What is perfectionism?
The term “perfectionist” is often used to refer to someone with high standards who strives for perfection in the pursuit of success and achievement. Perfectionists are often viewed as high-achieving or over-achieving, as well as motivated and meticulous. These descriptions are generally accurate but they fail to acknowledge the other side of perfectionism which includes a tendency toward self-criticism and a persistent concern about criticism or judgment from others.
Perfectionism is not just about the desire to do things well and it often has little to do with the actual outcomes and achievements. It involves the way you think about yourself and often develops out of an underlying need for validation, praise, recognition, or feeling valued.
Often perfectionists have a deep-seated view of themselves as “not good enough” and they can have a hard time feeling good about themselves without their accomplishments and the recognition from others. This comes with a strong fear of failure because "failure" could lead to criticism from others and it would deliver a punch to an already fragile self-esteem.
In other words, the focus of perfectionism is not on gaining success, but rather on avoiding failure and criticism, as well as getting praise and recognition in order to feel good about yourself.
What’s wrong with wanting to do things well and feel good about myself?
Striving for success and striving for perfection are different. There is nothing wrong with striving for success and wanting to do things well. It can be motivating and rewarding. You can gain respect, appreciation, praise, and feel good about what you’ve accomplished. You can also achieve great things for yourself and for others. You can be successful and feel confident which can then inspire you to continue to achieve and do well.
With perfectionism, however, it’s not about how well you do things and what you achieve; it’s about how you view yourself in the process. If you're not sure if you are a perfectionist, consider these questions:
What’s it like for you when you don’t do things as well as you had hoped or when you make a mistake?
Are you really hard on yourself?
Do you feel a sense of panic or tend to blow things out of proportion, making a bigger deal out of it than is warranted?
What about when you do something well? Do you have a hard time taking it in?
The dark side of perfectionism
The dark side of perfectionism is that there is an ongoing feeling that you can never do enough. This can be highly stressful as it places a lot of pressure on you to be “perfect” and to meet high expectations, which are sometimes unrealistic.
The fear of failure or of making mistakes can be paralyzing, leading to procrastination and even avoidance. You may find that you have a hard time completing projects and you keep putting off certain tasks because of your fear and uncertainty about being able to do it “right” or your fear of being exposed as flawed in some way. This of course hinders your success because not taking risks or allowing yourself to make mistakes keeps you stuck and impedes your personal growth.
Feeling stuck in this way leads to feelings of shame, depression, and frustration with yourself that in turn makes you feel more vulnerable and sensitive to criticism, and worried about being judged.
This sensitivity to judgment or criticism can even lead to misreading people and seeing criticism when it really isn’t there. You can blow things out of proportion, making a bigger deal out of something than it really is, and you fixate on your mistakes, no matter how small or insignificant in the long-run. This can lead to anger and a tendency to criticize and blame others because blaming yourself may feel too painful.
You may also have a hard time delegating or sharing tasks with others because you don’t trust others to do the task well enough and you don’t want to risk being viewed as imperfect or a failure.
This way of being can have a significant impact on your relationships because you may need a lot of reassurance or you may be seen as micro-managing or a “control freak”. In some cases, people may even feel that they need to walk on eggshells around you out of fear of upsetting you or being blamed and criticized for making a mistake. This can leave you feeling isolated and alone, even within your relationships, which again reinforces the underlying belief that you are not good enough.
Fortunately it is possible to move beyond the aspects of perfectionism that are causing problems - to calm your fears, quiet the inner critic that insists that you aren’t good enough, and feel better about yourself, flaws and all.
What will it be like to move beyond my perfectionism?
By making the effort to move beyond your perfectionism, you can experience the relief that comes from less stress and less pressure on yourself, as well as less worry and fear of failure and judgment.
You can change the way you view yourself and your mistakes, looking at things with greater perspective and from a more realistic, rather than catastrophic, standpoint.
You can be more forgiving and accepting of your flaws and vulnerabilities, as well as those of others in your life, which can help improve how you work with and relate to people.
You can feel more confident in yourself and willing to take risks which can in turn bring about more opportunities for success and personal growth.
You can feel proud of your accomplishments and experience more satisfaction in your life and in your relationships.
I’m still not sure I want to let go of my perfectionism…
It may be hard to consider letting go of perfectionism because it is motivating and may have contributed to some success in your life. But here’s something to consider:
You can be high-achieving without being a perfectionist.
