How to Overcome Perfectionism
Learn what perfectionism is, signs you may be a perfectionist, its root causes, and (most importantly) 10 ways to overcome it.
How to Overcome Perfectionism
Learn what perfectionism is, signs you may be a perfectionist, its root causes, and (most importantly) 10 ways to overcome it.
By Becky Mollenkamp, PCC
You want to know how to overcome perfectionism, likely because you are one of the millions of people who struggle with a perfectionist mindset.
Perfectionism is on the rise globally, studies have found, and that’s not a good thing. Perfect isn’t possible (certainly not 100% of the time), so setting unattainable goals sets you up for frequent disappointment. The dangers of perfectionism are many, including such negative health outcomes as anxiety, sleep disturbances, depression, and even suicide.
Why do you hold yourself to unrealistic, and impossible, expectations? Why do you set yourself up to fail? Read on to find out the signs of perfectionism (they aren’t always what you think), perfectionism vs. healthy striving, root causes of perfectionism, and 10 ways to overcome it.
Signs of perfectionism
Not every perfectionist self-identifies as such. That’s because it doesn’t always manifest as the stereotypical Type-A overachiever. In fact, many of the signs of perfectionism can look quite different.
1. Not starting: For perfectionists, there are only 2 outcomes—success or failure (and success looks like first place, the best, perfection). When this is the case, you may avoid starting any new task. That may mean never trying new things like hobbies or projects at work, or it may mean procrastinating on things you must do until the last possible moment. If you don’t try, you can’t fail. [Read: How to Stop Black-and-White Thinking]
2. Quitting: Likewise, perfectionists hate failure so much that they will give up on any new thing they attempt if they can’t master it almost immediately. As soon as something feels difficult, they’ll quit, which feels like a more empowered choice to them than trying to get better and failing.
3. Craving approval from others: For most perfectionists, it’s not about deeming themselves as having done something perfectly, it’s about having someone else tell them they did it perfectly. So, they crave outside approval or validation and focus more on what others think of them or their efforts than they care about the actual effort itself.
4. Feeling guilty: Even small mistakes feel monumental to the perfectionist who will settle for nothing less than the best no matter what. So, they almost always feel as though they are failing—at work, at parenting, at being a partner, at being a member of their communities, etc.—and they constantly feel guilty for not doing more or better.
5. Imposter Syndrome: When you believe you need to be the very best all of the time, which isn’t possible, you will often feel down about yourself. This negative self-judgment turns into critical self-talk, and constantly beating yourself up like that turns into crippling self-doubt or Imposter Syndrome.
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6. Judging others: Perfectionists are often full of self-doubt and self judgment. One way they may deal with this is by tearing others down in an effort to make themselves feel better by comparison. Some amount of judging others is normal, but being hyper critical of most people most of the time is a telltale sign of perfectionism.
7. Refusing help: If you believe others will judge you as harshly as you judge yourself for not being perfect, then you won’t want to ask anyone for help—ever. Perfectionists work hard to keep up the appearance of having everything figured out and convincing everyone that everything is great, even when it’s not. Asking for help would spoil the illusion, and would feel like failure.
8. Defensiveness: Everyone gets upset when someone says something unkind to them, but perfectionists tend to get very defensive in the face of even helpful critiques. For a perfectionist, a critical comment intended to help them improve stings just as much as a cruel, unhelpful comment. You may be a perfectionist if you go into fight, flight, freeze mode in the face of any negative feedback.
9. Downplaying success: Perfectionists are never satisfied. Even when something looks like a smashing success to others, a perfectionist can’t celebrate. Their critical thoughts become things like “I should have done it faster” or “It shouldn’t have been that hard” or “I could have done even better” or “I just got lucky that time.”
10. Low self-esteem: Striving for—and rarely or never achieving—perfection contributes to low self-esteem. In addition to being critical of and doubting yourself, which lower self-esteem, you may also feel lonely thanks to judging others or not being honest with others about your struggles; and isolation is another risk factor for low self-esteem.
You don’t need to exhibit all, or even most, of these signs to be a perfectionist. But if you recognize yourself in any or many of them, there’s a good chance that you are dealing with at least some degree of perfectionism.
Examples of perfectionism
Many people associate perfectionism with academic or professional achievement—a person who doggedly pursues straight As, a rapid rise in rank in their career, industry recognition, and/or great wealth.
