How To Overcome Perfectionism: 6 Experts Share Incredibly Powerful Tips + Strategies To Cope With Perfectionism
“Perfectionism is not the same thing has striving to be your best. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement, and shame.”
― Brené Brown
A sincere thanks to all the awesome experts who shared their best tips, insights and strategies on how to overcome perfectionism.
“Core values serve as a lighthouse when the fog of life seems to leave you wandering in circles; when you encounter that moment where every decision is a tough one and no choice seems to clearly be the better choice.” ~ J. Loren Norris
PsychologyToday.com explains that core "values are a set of attitudes, unique to each individual, which govern our behavior and guide the way we look at the world."
Essentially, core values are the beliefs, ideas, and concepts that we have about ourselves and the world around us, that help steer us in the direction we would like our life to head.
On the contrary, perfectionism can often be rooted in the need to exceed expectation in a specific area or improve a skill or ability to the point that we feel that we can completely succeed at a particular task.
And while it can be important to have goals and ambitions to work towards in life, reaching for perfectionism can also lead to heartbreak and immense amounts of stress, especially when we feel we are not excelling to the best of our perceived ability.
Rather than seeking this often-times unrealistic goal of perfectionism, we can instead look at how we can expand on our internal strengths and beliefs, known as core values, as a way of achieving goals, learning new skills, and exceeding our own expectations without the pressures of performing our abilities to a perceived state of perfection. Basically, we are wanting to use our internal qualities to achieve something to the best of our ability.
First, let’s consider how we can identify your own personal core values.
This task may involve a lot of inner work and encourage you to take a deeper look at your strengths, weaknesses, fears, hopes and dreams. It can be scary to do this at first, but also very enlightening throughout the process.
The closer you are willing to look within yourself, the more robust your core values can be that ultimately surface from this exploration, and the easier it will be for you to use these inner traits and beliefs in ways that help you to succeed in life.
Consider exploring your own core values by:
Practicing reflective journaling
Tring a ‘brain dump’ or mind-mapping
Chat with a trusted friend and ask their opinion of your core values
Google a list of core values and create your own using this template
Explore your inner strengths and qualities with the help of a mental health professional
Once you have established a list of your core values, consider how these can be used to work towards your goals, or to help you achieve more in your everyday life. The desired outcome is not perfectionism; it is to try your best with the skills and strengths you already have inside of yourself.
As we grow and evolve as people, our core values may change over time, so you may want to identify your personal core values at different intervals of change throughout your life.
Just as your goals and direction in life may change, the strengths within yourself are constantly changing and evolving over time. You may be surprised to learn what lies within yourself to help you accomplish and work towards your future self, without the weight of perfectionism crushing your spirit.
Additional Reading: How to Identify Your Personal Core Values
Heather LeGuilloux, MA, RCC - www.heatherleguilloux.ca
Perfectionism is the pursuit of “perfect” where anything less is failure.
It requires constant judgement of oneself or others, and demands nothing less than 100%. It is living by a set of impossible standards. These standards might be self-imposed based on a belief that that’s what others want, imposed by others onto us, or imposed on ourselves because our self-worth depends on it.
No matter the reasoning for this demand for perfection they all results in the same thing: disappointment, a feeling of failure, depression, low self-esteem, anxiety, etc.
Why? Because perfection is unattainable. No one is perfect. No one has ever been perfect. No one will ever be perfect.
The pursuit of perfection is not one new to human kind.
The people of ancient civilizations and cultures struggled with the same emotional and psychological challenges we deal with today. They didn’t have life coaches, therapists, or psychologists do help them with these issues.
Instead, they had philosophers who questioned the world and developed ideas on how to live a good life. Most of them believed that a good life was one free of negative emotions, including those emotions that result when one pursues perfection and falls short.
One such philosophical school of thought called Stoicism blossomed in Ancient Rome.
In this philosophy we find some concepts to help break the chains perfectionism places upon us, freeing ourselves from the resulting negative emotions.
Indifference to Standards and Opinions of Others
Ancient Stoics valued freedom. They were unwilling to do anything that gives another person power over them. The high standards of someone who pursues perfection are often the standards that others have placed on them, they have placed on themselves because they believe others demand it, or they place on themselves in order to be loved, accepted, or valued by others.
In each of these cases, the person pursuing perfection gives up the freedom to be themselves. They must speak or act in a certain way to meet these impossible standards to please another.
When they fail to meet these standards, in rushes feelings of failure and anxiety. These standards are impossible to meet because the standards or what pleases a person are constantly in flux. They change from person to person and moment to moment.
The Stoic solution to these standards is indifference. Indifference both toward pleasing or displeasing others via being indifferent to these standards.
So then, how to you practice indifference?