This can be hard to swallow for a perfectionist because the idea of letting go of perfectionism brings up the very fears that drive the perfectionism – the fear of failure and the fear of judgment. You may be wondering: If I let go of my high standards will I be more prone to making mistakes? Will I lose my motivation to achieve? Will I no longer achieve as much? Will I fail?
And then you wonder: If I change my ways, how would that look? What would people think? Will I still be recognized? Valued? Praised?
In addition, letting go of your perfectionism can feel like you are rejecting an important part of yourself. You may see your perfectionism as a valuable asset, so why would you want to let it go?
Moving beyond perfectionism does not mean rejecting or eliminating the perfectionist part of you. It’s about accepting that part of you, shifting how you view yourself and your value, and finding balance. The perfectionist part of you will continue to chime in from time to time, and that’s ok. You can acknowledge it when it comes up, appreciate how this part of you has been helpful, and you can decide when you want to listen to it and when you want to ask it to step aside.
How do I begin?
Notice the impacts
You can begin by paying close attention to when your perfectionist tendencies are showing up and how it’s impacting you:
Is it motivating you?
Is it helping you reach your goal?
Are you feeling more stressed, anxious, or worried?
Are you feeling overwhelmed and incapable of moving forward?
Are you procrastinating or avoiding doing something?
Are you feeling stuck and frustrated with yourself or others around you?
Once you can recognize the impacts when they arise, you can then decide whether or not you want to make a change. Here are some suggestions to get you started:
Shift your attitude toward yourself
Notice how you are viewing yourself, what you are thinking and saying to yourself, and what you believe about yourself. If you catch yourself being harsh, unrealistic, or critical, take the opportunity to try offering compassion and support for yourself. Sometimes it can help to imagine what you would say to a friend or a child in your situation and then apply it to yourself. Try offering yourself kindness and soothing, rather than criticism and doubt.
Check your expectations
Often times, perfectionists set unrealistically high expectations for themselves, only to be met with disappointment when the expectations are not fully met. Or you may hold a belief that there will be catastrophic consequences if an expectation is not met, even when in reality the consequences are far less. Check your expectations and try to gain some perspective by asking yourself “what’s realistic?” and “what’s really true?”
Aim for "good enough"
This can be a difficult practice for perfectionists, but a true game-changer. Check your priorities and decide when you need to focus a lot of effort on something and when you can give yourself a break. For situations that are lower priority, determine what would be a “good enough” effort, aim for that, and then move on and see how that feels. You’ll find that this practice can be really liberating and can be particularly helpful in situations when you are feeling stuck. It creates a forward momentum and can help you feel a sense of accomplishment at the same time.
Do an inventory of positive and negative feedback
Perfectionists often are so focused on avoiding failure and judgment that they don’t recognize and take in positive feedback as readily. Take note of the positive and negative feedback that you receive. Make a list, if you can. You may be surprised to find that you receive more positive feedback than you realized and it can help to see it all listed out before you. Allow yourself to soak it in and know that others are noticing your efforts.
Take a risk and prepare for the consequences
There is nothing wrong with being cautious and careful, but there often comes a point when you have to take a risk in order to move forward. It doesn’t need to be a giant risk, but simply the risk of doing something imperfectly or making a mistake.
Of course there are situations when making a mistake can have dire consequences, so caution and precision are important, but this is where keeping things in perspective can come in handy.
Weigh the risks and be realistic. What’s the worst that could realistically happen? Then plan how you might deal with the worst case scenario. This can help you feel more confident in your ability to cope with the potential consequences and prepare you to keep trying and keep moving toward your goals.
Take responsibility and talk yourself through your mistakes
If you do end up making a mistake, take responsibility for it, rather than looking for someone else to blame, and figure out what you can learn from it. Talk yourself through it (I did the best I could under the circumstances, I can do better next time, I’m human and I will make mistakes, etc.) and forgive yourself so that you can move forward without getting stuck on the mistake itself and worrying about what other people may think.
Remember to have compassion for yourself through the process of change!
There is no "perfect" way to move beyond perfectionism and this process takes time. You are working toward changing long-standing habits and forming new ones so be kind to yourself and keep learning from what you’re experiencing.
Sometimes it can be hard to make a change on your own and it can be helpful to have some support, guidance, and accountability to help you along. If you are interested in more help with moving beyond perfectionism, feel free to contact me and we can set up an appointment. I’m happy to help.
Call Melanie Lopes, MFT at 415-295-2940 or send me an email.