While these types of achievement are certainly common ways for perfectionism to play out, they’re not the only examples.
Perfectionism can also relate to a person’s body image. In fact, it’s closely linked to eating disorders. In this example, perfectionism causes someone to believe they must meet the “ideal” body type dictated by cultural norms.
In these cases, the perfectionist will likely have a distorted and negative view of and relationship with their body. They’ll be preoccupied with how they look, and may engage in extreme and unhealthy habits, like restrictive eating or excessive exercise, to try and reach body perfection.
Perfectionism may also look like people pleasing, a person who expects themselves to perfectly, immediately, and always care for others’ needs. For these folks, disappointing or upsetting others is their version of failure.
These perfectionists neglect their own care by placing others’ needs ahead of their own. And this often results in unhealthy, lopsided, codependent relationships.
Another example of perfectionism in action is rigid routines, including the compulsive kind characteristic of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). In an effort to increase the likelihood of success, a perfectionist may develop a pattern of doing certain tasks in specific ways.
In this case, perfectionism may look like adhering to a strict daily schedule, following a rigid exercise plan, or routinely eating specific meals. Or, they may insist on doing everything themselves because they can’t count on someone else to do it “right.”
Finally, perfectionists who become parents may unconsciously pass the trait onto their children. They may pressure their kids to also be perfect in their academic achievement, appearance, caring for others, or routines.
When their children inevitably come up short sometimes, they’ll likely be critical of their kids and their results. In turn, the child may begin to feel that love is conditional on perfection, thus continuing the perfectionism problem into another generation.
Perfectionism vs. healthy striving
Having high standards for yourself isn’t always a bad thing. Like perfectionists, healthy high achievers set lofty personal and professional goals, and they work hard to reach them. But there are some key differences between the two.
Healthy striving means being happy with any progress toward a goal. Chasing a goal is as—or even more—enjoyable than the outcome. The chase keeps a healthy high achiever motivated to keep trying, even if at first they don’t succeed.
Healthy striving may loo like being disappointed by falling short, but it also means being able to quickly bounce back and recommit to the pursuit.
Healthy high achievers can receive criticism without defensiveness because they view it as valuable information that can help them fine tune their efforts.
Also, they’re supportive of others because they believe success isn’t a finite resource. They know their worth is independent of outcomes, and unaffected by what others do or achieve.
All of this means that healthy high achievers actually achieve more and stress less than perfectionists.
What causes perfectionism?
Why do some people choose perfectionism vs. healthy striving? As with most personality traits, perfectionism is likely the result of both nature and nurture (and it’s rarely a conscious choice). Here are 4 of the most common root causes of perfectionism:
Cause # 1: Expectations
Parenting is one of the strongest predictors of perfectionism. The trait is often a result of growing up with caregivers who made you feel like their love or your worth was conditional on achieving certain outcomes.
The expectations didn’t need to be explicit, or even real. What matters is how you felt, and whether you believed (consciously or not) that meeting certain expectations made you more loved or accepted.
When a child receives praise for beauty, brains, achievement, beauty, or people pleasing, etc., they may believe that thing is all that makes them worthy. This is especially true when praise for that particular thing represents all or most of the praise they ever receive.
Even well-meaning and loving caregivers can fall into the trap of heaping on praise for one area of a child’s life, whether it’s because they happen to excel in that area or because the parents hold that area in higher esteem.
Also, while your primary caregivers are the most likely to create these beliefs, they can be given or reinforced by extended family, educators, society, culture—any person or group that strongly influences your understanding of the world, yourself, and your worth.
Cause 2: Mindset
Another way caregivers can plant the seeds of perfectionism is by encouraging a fixed mindset rather than a growth mindset.
A fixed mindset is the belief that traits like intelligence, talents, and skills are fixed. A growth mindset, on the other hand, sees those same traits as capable of improvement with effort and practice.
The fixed mindset is trapped in a binary—you have smarts, abilities, looks, etc. or you don’t. A child given this mindset will believe there are only two options—be perfect or be a failure. So, of course, they strive for perfection and beat themselves up for anything less.
Unfortunately, the fixed mindset is incredibly common. Many parents don’t recognize it in themselves, and therefore unwittingly pass it along to their children by focusing their praise and criticism on a child’s outcomes.
To instill a growth mindset, which dramatically reduces the likelihood of perfectionism, parents must make a concerted effort to bring more attention to a child’s process, efforts, and improvements than to their achievements.