You can’t just walk outside your home one day and say, “I am indifferent to society's standards of beauty” and mean it. Indifference takes practice, so start small. Perfectionism is unpleasant. It’s likely you don’t agree with all the standards you are trying to meet.
Pick one, a small one at first, and rebel.
Don’t like the demand that you must dress a certain way? Make a small rebellion and wear fun socks. What about that you must be busy 24/7 to be valued/productive?
Take a nap, see a movie, REST! Do what you feel is best for you. You will not only be freeing yourself from impossible standards, but you are free to be you as well! You may even see your quality of life improve.
Over time, it will be easier and easier to be indifferent to others’ standards and do what’s true to you.
Identify What you Can and Cannot Control
Stoic ideas of indifference are also consistent with identifying and distinguishing what you can control and what you cannot control, another important Stoic concept.
In the case with indifference, you cannot control what standards others hold for you, or the opinion they have of you whether or not you meet their standards.
You cannot control outside influences that may prevent you from achieving these standards of perfection. You cannot control society’s standards or ideas of “what is perfect.” In some of these cases, you may have some influence but not complete control over the results.
For example, you may have some influence on someone’s opinion of you by acting kindly, but not complete control over the opinion they form. You cannot force someone to have a good opinion of you.
On the other hand, you can control your own thoughts and actions, how you respond to people, what you pursue or your goals, your character, and your values. Placing focus on what you can control, rather than what you cannot control changes your goal and moves away from perfectionistic standards.
Internal vs. External Goals
The standards of perfectionism, can be understood as external goals.
They are goals that are outside ourselves. An example of a perfectionistic goal might be getting a score of 100% on every test. This is a goal to work toward, though is not guaranteed.
One could be sick, or having an off day, the test may be too hard or be time limited which makes achieving a 100% difficult, if not impossible. The key then is to switch to an internal goal, one which originates within you in which you can absolutely achieve.
An internal goal in the above situation is to do your best despite the circumstances.
Pay attention in class, study, get a good night's rest and just do the best quality work you can. You may get a 89%, or a 97% or a 75%, but no matter the score you can always be satisfied if you did the best you could. The reason for this is that it is easier to accept that what we wanted didn’t happen if we feel good that we did everything we could.
If you pursue an impossible standard with the intention of just doing your best, you are always satisfied whether you meet that standard or not because you did all that you could. Doing your best is ALWAYS achievable.
Stoics believed that part of living a good life was having the right goals (internal), focusing on what could be controlled and being indifferent to what could not be controlled.
As a result, it freed them to be who they wanted to be, increased their satisfaction, and improved their quality of life.
These concepts provide a framework for overcoming perfectionism, which focuses on unattainable standards (external goals) beyond one’s control which result in feelings of failure, anxiety, disappointment, dissatisfaction in life, and low self-esteem.
These Stoic concepts are as relevant today as they were in Ancient Rome, providing us with philosophical advice on overcoming perfectionism and living a good life.
Heather Gillam, BA, MS, NCC - www.sisulumicounseling.com
We live in a society where perfectionism is actually rewarded more often than not.
And then we wonder why we all are running around being brutal with ourselves regarding our failures, procrastinations, and other non-perfect realities. We can drive ourselves crazy trying to be perfect, though we may pay lip service to being “okay” with just being “okay.” So why do we do this to ourselves?
Perfectionism is often rooted in our deep desire to please others.
This desire can be seen as a type of evolutionary strategy to stay safe beginning at an early age, when we are less able to care for or protect ourselves.
Making sure that we are pleasing the ones who care for us (beginning with, most usually, our parents or caregivers) can be seen as a lifesaving strategy. But – and this is a big but – this strategy starts to fail us as we grow up. So understanding this internal dynamic is key to understanding how to combat perfectionism.
And this is not easy stuff. It takes time and effort to change the way we think which will then change the way we behave.
Listed below are some practical tips for noticing, examining and then shifting how we manage our tendencies towards perfectionism:
1. When you feel that pull towards making something “perfect” or trying to be “perfect” ask yourself, “Who am I trying to please?”
If the first answer is “myself” then ask again – there is someone else in your life that came first. Who was this?
2. Once you have identified this person (who may or may not still be in your life or in this life) ask yourself “If I don’t please this person, then what is the worst that can happen?”
Most likely the answer that comes to mind will be tied to old ways or past hurts. Think about this.
3. Say to yourself, “I don’t have to hold myself to someone else’s standard.”
And then think about what your own real standard is. Make sure that this is something you can back up with evidence, and not some old pull that is from long ago.
Clearly, there are plenty of people we need to please as we journey through life: bosses, spouses, friends, etc.
BUT we don’t need to please them at the expense of ourselves and our well-being. Looking deeper within to disentangle the old cords holding us to old standards is one of the keys to combating perfectionism. You can do this!!
Kirsten Lind Seal, PhD, LMFT - www.kirstenlindseal.com
As a perfectionist, you procrastinate.
