Written by DiveThru Team
Reviewed by Natalie Asayag MSW, LCSW
Overcoming Perfectionism: 5 Ways To Keep It At Bay
Published May 14th, 2021 & updated on May 14th, 2021
If you describe yourself as a perfectionist, you probs already know what sets you apart as one. You have keen attention to detail (grammatical errors?? not on your watch!). You’re a hard worker (8 hours a day is just a suggestion, right?). Plus, you NEVER wanna finish something and think to yourself afterwards, I could’ve done better. Or worse…that you’ve failed.
Perfectionism can be seen as a super great trait to have, especially when you’re trying to prove yourself to other people. But when it comes to proving your own worth to yourself…that’s when shit gets messy.
Striving for perfection isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. Wanting to be great at your craft or your job or your studies is great motivation and ambition! But shit hits the fan when you begin to place unrealistic expectations on yourself and demand perfect results every single time. Of course, the effects of this on your mental well-being are nottttt great. So let’s dive thru what it means to be overcoming perfectionism!
What Is Perfectionism?
Basically, perfectionism is the relentless need to seem — or to be — perfect. It’s also the belief that perfection can actually be reached (hint: it can’t) and it should always be the endgame no matter what. Perfectionism can seem like a positive thing when you put a lot of effort into your work and want to achieve allll the things. Who doesn’t, right? But perfectionism can harm your mental wellbeing, especially when it’s a constant presence in that precious head of yours. Since, ya know…perfection isn’t possible. We know that can be reaaally hard for a perfectionist to accept!
Dr. Brené Brown puts perfectionism like this: “Perfection is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from being seen and taking flight.” Whoa. Can we say that again louder for the perfectionists in the back?!
You might be thinking… Wait a sec. How can perfectionism hold me back? Doesn’t that defeat the whole purpose? You got it, friend. The whole idea of perfectionism is that you strive to do your best, or be the best…but then that pressure to be perfect kicks in and you believe nothing you do is worthwhile unless it is #flawless.
There are actually two categories of perfectionism: adaptive and maladaptive. Adaptive perfectionism is considered healthy and normal because you put effort into your goals without falling apart if you don’t meet them. You also have a good sense of self-worth and can set realistic standards for yourself. But maladaptive perfectionism on the other hand…let’s take a look at those mentally unhealthy signs of perfectionism, shall we?
- All-or-Nothing Mindset: Anything less than perfect in your eyes = failure. You’re never fully satisfied with your accomplishments because you still don’t believe you reached perfection.
- Catastrophic Thinking: If you don’t achieve perfection, something bad will happen. You imagine every worst possible scenario if you fail, even though it’s not realistic.
- Highly Critical: You’re hard on yourself, only notice your imperfections and beat yourself up over every little mistake. In fact, you just don’t want to make mistakes at all.
- Low Self-Esteem: You compare yourself to others and don’t feel confident in yourself, which is why you want so badly to prove you can be perfect.
- Unrealistic Standards: You set goals for yourself that are way out of reach which leads to disappointment when you can’t meet them.
- Procrastination: You put off tasks or struggle to complete them because your fear of failure is so immobilizing, you can’t bring yourself to do it.
- Highly Sensitive to Criticism: You feel defensive of any criticism you receive, even when it’s constructive. Your worst fear is making mistakes so it’s painful for you to not be seen as perfect.
- Feeling Defeated: You have a hard time bouncing back from failure (even when it’s not actual failure, just not perfection) and carry those hurt emotions with you.
How Perfectionism Affects Mental Health
To no one’s surprise, perfectionism can lead to a LOT of mental health issues down the road. The anxiety that pops up when you’re constantly striving for perfect results feels endless (and watch out for when it shows up as high functioning anxiety). Never feeling good enough and failing to reach those high expectations over and over again can lead to symptoms of depression. You might start to isolate yourself from other people since you constantly doubt your self-worth, feel ashamed and want to hold those fears inside. You don’t want anyone else to KNOW how you feel, so you just hide. It’s also very common for people with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) to be perfectionists, since perfectionism has sooo many obsessive behaviours.
If you feel like it’s ruling your life (and your mind!), it’s so important to seek professional help for overcoming perfectionism. Therapy is great (we looove therapy) because your therapist can help you through those nasty inner thoughts and emotions that have been holding you back!
