How to Recover From Perfectionism with Petra Kolber

    By Melinda Fulmer

Perfect doesn’t exist. Yet so many of us chase it, comparing ourselves to others on Instagram, beating ourselves up when we fall short, and letting our inner critic kill our joy, says happiness expert Petra Kolber.

“We think to be worthy, we need to be perfect,” Kolber says. But in an era of selfie filters and picture-perfect social media moments, “perfect” is an illusion and so will always be out of reach.

Kolber’s personal experience with toxic perfectionism throughout her 20-year fitness career and the toll it took on her body and mental health is chronicled in both her TEDx Talk, podcast and upcoming book “The Perfection Detox : Tame Your Inner Critic, Live Bravely, and Unleash Your Joy” (Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2018). Now Kolber is hoping to help others break free from the negative thoughts and fear holding them back from happiness, with a step-by-step guide to breaking the cycle.

Wait, is perfectionism always a bad thing?

There’s nothing wrong with having high standards and wanting to be your best self, Kolber says. But perfectionism doesn’t guarantee success, and it can hold you back from savoring your experiences and actually taking the risks necessary to achieve your dreams. Kolber does not believe that success needs to come at the expense of our own happiness.

“When perfectionism is not working for you, it is fueled by fear, doubt and the imposter syndrome,” Kolber says. “It’s that idea of wanting to shine and stand out yet still wanting to fit in.” And, she adds, it’s tremendously isolating.

Kolber says her fear of not looking smart enough or thin enough—fear and anxiety she attributes to her shame at growing up with an alcoholic father and being told by her role models that she wasn’t ever “good enough”—fueled eating disorders when she was a dancer at the beginning of her career and full-blown panic attacks at the height of her success as a national fitness personality, prompting her to turn down network television work for fear she would lose control and the panic and anxiety would take over.

“That’s when I realized the whole idea of perfect was not working,” Kolber says. She spent the next seven years in therapy for her anxiety (which at the beginning included anti-anxiety medication) and studying the science of positive psychology, which coupled with her insights into the healing power of physical movement, provide the foundation for the Perfection Detox program.

Here are the three stages of self-discovery Kolber says are vital to drown out those destructive voices of your past and find more joy in the present.

Part I: Identify your inner critic and unleash your potential

The first step in shutting down that negative voice, Kolber says, is noticing that it is even there, then figuring out exactly what it is saying and just how often you’re hearing it every day.

  • What are the top three negative thoughts or criticisms playing on repeat in your head? Is it “I’m not smart enough,” “I’m not thin enough” or “I’m not successful enough?”
  • How many times a day do you catch yourself saying it?

Question those thoughts and shut them down before they become full-blown ruminations or obsessions looping in your brain. “When you hear that [negative] thought, say, ‘I am enough,’” Kolber says. “Or ‘I refuse to beat myself up.’”

Look at what things trigger those thoughts in you, Kolber says. Is it certain people, a location, action or emotional state? What happened immediately before that judgy thought?

If you find yourself being sucked down a self-destructive rabbit hole, Kolber suggests taking a STOP break to short-circuit the repetitive negative thoughts. The acronym stands for:

  • Stand up.
  • Take a walk.
  • Observe your surroundings
  • Pick a positive thought.

By identifying your triggers and not allowing yourself to wallow in all your perceived failures or mistakes, Kolber says you can begin to address the “reality of your situation rather than just the mental dialogue in your head.”

Part II: Shift your focus and live bravely

The next step is learning to embrace the possibility of failure rather than trying to avoid it.

“When we live in this world of trying to be perfect and not be found out and not make mistakes,” Kolber says, “we stay with what we know we will be good at and try to control the outcome.”

That usually makes for a smaller, more isolated existence, Kolber says, and it can hamper your success because you’re not taking risks or growing your skills. She explains, “When we can look at our mistakes as proof that we are trying, we are able to learn from any mishaps and take usable and useful data from the perceived failure into the next iteration.”

You have to release the idea that you can control everything, Kolber says, ask for help when you need it, and sometimes force yourself to say yes to opportunities even before you know you’re ready.

“It’s learning how to stretch and expand your dreams of how you can show up in this world,” Kolber says, “rather than waiting for the perfect moment.”

Part III: Liberate yourself and unleash your joy

It’s important to seek the good in yourself and others as well as the positives in the situations you encounter each day. It’s something that you might have to work at—especially on tough days or when a project flops, for instance—but it pays big dividends in happiness, Kolber says.

The daily repetition of gratitude and positivity helps rewire our brains, ultimately leading to more positive thoughts, then more positive behaviors and, in time, more joy.

  • Think of three positive things each day that you are looking forward to, and write them down where you can see them to align your day with these intentions.
  • Talk to yourself with as much kindness as you would talk to a good friend.
  • Keep an open mind and stay curious about what might bring you joy.

“We can shift off this idea of focusing on perfection and instead focus on passion” and purpose, Kolber says, bringing more of the things we value into our lives. That doesn’t mean you’re a slacker, Kolber says. You will probably work just as hard as before, if not harder, yet you will be motivated by possibility and potential versus doubt and fear.

“I’m working harder than I ever have, and I have more joy and freedom and capacity for failure than I’ve ever had in life,” Kolber says. The difference, she says, is that now she can savor the experience, not beat herself up for mistakes, and she’s not pinning her happiness on a specific outcome or goal. Kolber hasn’t had a panic attack in 10 years.

“I still have bouts of social anxiety, I still have days when I fear being judged and I still occasionally get anxious,” Kolber says. But, she adds, she no longer feels the need to be perfect.

“The focus is off me. I am no longer my thoughts.” This shift, she says, “has allowed me to dream bigger and more importantly help others do the same.”

Photo credit: Mark Kuroda, kurodastudios.com
Hair and Make-up: Mia Delina Escobar


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Melinda Fulmer

Melinda Fulmer is a veteran writer and editor with more than 15 years of experience writing about health, food, and fitness. Her work has been featured in major media channels such as the Los Angeles Times, MSN, Cosmopolitan Magazine, Los Angeles magazine, Entrepreneur, HGTV.com, Prevention.com, and Details magazine.