When your colleagues at work compliment you on a talk you just gave, do you dismiss their remarks and berate yourself for the one slide you forgot to include in your Powerpoint presentation?
If your husband tells you how pretty you look, do you counter with a comment like, “I really should lose five pounds”?
Do you have a critical voice in your head that constantly takes you or other people down a notch?
Signs that you may be a perfectionist:
- You are painfully aware and extremely critical of mistakes and perceived inadequacies. You have trouble beginning projects. You procrastinate a lot.
- You strive to be the best in all your endeavors, even in areas that don’t really interest you.
- You spend an excessive amount of time on projects, double-checking and revising your work. You obsess over minor details.
- You have trouble completing projects. You quit projects prematurely, often out of frustration at the process not being easy or your not being an instant natural at the task.
- You have difficulty making decisions. Sometimes even ordering from a menu or deciding what outfit to wear can be challenging for you.
- You think in all-or-nothing or black-and-white terms. For you, there is no middle ground. You use the words “should,” “have to,” and “must” a lot.
- You make unrealistic demands of yourself or other people, and your interpersonal relationships are often tense (or end) as a result.
- You suffer from social anxiety or social phobia.
- You avoid trying new things, for fear that you won’t excel at them or will make a mistake.
- You rarely feel “good enough.” You struggle with low self-esteem.
- You are prone to feelings of shame, depression, or anxiety.
- You often experience a feeling of emptiness.
- You suffer from stress-related physical conditions.
- You struggle with compulsive overeating, restrictive eating, other eating disorders, or body dysmorphic disorder.
- You struggle with alcohol or other substance use.
Saying ‘yes’ to any of these items is not necessarily an indication that you are a perfectionist – however, endorsing more than a few of the items may indicate that perfectionism is an issue for you.
Perfectionism can be defined as placing undue pressure on oneself and others to meet impeccable standards and being hyper-critical of mistakes. Where it is healthy to strive for excellence, perfectionism often leads to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, eating disorders, substance abuse, self-harm, problems at work, and procrastination.
As author Brene Brown puts it, “When perfectionism is driving, shame is riding shotgun, and fear is that annoying backseat driver.”
When we succumb to perfectionism, we fight a losing battle, because we can never be good enough, simply because we are human and thus imperfect. This internal war causes tremendous stress. In fact, many of the issues that motivate us to seek psychotherapy involve some variety of perfectionism. We perceive ourselves as not sufficiently nice, thin, smart, attractive, interesting, intelligent, capable – the list goes on and on. So, we develop the belief that “if only” we had this, that, or the other thing, we’d be happy – and all the while we are chasing a mirage.
Being a perfectionist is an exhausting way to live, in which we are focused on the unreachable goal rather than paying attention to and appreciating the journey.
There are many reasons for perfectionism, some rooted in a traumatic childhood in which we felt unsafe, helpless, or unable to cope with life – and, wait, wouldn’t that be all of us to some extent, given our extremely vulnerable state as small children?
We could also have had a perfectionistic parent, who we could never please. If we received a score of 98% on a school exam, our parent questioned us about the 2% we got wrong. We might have adopted this perfectionistic approach to life ourselves.
Whatever the case, perfectionism is dangerous.
The sooner we accept that being called a perfectionist is not a compliment but a warning, the sooner we can take steps to free ourselves from perfectionism:
- Count the cost. Make a list of the pros and cons of your perfectionism. How has it helped or hurt you, in the short and long run? How have your career, relationships, physical, emotional, and mental health, spiritual life, finances been affected?
- Relinquish the all-or-nothing mindset. You cannot do everything with 100% accuracy. This is simply impossible. Be okay with being human and the inevitable learning curve involved in any project. Allow yourself to do thing imperfectly and incompletely.
- In fact, try being imperfect on purpose. Consider the concept that humility attracts.
- Focus on the big picture. Stop obsessing over unimportant details. Do not get lost in the minutiae.
- Give yourself credit for your accomplishments, large and small, rather than focusing on what you did not achieve.
- When it comes to feelings of “not having enough” (such as with consumerism), ask yourself if you really need something and what value it would add to your life. Chances are that you do not need another toy just because the ubiquitous ads tell you that you need it or because your friend or colleague has it.
- Set your priorities. It’s not realistic to have 20 items at the top of your daily to-do list. Pick one to three things on which to focus your energy, and devote a reasonable amount of time to each item.
- Give yourself a reality check. Ask yourself, “How important is this, really? How much will this matter to me in a week? A month? A year?”
- Consider the worst-case scenario and how you would deal with this. Would the world really end if you wore two mismatched socks? If you forgot a friend’s name? If you gained five pounds?
- Focus on the process, not the result. Adopt a curious, courageous, and kind attitude, appreciating every step of your journey, even the unpleasant ones, as opportunities to learn and grow.
- Practice radical self-acceptance. Appreciate yourself, warts and all, and accept life on life’s terms. You cannot control everyone and everything.
- Replace your self-doubt with self-respect, self-love, and self-compassion. Getting to know your real self, as opposed to an idealized image you wish to portray to the world and yourself, is the antidote to perfectionism.
- Allow yourself to experience all of your feelings. Perfectionism demands that we feel certain emotions and not other emotions. What often happens in this scenario is that we end up being estranged from all of our emotions, as it’s almost impossible to pick and choose what we’re going to feel. The healthier choice is to bear compassionate witness to the full gamut of your emotions, without judgment.
- Make healthy relationships a priority. Let other people know your true, magnificently imperfect self. This is the only way to develop authentic relationships.
- Take good care of your body, mind, and spirit. The basics: good nutrition, regular exercise, sufficient sleep, relaxation, fun, intellectually challenging projects, an active social life, meditation, and connection with a higher (i.e., bigger than you) purpose.
- Don’t overthink things. Just dive in there. You can revise later, or try another one of the options on your list.
- Remove the words “should,” “should have,” “must,” “have to,” and “if only” from your vocabulary, and replace them with “want to,” “choose to,” “prefer,” and “now I’ll…” Let go of the past, which you cannot control. Focus on now and your next step.
- Understand that while your perfectionism and associated wish to control your feelings and environment may have developed from childhood attempts to deal with anxiety (it’s scary being a helpless child), you are older now and can employ other more-effective methods of coping.
- Don’t let fear dictate your behavior. You can feel uncomfortable and take action all the same. Your inevitable mistakes don’t define you. Done is better than perfect.
- Determine your most important values and life purpose, and let these guide how you allocate your time, energy, and resources. Use these ideals as guidelines, not absolutes, to avoid perfectionism in this area. Although you may continue to keep to-do lists, refrain from letting your lists (and thus your achievements) determine your self-worth and direction.
We are all human.
None of us is all good or all bad. And this is okay. As you shed the perfectionism habit and embrace being the glorious person who you really are, you’re likely to be a lot more relaxed, happier, easier to be around, healthier, and, yes, more productive.