Perfectionism represents a mental roadblock in which sufferers deem their work or themselves insufficient. It could be that they think they’re not attractive enough, their work isn’t good enough, the A they earned on their homework should have been an A+.
Because of these lapses between their achievements and their idealised visions of themselves, people dealing with perfectionism set impossible goals for themselves and criticise themselves for their perceived failures. These criticisms can have some serious implications for a person’s mental health and wellbeing.
Perfectionism the Definition
To be clear, perfectionism is not the pursuit of excellence. The pursuit of excellence results in achievements that one can share with others – you’ve cooked a fabulous dinner, you’ve made yourself look attractive for a night out with your significant other, you nailed a work presentation, a child gets a good grade etc.
Perfectionism on the other hand is about the self – it is more inward-facing. The sufferer sets goals for themselves that they have no hope of achieving (while their results seem good, or even excellent, to outside observers). The person afflicted with perfectionism leaves themselves zero margins for error which in essence means that they’re leaving themselves zero room for being a human being.
The sufferer’s sense of self-worth is directly tied into achieving these impossible standards. Naturally, since they will never be able to achieve their goals they’ll never be able to feel satisfied or happy with themselves, and this is a conduit for self-loathing to settle in.
Perfectionism can also impair performance, as most perfectionists will complete work then check it, re-check-it, and check it again. Students with perfectionistic tendencies often struggle to hand academic work in on time, and some write nothing in an exam situation – all through the same fear. Despite the unhappiness that arises due to the perfectionism the sufferer still strives to achieve their ‘perfect’ goals. As they continue to fail to achieve their perfectionist goals their self-loathing grows, which can lead to some unhealthy psychological situations.
Overcoming Perfectionist Thinking
In overcoming perfectionistic thinking, the aim is to replace unhelpful self-criticism with more realistic statements, and through repetition these can be integrated into your everyday life. So how can you do this? Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a psychological intervention often used to overcome perfectionism.
Here are some tips based on CBT:
Use a mantra that is more reflective of reality:
If you’re a student who beats them-self up when you don’t get that A* you can start using a mantra, say to yourself something like, “I’m human, and humans make mistakes,” or “I’m near the top of the class which means I did very well.” You might not believe it straight away, but the deliberate use of phrasing like this is like a muscle – the more you use it, the more it grows. Eventually it can overpower your negativity, allowing you to have a healthier perspective of yourself and your achievements.
Get some perspective
Speaking of perspective, a large part of perfectionism involves the fear of what others think of us. Others might even be in awe of our grades, our dedication to a fitness routine, or how good a parent we are, but someone with a perfectionist problem is only going to fear humiliation when people see them do less than perfect at something.
Take a closer look at other people around you. You’ll probably to notice that even the happiest people in your life have something in common – they mess up sometimes. They come in with a stain on their tie. They only work out maybe 4 hours in an entire month instead of your two hours every day.
Use this knowledge to realise that nobody else has set incredibly high standards for you – those impossible goals are entirely self-generated, they come from your own perspective, which means you’re allowed to adjust them to a more realistic level. Try writing out your goals, your unrealistic ones, and next to each one write a more realistic one.
If you’re not sure which of your standards are adjustable write them down and then figure out what you gain from keeping those standards versus what they cost you (friendships, the chance to try something fun and new, romantic relationships, etc.).
Take a Step Back
When it comes to the perfectionist mode of thinking that slows down work and decisions such as:
“have I worded this email just right?”
Use these tips to develop the mental muscle that lets you take a step back and see that email as part of a whole:
What happens if this email is too long? The answer – probably nothing.
If it is too long what’s the worst that will happen? The answer – probably nothing again, or maybe a couple of people will comment.
Can I survive the comments if they happen? The answer – you know what? I probably can.
Practice balanced thinking & behaving
Don’t get bogged down with unimportant details. Part of overcoming perfectionism is to develop the ability to give things their proper weight, make things good enough, they do not need to be perfect. Gradually, you’ll be able to accept compromises on less weighty issues – for example, try allowing yourself one spelling error in an email this week and see how that goes. If nothing happens, then maybe we’ll allow two errors the following week. You can keep using this technique on any aspect of your perfectionism, until you feel you’re at an acceptable level where you feel comfortable, you’re still doing good work without losing time to worrying and self-criticism.
Practice facing the fear
Gradual exposure to the things you are afraid of can be a powerful technique in overcoming perfectionism. The idea is that you expose yourself to making mistakes. How do you do this? It depends on you. If your perfectionism involves you being overly neat, you could deliberately leave off doing the dishes for an hour or two while you go and do something fun.
Or maybe you’ll admit to feeling a bit under the weather at work and actually take a day off, to take care of yourself, rather than striving to be perfectly present when you shouldn’t be.
Maybe you’ll wear mismatched socks.
You get the idea. You’re not going to leap headfirst into something that’s going to destroy your professional or personal life, instead you’ll find a small thing or two that you can use as an achievable starting point, and then you go from there.
A key point – don’t worry if these steps make you anxious, anxiety appears when we are faced with a fear, and that is normal. These steps are not one-and-done, they usually need repetition and practice, through repetition you should feel more comfortable, and more confident in moving onto the next thing.
Another key point – the goal isn’t to turn you into a slob or into someone who is useless at work. You’re not wiping out standards from your life altogether – rather you’re finding a balance that makes you more effective as you go through your life. A place that feels good enough, rather than impossible.
Dealing with perfectionist procrastination
Sometimes perfectionists are so afraid of doing a less-than-perfect job, they don’t start at all. They find reasons to procrastinate. But the task is still there and the procrastination is just giving the sufferer’s anxiety time to grow.
Try to build up the ability to prioritise the tasks in your life, by taking a closer look at the things you need to do. You’ll be able to see that Task A is far more important than Task B for instance, and therefore Task B doesn’t require perfect results. This should make it easier for you to get started on things, as your perspective is a less overwhelming one.
Break down tasks that you procrastinate over into smaller chunks, by doing this you’ll recognise them as being easily achievable. You’ll also learn that the goal is to complete the task in order to complete the whole, as opposed to trying to achieve the perfect whole right from the start, which is a far more intimidating goal to start with.
As always, if you have any questions at all we want to help you answer them. Get in touch with us via our contact page.