon as they’re relevant.
That’s because this program is designed to help you simplify throughout your teaching career — no matter what or where or how you teach later on. Yep — you keep your access to all the materials AND the Facebook group indefinitely, and can revisit them anytime!
I hope you’ll decide to join us this summer. None of us have all the answers, but we’re smarter together, and I’ve seen firsthand how innovative this community of teachers has been since day one.
I’m willing to do the hard work of finding the best practices and work-arounds for you next year, so you can cut through any mixed messages and impossible-sounding expectations to find a sustainable way to teach. Your mental, emotional, and physical health are more important now than ever, and I’m not giving up on my quest to help teachers stay in balance and show up as the best version of themselves each day.
It’s not going to be easy, but we can do this, together.