Have you ever told yourself that anything less than perfect is not enough? Have you beaten yourself up for making a mistake, big or small? Do you have an all-or-nothing mindset when it comes to success, where things that are not flawless feel like failures?
If you answered yes to any of the above questions, you may be a person who possesses perfectionist qualities, someone with extremely lofty standards for themselves and who chases 100% perfection in the things that they do. At first glance, that could be a good thing. For example, many individuals who hold these qualities are very high achievers, disciplined, and go above and beyond. But perfectionism can quickly become maladaptive. You often end up disappointed with anything less than 100% perfect. Even more so, having punishingly ambitious standards and being overly self-critical may negatively affect your self-esteem and mental health.
Perfectionism can be overwhelming to cope with. Below are some gentle suggestions to overcome the maladaptive sides of perfection:
- Take stock of what is driving your need for perfection.
Perfectionism is an attitude and mindset that may have different motivators. Take a moment and think about what that could be for you. Is it internal pressure? External ones? It could be a fear of failure. Or fear of judgment? Or criticism? Is it a desire for praise? Is it a need for total control? Are you used to only high achievement? Are you worried about what others think of you? Reflect upon which fears or expectations apply to you and where those pressures derive from. Acknowledging and unpacking those feelings and thoughts is a courageous first step.
- Acknowledge that slip-ups and failures are normal and can be an opportunity for growth.
Only some things in life are perfect or will go perfectly without some minor or significant slip-ups along the way. But, of course, that’s true for everybody. So, understanding that failures are typical and to be expected is a necessary part of confronting our perfectionism. Errors, mistakes, and flaws in ourselves and life help us grow and are a part of the human experience.
For example, teachers sometimes give space for and even encourage their young students to fail. That allows children to experience the feeling of failure and learn from their mistakes. It lets them know they’re in a space free to take risks, be curious, and make mistakes. Even the world’s most successful high achievers will have experienced failure and made mistakes. Perhaps it was their risk-taking, curiosity, and personal reflection and growth that allowed them to achieve their success.
After we acknowledge the drivers of our perfectionism, the next step is to confront that fear or expectation. Allow yourself to fail — even with something small, like learning a new task — and see how it makes you feel. Ask yourself, what part of this failure makes me feel negative? And, what about these mistakes am I so afraid of?
- Understand the costs of perfection.
Have you ever heard the aphorism “Perfect is the enemy of good”? Or the enemy of progress, or the enemy of done? It tells us that perfection can be a trap that holds us back from genuinely aligning with our goals and values. A hyper-focused mindset on perfection can become restrictive. Perfectionism is linked to procrastination, where the fear of not producing the perfect product leads you to delay working on the task.
Another way perfectionism restricts us is by preventing us from taking risks. Risk-taking and trying new things are how many innovations, creative decisions, and successes are formed. Removing yourself from new experiences or ways of thinking may only decrease the success that you’re fiercely striving for.
Striving for perfection can also have adverse mental health outcomes. For example, the relentless pursuit of perfection can cause anxiety, stress, and depression. In addition, some mental health issues can be the driver of perfectionism; for example, a study published in the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center found that those with anxiety tend to have perfectionistic traits. Therefore, taking stock involves identifying the drivers and what your striving for perfection might be costing you, including how it’s impacting your mental health.
- Try a new frame.
Lastly, in challenging our perfectionist qualities, a slight change in framing can make a significant difference.
Rather than chasing perfection, you can pursue excellence. Shooting for excellence allows you to challenge yourself but leaves space for risk-taking and errors. With just a tiny mindset change, it can also temper personal expectations. Or you can strive to do your best, a bold goal acknowledging that not everything will go perfectly your way.
It is possible to honor the part of yourself that strives for perfection and utilize that energy more adaptively.
Some of Georgetown Psychology’s suggested re-frames include the following:
- being willing to take risks
- *preferring* not to make mistakes
- accepting defeat/failure/rejection as an opportunity to grow
- finding support in relationships
- honor your limits but sometimes push yourself
- disciplined and spontaneous
- accepts minor mistakes
- can rest after a job well done
- sets attainable goals for
- draws self-worth from internal and external factors
- honor your emotional experience