How to Actually Be Happy with Imperfection (Advice from a “recovered perfectionist”)

October 11, 2016

My Body Love Tip this week is for all the perfectionists out there who may be having trouble “letting go” of perfectionist tendencies:

Pour your “perfection” into the effort, not the outcome!


How being a perfectionist can kill dreams – and joy!

I spent a huge part of my life allowing perfectionism to keep me from pursuing things I wanted to do, or from enjoying the things that I did pursue, because I didn’t want to look ‘stupid’ for not doing them right, or not being good enough.

Perfectionism is paralyzing – and it also feeds procrastination, big time.

Though I was aware of this, it didn’t help to hear the words “let it go”, or “just do it, who cares”. To a perfectionist, these words are appalling! We want things to be just right, and it’s so damn hard to let go of doing the best job we can. Doing something half-assed is just not worth doing at all.

Most people who’ve struggled with body image issues can probably relate to being high on the perfectionist scale:  highly focused on improving “imperfections”, getting the perfect body, perfect size, perfect skin, etc. And perfectionist tendencies aren’t easy to give up, especially if we’ve been keeping them up for most of our lives, as I have.

But over the past couple of years, I’ve made an important discovery: I don’t have to “let go” of perfectionist tendencies – instead, I can make them work for me, by simply re-directing them.

What it means to “re-direct” perfectionist tendencies

Perfectionism becomes a problem because we usually attach it to an expected “perfect” outcome. In other words, we expect that the “final product”, or the end result, to perfectly meet our expectations. But if we can learn to direct our perfectionism instead towards the process of getting there, our journey becomes a much richer and more rewarding experience, no matter what the end result (because we begin to learn that there really is no final destination!)

We can’t always control the outcome, but we CAN control our efforts.

Note: by “perfecting the process”, I don’t mean doing everything perfectly. In fact, that’s the opposite of a perfect process because it probably means we’re playing it a little too safe if we’re able to be perfect at everything. To me, a perfect process is defined as one in which we give it our very best, given the tools, circumstances, and knowledge available to us at any given point. It’s acknowledging that, at ANY point along the journey, we can honestly say we are giving our best effort to the process of getting to our desired outcome (goal) – no matter how long it takes us to get there.

And the best part is that we don’t need to go “half-assed” about it, or even “let go” of what we take pride in, which is a job well done. We just need to be OK with knowing that we might not reach the exact outcome we want (what and when), knowing that we’re learning and growing and enjoying the process of getting there anyways, by giving it a “perfect” effort (which doesn’t necessarily translate into “working hardest” either).

Here’s what a “perfect” effort now means to me:

  • Being smart, and clearly identifying our priorities so we know where to put our energy – if we don’t do this, we can be pulled in a million different directions that can (and inevitably will) deplete us
  • Listening to and honouring our needs along the way – which may, and probably will, differ each day (i.e. not burning ourselves out or making ourselves sick from our efforts)
  • Finding ways to flow and adjust with unexpected events that may happen along the way – not resisting, fighting, or allowing them to throw us off track (this only causes us more stress, and can actually lengthen the process of getting to our goals!)
  • Keeping our eyes on ourselves and our own process, NOT on what others are doing (comparisons can take a perfectionist down in a flash!)

For me, this shift in how I’ve defined perfectionism has made an enormous difference in the things I’ve been able to accomplish – because it’s actually allowed me to take on more “scary” things, since I no longer worry about achieving a “perfect” outcome, as long as I’m giving it my best effort.

It’s also allowed me to stop being concerned (i.e. obsessed) about the immediate results of my healthy habits. I no longer look for short-term results, I’m in it for the long haul, so I don’t measure or weigh myself to see what the outcome is. I just focus on doing my best each day (i.e. following the above “perfect” guidelines), and my health and fitness are the best they’ve ever been.

And I don’t plan on stopping here. This isn’t my final outcome!

The “recovered perfectionist”

I’ve been calling myself a ‘recovered perfectionist’ for a while because, although I haven’t eliminated my tendency towards perfectionism, as mentioned above, I’ve been able to manage it into a much healthier and much more helpful habit.

It became particularly apparent to me just HOW helpful when, this past weekend, as I was running my first marathon, things started going very differently than I expected…

Before my race, when people asked what my goal was, I answered: “To finish! ……Aaaannd I’d like to do it in 4h 30 mins”.

A 4h30 min (or less) race would have been my “perfect outcome”. I knew that it was totally within my grasp, given what I was able to accomplish during my training.

Here’s how it actually went:

For the first 18km (of 42km), I ran a very comfortable pace (was even chatting it up with other runners here and there): I was feeling great, confident and extremely optimistic of reaching my goal time…

Then just after 18km, I felt my right knee start to give me some pain. It was mild to start, then got almost debilitating, very quickly. I’d felt this pain before, but had managed to avoid it for most of my training.

My first feeling was fear, as I did a quick calculation of how many km I still had to go, in pain.

My next feeling was disappointment, realizing that I wouldn’t hit my time goal, and maybe not even finish.

My third feeling was determination (the perfectionist kicking in), trying to figure out how to work through this pain and still make it to the end in good time.

But then the feeling that occurred next – because I’ve trained myself over the years to recognize when perfectionism isn’t serving me – was surrender.

(To clarify, surrender does not mean giving up. It simply means to let go of resistance to what’s happening in the moment, and of attachment to an outcome….the healthy kind of “letting go” 🙂 )

I started walking and talking myself through the situation as I would to a friend, or to my little girl. My intentions shifted to just doing my best, giving the “perfect” effort in each given moment, for the remaining 23.5km – and hopefully crossing the finish line without serious injury, or having to stop.

I didn’t stop running (but did take a walking break whenever my body told me it was time). I didn’t stop smiling and waving to the enthusiastic and supportive volunteers, spectators, and marathon photographers. I didn’t stop making conversation with other runners going a similar pace.

“If I don’t make it this time, there will always be other races”, I thought, “It’s not worth causing permanent damage to my knee – so if I have to stop and walk the rest of the way, I will”. My goal then became to stay very present, listen to my body, and keep going as long as I still felt I could.

I gave my perfect effort, and I finished the race in 4h50mins. I’m also recovering quickly, without injury.

I share this story because, when I reflected back on the race, the main thing that occurred to me was how the (new) perfectionist in me wouldn’t have changed a thing about it – despite not reaching my initial goal! I loved every bit of the experience – I learned a ton (even what I’d do differently next time), I grew from it as an individual, and was inspired by every single runner in front of me and behind me.

A PERFECT experience, outcome and all.

After crossing the finish line from my first marathon this weekend – with my biggest cheerleader, Miss Eve 🙂

p.s. in the spirit of imperfection, there’s no video this week, as I allow my physical body to recover! (In fact, if you find typos or grammatical errors in this post, I’m OK with that too) My perfect effort today is defined as getting this message out while it was fresh on my mind and in my heart to share with you all, as I rest my tired body 🙂

So, my perfectionist friends, in which area of your life can YOU start to re-direct your perfectionism and become a ‘recovered perfectionist’ too? Please share in the comments below!

Did you like this tip?

Pass it on to the perfectionists in your life who can use a little more Body Love!

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Remember: When you shine your gifts, you define your beauty!


  • Geoff Affleck

    Well done, Kim! To train for and run a marathon is an amazing accomplishment. Eve must be very proud of her amazing mom.

    • Thanks so much Geoff! It was so great to have her cheering me on and watching my journey 🙂