Fixed mindset: “You got an A, way to go!”
Growth mindset: “I’m so proud of the effort you put in to improve your grade!”
Cause 3: Trauma
Children who grew up in an unpredictable or abusive environment may have developed perfectionistic tendencies as a way to control the chaos.
A child who experiences turmoil may try to be perfect as a way to avoid abandonment. Or if a child is constantly criticized or punished, being perfect in word and action may reduce the abuse.
This trauma also relates to living in a racist, patriarchal system [Read more: WTF is Patriarchy?]. Members of a marginalized group may develop perfectionistic tendencies as a survival tactic in a world that belittles and abuses them.
Adaptive responses to early trauma become so deeply ingrained and automatic that you may continue to repeat it long after the trauma has ended (or after you’ve developed more mature coping techniques). You may not even realize you’re doing it, or recognize what triggers it.
Cause 4: Comparison
Most of the world lives in racist patriarchal societies that privilege white men above others. This hierarchical system pits people against each other for wealth and power. [Read more: WTF is Patriarchy?]
Plus, the “American Dream” perpetuates the faulty idea that anyone can move up in the hierarchy if they work hard enough.
This leads people to compare themselves and their lives to others, and perhaps falsely believe that they can amass more wealth or power if only they are more perfect.
Social media has added fuel to the flames by making it easier than ever to see how you and your life stack up against others. That increases the pressure for perfection, which helps explain why perfectionism has increased substantially among young people over the past 30 years.
* Each of these reasons for perfectionism can help explain why you may logically recognize that perfect isn’t possible, and yet there’s some illogical part of you that continues to believe it’s possible (or even probable if you try hard enough). Also, they explain why, for perfectionists, “good enough” doesn’t feel good enough. And why they are so afraid to fail.
How to overcome perfectionism
Think you may have perfectionist tendencies? Don’t worry. Change is possible.
The first step is recognizing the patterns in yourself. Once you do that, you can begin taking steps toward releasing your perfectionistic habits. Here are 10 ways to stop perfectionism.
- Focus on meaning
When you hyperfixate on results, you lose sight of the big picture. Add in being mired in self-criticism because outcomes rarely match expectations, and you likely feel purposeless.
Overcome perfectionism by creating a new definition of success that aligns with your values and what matters most to you. When you pursue any goal, focus on the “why” behind it rather than the outcome.
Having a sense of meaning creates perspective. The more you’re fueled by purpose vs. result, the less it matters if it’s done perfectly.
- Right-size your expectations
Remind yourself at the start of any endeavor that perfect isn’t possible. With that in mind, challenge yourself to right-size your expectations by setting achievable goals.
Lowering expectations is difficult for perfectionists, but it’s essential. Perfection isn’t possible, and its pursuit is damaging to your health. So use these tips when setting goals.
- Make sure they align with your values and desires vs. things you think you “should” want.
- Implement “good-better-best” metrics to allow for flexibility vs. using all-or-nothing measurements (hit the exact goal or feel like a failure).
- Take baby steps. Set goals just one step beyond what you previously accomplished, and if this is a brand-new goal area, then…
- Cut the goal in half or double the amount of time you expect it to take. Seriously.
- Let “good enough” be good enough
It will feel uncomfortable to make mistakes, leave something unfinished, or otherwise complete a task imperfectly. Even so, the surest way to stop perfectionism is to intentionally accept “good enough.”
One way to practice “good enough” is by taking up a new hobby, something you know you’ll not immediately master. Focus on the process, and view mistakes as learning opportunities. This will take conscious effort!
Another way to hone the “good enough” skill is by using the 80/20 Rule (the Pareto Principle), which says “80% of the results come from 20% of the effort.” Identify your point of diminishing returns, or when you reach max payoff and it begins to wane. Forcibly stop at this point, even if there is more you could do.
- Develop a growth mindset
To stop perfectionism, you’ll need to shift from a fixed to a growth mindset. It’s not easy, and will take time, but it’s possible.
First, remind yourself that your worth doesn’t depend on being the best, and you don’t have to earn love. You are inherently valuable. It’s okay if you don’t yet believe this; keep telling yourself anyway. And it may help to list out your positive qualities, values, and strengths (or to have someone who loves you do it if you can’t).