5 Tips For Overcoming Perfectionism
Overcoming perfectionism won’t be easy. If it’s part of who you are, it can take some time and effort to replace any mentally unhealthy habits. But the good news is, this is something you can work on little by little every day. Baby steps, friend! You don’t have to be perfect at…overcoming perfectionism. Well, that was step 1!
1. Recognize Your Perfectionism
Maybe you’re working on an essay for class. It could be an exciting new project at work. You might even be training for your first marathon! Whatever it is, you keep working away at it but you’re just not happy with the results. You keep obsessively going back to it, trying to make improvements here and there. If I can just improve this one thing, then I’ll stop. Before you know it, hours have passed and you’re feeling totally burnt out…yet again.
Pause! When you notice yourself nitpicking and obsessing over whatever tasks you’re doing, take a moment to stop what you’re doing. Ask yourself if there’s ACTUALLY that much more you can do, or if it’s your perfectionism talking.
2. Practice Positive Self-Talk
Once you’ve recognized that yeppp, it is in fact your inner perfectionist talking, take notice of what it’s telling you. Is it telling you that if you mess up, you’re gonna get fired from your job? You’ll fail your class? You’ll be the last person to cross the finish line and look like a complete loser in front of everyone?
You probably know that deep down, these thoughts are wayyy off base. Most of the disaster scenarios you come up with? Yaaa, they never actually happen. But perfectionism keeps that fear and shame lingering in the back of your mind on a loop. Instead, practice positive self-talk and remind yourself that the world won’t end, even if you DO mess up from time to time:
It’s okay to make mistakes.
I’m doing my best.
I am not a failure.
My best is good enough.
3. Look At The Bigger Picture
Remember how we said as a perfectionist, your attention to detail is off the charts? Sure, it can be a really great skill to have. We’ll give you that! Buuut once you start nitpicking…like, constantly….it not only wears you down mentally, but it can actually hold you back from the goals you’re trying sooo hard to achieve!
When you’re stuck on rewriting the same sentence over and over again (fellow writers out there, throw your hands up if you can relate!), or you can’t stop sweating the small stuff, reframe those catastrophic thoughts and ask yourself:
Does this really matter?
Will this matter tomorrow/next week/next month?
What’s the worst that could happen?
Is that realistic, or am I overthinking?
If the worst DOES happen, will I be okay? (The answer is yes.)
4. Be Realistic
When you take on a ton of tasks at once, it’s probs ‘cause you’re trying to show just how capable you are. Look at you, you go-getter! The problem is, when you take on TOO MUCH you end up setting yourself up for failure. And like we said if there’s one thing perfectionists hate — it’s failing! *shudders*
This is a tough one but one of the most necessary for overcoming perfectionism: be realistic! Set manageable goals for yourself to avoid stress and burnout (or feeling like shit when you can’t do it all). You know yourself better than anyone. And only taking on what you can handle does NOT make you weak. It means you’re looking after your mental wellbeing, and that’s a huge win if you ask us!
5. Ask For Help
Pssst… Guess what? It’s okay to ask for help. This is something you have maybeee forgotten since perfectionists wanna show the world they can do it all on their own. But everybody needs help and that’s just the #truth.
If you’re stuck on something, ask someone to look at it and give their thoughts. Nervous about presenting in front of your team? Ask one of your work pals if you can practice in front of them first. If you need reassurance that you don’t run like Phoebe from Friends before your first marathon, ask a friend to tag along with you. You don’t have to suffer in silence and tell yourself it’s fine, I’m fine! all of the time. Asking for help lifts some of the pressure and makes you feel 100x less alone.
One last quick tip before you go: allow yourself to be imperfect. Show up a few minutes late to an appointment. Wear the shirt with a small mustard stain. Leave the dishes in the sink for a night. Speak up during a meeting WITHOUT rehearsing what you were gonna say in your head first. These are little things (and defs not saying you have to do them all of the time) but they remind you that you’re human! They’re great ways to practice overcoming perfectionism.
For all of you perfectionists out there: we see you. We know you’re capable of GREAT things and that your kick-assery is unmatched. But you’re not perfect, and that’s okay! None of us are.