Your fear center lights up, so you delay the task until the last minute, when urgency takes you over. This is especially so if the project or task means a lot to you. For instance, if it reflects on your sense of self, or if it is a pet project.
If you have ADHD-type symptoms, then all the more you'll procrastinate.
The point is, we have to learn to live with that. Because you'll procrastinate anyway.
So learn to make your procrastination work for you. So that you enjoy yourself or sharpen your skills, rather than beat yourself up and spiral into anxiety. Designing your procrastination is the ultimate win-win.
1. What can I do to chill or relax? Or reward myself. (Chances are, as a perfectionist, you've been working hard on other things anyway)
2. What skill can I begin or sharpen?
The time will pass anyway. You decide what you want to do with it-- feel like crap about yourself, or feel great and productive.
Because ultimately we have to trust ourselves that life is what happens when we procrastinate. That like excellent wine, our ideas are fermenting inside us.
We all have those moments when we want a situation to be perfect.
If we can achieve perfection, then we will be happy. Or would we? Perfection is not easily attainable if at all. When we fall short of being perfect, we are sad. This sadness can continue and move into depression and also cause anxiety. We again try for perfection to settle the depression, but we fall short again and the depression deepens.
Anxiety begins to creep in as we seek to control our world and make it perfect.
It is a vicious circle. The more we try to meet perfection the deeper the depression and anxiety. We want the perfection to fight off the depression and anxiety but, the perfection is feeding the depression and anxiety.
The craving to be perfect, depression and anxiety can be overcome and you can stop the vicious downward circle.
A 40 year client of mine had worked the same job for 20 years. Her boss retired and closed the business. My client found another job doing the same thing for another company. The new company trained her but she was feeling inadequate.
She began having anxiety attacks and was crying at the end of the day. During discussion with her she stated she felt she had to be perfect at her job. The idea that she did not know everything and could do everything was making her anxious and depressed.
After discussion on how we need time to learn new procedures and to give herself time to adjust to the new environment, she realized she did not need to be perfect. People do make mistakes and that is how we learn. Her anxiety and depression lessened and she began to enjoy herself again.
Become aware of your need to be perfect and be kind of yourself and not set that expectation—set your expectations at a reasonable level.
Use your positive self-talk to lessen the effects of depression’s negative self-talk. You can overcome the perfectionism, depression and anxiety and lead a happier life. Mental health professionals can greatly assist you in this area.
Angela Collier, MS, LPC, NCC – www.angeladcollier.com
The demands of life can feel overwhelming.
How am I performing at work? Am I good enough for that promotion? Am I dedicating enough time to my friends and family? I’m sure you can think of even more tasks or expectations that fill your life.
No one wants to let other people down or perform poorly, which is why these expectations can be stressful. For some of us the pressure to succeed is so high that we don’t create room for error. Any mistake feels like a failure because facing the disappointment of others feels so uncomfortable.
That is why we strive for perfection.
If I’m perfect, then I will never disappoint. If I’m perfect, I will not have to deal with the discomfort of knowing I made a mistake. Yet, there is a problem with this approach. If we don’t create space in our lives for mistakes and errors, we also eliminate the space for growth and change.
Years ago, I remember sitting in class with an instructor I respected.
The instructor asked a question to the class. I raised my hand and gave my answer. “No, you’re wrong,” said the instructor. I could feel my face flushing. I was humiliated by my public display of stupidity and resolved not to raise my hand again. Then, the student sitting next to me raised his hand and gave his answer. “No, you’re wrong,” said the instructor.
But, rather than feeling embarrassment or shame, the student said, “Then I will keep on guessing until I get it right.” By creating space for error, we create space for growth.
In that moment I realized that I could free myself to learn much more if I was not afraid to be wrong.
Years later, I became a graduate instructor myself and I noticed a concerning pattern. Some students would be upset if they received a single point deduction. I began to ask them about the meaning behind their disappointment. Since the deduction often did not affect their grade in the class, I came to learn that some students were upset that they didn’t have a perfect score, even if they still had an A.
In the classroom you can make many small errors in the class and still earn an A. You can even make one significant error and earn an A, as long as you maintain a score of 93% or above. When we grade students, we give them a 7% margin to make errors and still earn the top grade in the class. Why don’t we grant ourselves 7% in life? It is not bad to hold high standards. In fact, it can be helpful.
However, in our quest to eliminate error we also guarantee failure.
It is not possible to live life without making mistakes since that is part of what makes us human. If we must make mistakes, then let us be kind to ourselves as we make them.
This is a courageous stance to take in life. It takes courage to accept that you are not perfect, courage to accept your mistakes, and courage to embrace them. So live your life courageously and have the courage to be imperfect.
Sarah Robinson-Hudson, PsyD, LP – www.psychologistsarah.com