Second, focus on process, effort, and improvements, more than achievements. And when you make a mistake or don’t reach a goal, stop critical thoughts and consider what you can learn. Reframe these moments as normal, essential parts of growing.
To learn more about fixed and growth mindsets, read “Mindset” by Carol Dweck, the leading researcher on the topic.
- Practice self-compassion
Perfectionism and self-criticism go hand in hand, and mental health issues are a common byproduct. Studies have proven that self-compassion is very effective at reducing these issues.
To foster self-compassion, try the RAIN practice from mindfulness teacher Tara Brach whenever you notice yourself falling into perfectionistic tendencies.
- Recognize what is happening.
- Allow the experience to be there, just as it is.
- Investigate with interest and care.
- Nurture with self-compassion.
What does self-compassion really mean? In short, it’s consciously treating yourself with kindness, forgiveness, and understanding (ie, how you’d treat a dear friend).
Challenge negative thoughts by replacing them with positive self-talk. Remind yourself of times when you’ve done well or survived failures. Repeat mantras, such as “perfect isn’t possible” or “failure isn’t fatal.” Or identify three things you appreciate each time you’re critical or feel unsatisfied. It can also look like placing your hands on your heart and saying, “you are safe and loved.”
Practicing self-compassion may feel awkward if it’s new for you. Even if you struggle or don’t feel you deserve it, do it anyway. The actions come first, and the beliefs will follow.
- Escape the comparison trap
Comparing yourself to others (or to a set of standards) contributes to perfectionism. Get out of the comparison trap using these 4 strategies:
- Practice gratitude: Regularly bringing attention to the good in your life can help reduce the compulsion to “compete” with others by pursuing perfection.
- Gas yourself up: Instead of focusing on ways you are inadequate compared to others, focus on what you do well and celebrate your strengths.
- Find similarities: Train yourself to look for commonalities with others, which fosters connection rather than toxic comparison.
- Quiet the noise: Consume less social media, pop culture, or other external messaging that contributes to comparison and perfectionism. [Listen: Conscious Media Consumption]
- Be more mindful
Many of these strategies require conscious effort, meaning you must have in-the-moment awareness to purposefully implement them. Practicing mindfulness can help you strengthen your attention, and keep you in the present moment rather than fixating on potential outcomes.
Need help being more mindful? These 3 exercises are free, easy, and take only minutes.
- Practice self-care
The pursuit of perfection often means taking on too much and working too hard, which leaves you feeling exhausted and resentful. Imagine how much better you could feel if you gave relaxation half as much effort as you give to your goals.
You may think of self-care as a waste of time, or something you’ll get to when you’re not so busy (of course that never actually happens). Remind yourself that rest and relaxation are necessary to maintaining your motivation, energy, and health over the long haul.
Self-care is about more than bubble baths and pedicures. It can also look like setting and enforcing boundaries, saying no, or anything else that honors your needs. Learn more about the entire self-care spectrum, and then make a commitment to yourself to begin prioritizing your own care.
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- Take your time
As a perfectionist, you have a tendency to expect excellence from yourself—in short order and with no learning curve. Don’t let overcoming perfectionism be another thing you have to do perfectly!
You’ve spent most of your life viewing the world through the perfectionist lens. It’s unrealistic to think you can change it overnight. In fact, it will probably take you years or even the rest of your life to release perfectionism. And that’s okay!
Don’t give up when it gets difficult. Remember the costs of perfectionism, and love yourself as you continue to recommit to changing your habits.
- Get support
It can be helpful to have an environment where you feel safe and accepted to discuss perfectionism. Getting honest about it in a mastermind group or other gathering of peers may help you see that you’re not alone in your habits or fears.
Likewise, you can enlist support from a coach (this is the work I do), caring boss, or peer that you trust (that last part is key). Ask them to gently remind you when your expectations are too high, and warn them that you may get defensive but will appreciate the feedback. You can have them review your work and help you hone your “good enough” skill.
Finally, if you suspect your perfectionism is a trauma response, or if you feel it has led to anxiety, OCD, depression, or another mental health issue, it’s important to seek the help of a mental health professional (Warning: coaching isn’t a substitute for therapy).
Perfection isn’t possible, and yet so many of us make ourselves the exception to that rule. We expect nothing but the best from ourselves, and constantly feel miserable because of it. It’s time to stop setting ourselves up to fail. Follow the tips I’ve shared here, and you can begin the long, (but rewarding) process of overcoming perfectionism.
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