top of page

The Power of Reframing Perfectionism

Perfectionist. When I call this word to mind, my body tightens up.  When I say it, I enunciate every syllable. I stand straighter and my breath catches in my chest. This word has the energy of a honking car horn, startling me out of a long lull at a red light.

I am a perfectionist. This label sometimes feels at odds with my loosey-goosy self. But there are tell-tale signs when it comes to perfectionism. For me, it is not so much in the striving to be perfect, but in the failing when I am not. The sky has absolutely fallen when I’ve made a mistake. I’ve helped matters along by pulling anything left up there, down over my head, an avalanche of shame and guilt.

When aiming to please is paramount, a mistake is an arrow to the heart.

And even if everyone else forgives and forgets, you do not.

I didn’t realize I was a people-pleasing perfectionist until I got into recovery. Negative self-talk took up a lot of space in my addicted life and was the dedicated driver of my perfectionism. Whenever I messed up it was an automatic “I told you so” and a perfect opportunity to stay stuck in all the reasons why I was not lovable. I had to earn love, I had to do the right thing, the good thing and even better, the amazing thing. Recovery with its invitations to truth-telling, radical acceptance and self-love helped me to understand my perfectionism was a story I perpetuated to tether myself to an artificial sense of belonging. To belong, I had to be loved and to be loved, I had to be perfect.

The sense of having to earn love, I believe, comes from being adopted. My parents jokingly teased me with the story of how I came to be in their lives. All the other babies had been adopted from the hospital. I was the only one left and nurses decided to call me “Marilyn” instead of my birth name, Payton. The scene plays out with my parents walking around the empty cribs and suddenly happening upon me. Sure, I was skinny and bald, but they decided to take me home anyway. There were lots of chuckles, nods, and winks as they teased me with this story. I acted like it was funny and I know it was meant to be cute. But somewhere in my early years, I integrated a different meaning and folded it inside myself where it seeped into my psyche.

I better not make any mistakes. I don’t want to be given back.

I had many opportunities to practice being perfect so I wasn't returned. I did my best to shine despite being shy and terrified of anything or anyone new. My mothers firm push, along with my own determination had me dancing, singing, and acting in recitals and school plays. I ran track meets, was part of the gymnastics team and participated in sports days. I did all the extra-curricular activities and some, I did well. What I did even better was pretend that I was confident, and all this performing was easy. Confidence became one of my thrift-store costumes, on and off in the blink of an eye. I lived on the verge of my see-sawing emotions around stepping into the spotlight, tears ready to spill their secrets at anytime. And they did…which I’m sure confused my parents.

Pleasing them was an uphill battle. If I am half dreamer, my parents are wholly practical. The extra effort and time I put into my creative activities was tolerated as a hobby but not encouraged as a passionate purpose . No matter what routines, performances, or costumes I wore, praise was not something I heard a lot of. Unless it had to do with being practical. If I was practical, I received praise. Praise for making the practical choice left me conflicted and a little empty.

Relationships were another place to please and prove and try to be perfect. All this effort, most times, being completely missed. I was a method actor in most of my romantic relationships. It was a hell of a lot of work for never getting any of my wants or needs met. I stayed far longer than I should of with some, waiting for something to pull me out it. I also blew up – at break-neck speed - a few of those relationships, leaving a wake of flying debris, damage and feelings that would take years to repair. Others, I watched walk away and there was nothing to do except blame myself.

I lived this way for a long time. Towards the end of my drinking days, I was making serious mistakes and my perfect was starting to fall apart. The guilt, shame and loathing was overwhelming, and I was on crumbling ground. After one booze-filled evening, the gravity of bad choices was too much when I opened my eyes in the morning. I got up and dragged myself to a 12-step meeting a few hours later.

Fast forward to a couple of years into my sobriety. I was clear, I was grounded, and committed to a new way of life. And yet, I am still living under the tyranny of perfection. I have a son who struggles with emotional regulation and is extremely difficult to manage in public. He triggers my perfectionist/people-pleasing tendencies on a regular basis. It takes days to recover. It's better to stay home, out of sight and earshot.

I work with a team of women whom I deeply admire and respect. When I am meeting with this brilliant and experienced team, I often feel hollow and at a loss for anything brilliant to offer. And so, I take on more duties and the juggling gets a little more complicated. I can hold some heavy things. But when I drop balls - which happens -  I crucify myself.

Everyone forgives me…except me.

I don’t recall when I realized that I might need to acknowledge my perfectionism and possibly recover from it, but I started to verbally identify that I was recovering from perfectionism.

What does is mean to recover from perfectionism?

How do you recover from perfectionism?

It's not a tap you turn off.

I suppose for me it started to happen when I began to make amends and intentionally practice forgiveness. First, amends to and forgiveness of others in my life...and then with myself. The more I forgave, the softer I felt. When I practiced forgiveness, acceptance showed up. These two quelled the hard edges of my perfect and allowed what was truly authentic in me, emerge. I let those qualities be seen and heard.

And you know what?

People began respond to me in a way they never had before. I wasn’t doing anything other than going with my flow. Being myself. Goofy. Unrefined at times. Too chatty (get to the point, Payton). Clumsy. Messy. Forgetful. Imperfect.

Probably a jerk at times!

In the same breath, I recognize and embrace my warmth and my humanity; my style and creativity; my good communication skills. My grace. I’m all these things too. And more!

Just not perfect.

But the perfectionism isn’t all wrong. Through reading, reflecting, and hearing other experiences, I have come to accept that I don’t need to RECOVER from perfectionism. It has done me right in many circumstances. I am proud of my work ethic and my ability to show up and get the job done. I love my eye for detail and even my obsessive focus on important tasks. I love my appreciation for a job well done and beautiful things. I care and I love that I care. I don’t need to eradicate my perfectionism. I just need to manage it; to be aware of that tight feeling and remember to keep myself soft, flexible and humble. I want to make sure my striving doesn’t turn into tunnel vision. And that any mistakes I make are opportunities to learn and be human. So, these days, I am working on reframing perfectionism and embracing it's adaptive qualities.


This journey is a side road in my recovery. A winding but beautiful one. I often say in my classes and groups (and to clients), that our magic truly lies in our authenticity, and I believe it. Our values and purpose reside in our ability to be authentic. When I am me and you are you, perfectionism and all its hard edges have the opportunity to transmute and become something else. We get to decide what this is and how it can help us on a path to peace and power.


Speaking of reframing perfectionism, peace and power, here is a book recommendation. The Perfectionists Guide to Losing Control: A Path to Peace and Power by therapist and author, Katherine Morgan Schafler.

I love this book SO MUCH that I’m cooking up an eight-week book study program that will start in April, starring this groundbreaking book. The Embodied Book Club will offer connection, discussion and study, yoga and mindful movement, exercises to redefine and transmute our perfectionism, and circles to share and integrate what we experience. Pick up a copy and join me in April!


If you haven't already, sign up for my journal/newsletter HERE for more details coming soon!

And finally, registration for the annual Grace Happens Retreat in York Harbor Maine, October 23-27th, 2024 is now open. At the time of writing, we have eight spots available. This is a gorgeous 5 day/4 night retreat with SHE RECOVERS Coaches Kathy Robbins, MaryBeth Litchfield Murphy and yours truly. Think ocean-medicine, connection, group coaching, yoga, dance, cold-plunging (optional of course), labyrinth, spectacular food and more! It's an intimate retreat and will sell out. Grab your spot HERE!


With passion, peace and power,


Payton xo


bottom of page