Overcoming Perfectionism

What is Perfectionism?

There is nothing wrong with having high standards for yourself and aiming for clear, attainable goals. However, some people take things too far and set standards for themselves that are either extremely difficult or downright impossible to achieve. This strong need for success in all things is known as perfectionism.

How can I tell if I am a perfectionist?

One way to think about perfectionism is to think about it as a phobia or fear of making mistakes. Perfectionists believe that making even one small mistake will be catastrophic. Making mistakes means that they are a bad person, and a failure. Avoiding and eventually making mistakes leads to feelings of stress and disappointment.

A good way to recognize if perfectionism is affecting you is if your high standards are:

  • putting a strain on your relationships
  • causing struggles at work or in school
  • limiting your enjoyment of life

If you believe you are struggling with perfectionism, you may need to loosen your high standards for yourself. Here are some ways you can begin to do that:

5 Steps for Dealing with Perfectionism

1. Recognition

The first step in any recovery process is recognizing the things that you may be feeling, thinking or doing that are harming you.

Here are a few examples of perfectionistic feelings:

  • feeling depressed, frustrated or angry because of your goals or standards
  • criticizing yourself for not doing a good job even when you put in the time and effort

Some examples of perfectionistic thinking include:

  • Thinking only in terms of extremes – If you aren’t absolutely perfect, you are a failure. If you have to ask for help, you are weak.
  • Catastrophic thinking – When you think catastrophically, consequences always seem dire. If you make a mistake, the humiliation will be unbearable. If someone gets upset with you, you won’t know how to handle it.
  • Probability overestimation – Expecting not to do well on a presentation despite hours of preparation, expecting to be fired after a couple of sick days.
  • Should statements – Should statements reinforce the high standards you’ve set for yourself, making them a requirement: “I should never be late for work.” “I should always exercise 1 hour every day.”

And some examples of perfectionist behavior include:

  • Chronic procrastination or giving up easily
  • Overly thorough when completing tasks, taking an excessive amount of time
  • Spending an unnecessary amount of time double checking something for mistakes – such as a quick email or text message
  • Re-doing things frequently in order to improve them and make them perfect
  • Fixating on small details
  • Making exhaustive “to do” list
  • Avoiding new things and the potential for mistakes

2. Changing Thinking

Overcoming perfectionism includes combatting the negative thought patterns that were mentioned above. Here are some tactics for changing the way you think:

First, you can work on making your thinking more realistic. Replace negative, critical or pessimistic thoughts with positive statements such as:

“All I can do is try my best.”

“No one is perfect, everyone makes mistakes.”

“It’s ok to have a bad day.”

“I can’t be liked by everyone; no one is.”

Such statements may not come naturally at first and you might not fully believe them but if you make a conscious effort to integrate these phrases into your daily thoughts, it will start to lessen the burden placed on your shoulders by perfectionism.

The second thing you can do is try to gain a better perspective. Perfectionists tend to get caught up in their own world, only seeing things from their perspective, but it can be valuable to understand how things might look from another vantage point. For example, you might feel badly for indulging in a sugary snack, but others might see that as a perfectly acceptable thing to do. Gaining perspective can prevent you from being too hard on yourself and help make your goals and expectations of yourself more realistic.

It can also be helpful to think of things in terms of the big picture, especially if you find yourself fixating and agonizing over the smallest of details. Here are some questions to ask yourself to help change your focus:

  1. Does it really matter?
  2. What is the worst that could happen?
  3. If the worst does happen, can I survive it?
  4. Will this still matter tomorrow? Next week? Next year?

Lastly, you can work on lowering your standards to a more acceptable and attainable level. Such compromises might be difficult, but are necessary in dealing with perfectionism. It may be helpful to take gradual steps instead of trying to lower your expectations too quickly, which can provoke feelings of anxiety.

3. Changing Behavior

Changing perfectionistic behavior is similar to getting over a phobia – you must face the thing you fear. In this case, that thing is imperfection. By gradually and purposefully making mistakes, little by little you can become comfortable with not being perfect all the time.

These are just a few ideas for ways to start pushing yourself out of your comfort zone:

  • Leave an area of the house a little messy.
  • Arrive 15 minutes late for a meeting
  • Admit to someone that you are confused (or something else that you see as a weakness)
  • Leave a few mistakes uncorrected in an e-mail

Keep in mind that you probably won’t see results right away. It takes dedicated and frequent practice for your anxiety levels to come down and your behavior to change.

4. Stopping Procrastination

One way that many perfectionists cope with their high standards is through procrastinations. When the demands you put on yourself are impossibly difficult to achieve, it can feel easier to put off doing a task rather than put forth all the work, effort and fretting that your high standards demand. This is why your home may be messy even though you have high standards of cleanliness or why you do your assignments last minute even though you’ll accept nothing less than straight A’s in school. You may not know where to start with a task because of the overwhelming requirements you place on yourself, or worry that it won’t be good enough, no matter what you do. Procrastination may help ease your stress, but it is only a temporary fix that just postpones your stress and anxiety for later. Here are some ways to keep yourself from procrastinating:

  • Create a Realistic Schedule – You can help make a project seem less daunting by breaking it down into manageable steps. As you reach and accomplish each small step towards the overall goal or deadline, reward yourself for your progress. Keep in mind as you set these steps that the point is to complete the task, not to do it perfectly – this will help you keep your tasks small and manageable and stop you from getting overwhelmed.
  • Set Priorities – Understand that you can’t devote all of your energy and effort to every little thing. You can do this by prioritizing your tasks and deciding which are the most and least important. Focus your energy on the things that are most important and allow yourself not to give 100% on the things that are least important.

5. Rewards

Rewarding yourself along the way can help you stay motivated as you attempt to change your perfectionistic thinking and behavior. Rewards might include going out for dinner, getting a treat, or even just going for a walk or watching a movie. Give yourself the chance to relax and reflect on the progress that you’ve made. It will make the road ahead feel much brighter.

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