First, read these two paradoxical truisms:
- You can’t reach your greatest goals without going through discomfort.
- Unceasing commitment to perfection can lead you to early burnout.
Going for excellence is a fine way to achieve remarkable progress. Wrecking your mental and physical health while on your way there is not at all fine. How do you balance striving for excellence and living a healthy life?
What you really want is to overcome that streak of perfectionism. Your perfectionism hamstrings you from starting things or finishing things. It holds back your success.
Perfectionism is a colossal waste of your time and energy. Its effects are much like that of procrastination.
Are You A Perfectionist?
Most perfectionists do not identify themselves as perfectionists. So, what are the signs of perfectionism?
If you think you show any of the behaviors below, then you are probably a perfectionist.
- Need everything you do to be done to perfection
- Find anything less than ‘perfect’ unacceptable.
- Find it hard to let others do your tasks.
- Love to micro-manage your projects.
- Setting standards beyond reach and reason.
- Afraid of failing your sky-high standards.
- Feeling dejected when facing failure or letdown.
- Preoccupation with fears of failure and critique.
- Seeing mistakes as validation of unworthiness.
- Live in constant fear of criticism and feedback.
- Becoming overly defensive when criticized.
Being a perfectionist isn’t something to be proud of. While it’s healthy to want to strive for your goals, it’s not at all the same to set unattainable standards for yourself—or others.
What is Perfectionism?
Perfectionism can be defined as an unhealthy need to appear perfect, produce perfect results, or expect others and their work to be perfect.
According to the American Psychological Association, perfectionism is the tendency to demand of others or of oneself an extremely high or even flawless level of performance, in excess of what is required by the situation. It is associated with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other mental health problems.
Perfectionism is a desire to achieve goals that are unreasonable and unattainable. It is a self-defeating prophecy in a person’s life.
“Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfection is not about healthy achievement and growth,” says Brené Brown, a research professor who has spent over two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy.
A perfectionist is one who refuses to accept anything short of a perfect standard.
They set the highest standards of performance and expect absolute flawlessness in the final products. Their expectations of perfectionism are both from themselves as well as others.
Perfectionism As A Success Barrier
Being a perfectionist is a lot like being a high achiever, but do not confuse the two. Being a high achiever is by far better for your health, and will ultimately raise your happiness.
But not so with perfectionists. They rob themselves of their peace of mind and enjoyment of life while going along the way. While high achievers go to great lengths to achieve their goals, perfectionists are restless control-freaks.
Research shows the perfectionists often look for applause and approval, and abhor negative feedback and criticism. When criticized, perfectionists tend to become excessively defensive.
This tendency creates a fear of failure in them. As a result, they apply themselves only superficially to their work. This gives them an explanation for their underperformance: “I didn’t work at it with my full capacity.”
This way, they justify their failures without undermining their own potential or accepting they must improve their skills to succeed. This fear of failure becomes their biggest barrier to success.
The perfectionists are frequently consumed with their own or others’ shortcomings. They tend to hang back rather than fighting back their way to their full potential.
Perfectionism As A Personality Disorder
Perfectionism is defined by negative and obsessive tendencies.
Perfectionism is riddled with the underlying fear that a thing will never be perfect, so it not only lets you finish your projects but also stops you from never starting in the first place.
This is because as a perfectionist, we are too afraid whatever we do will never be enough. So we never even try. It ultimately drains our self-esteem and leaves us stuck in an endless spiral of negativity.
Perfectionism is not the same as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD is a mental health disorder. Perfectionism is a personality trait and is not considered a personality disorder.
OCD is marked by unwelcome intrusive thoughts that cause anxiety or distress (i.e., obsessions), as well as ritualistic activities (i.e., compulsions) and severe avoidance behaviour performed to alleviate distress.
People with OCD are highly aware their thoughts and actions are problematic but perfectionists are frequently unaware their habit is a problem. Sufferers of OCD often have hoarding behaviors and are unable to spend their money or discard their old items such as clothing.
5 Actionable Ways To Overcome Perfectionism
One key way to handle perfectionism is to mark a thick line between healthy striving and unhealthy perfectionism and heed it well. Whenever you see yourself stepping on the wrong side of that line, say “let’s leave it here and move away.”
Overcoming this negative trait and creating a balance in your life will take time and effort. But ultimately, transitioning yourself out of the burden of perfectionism will vastly improve your life. Here are 5 actionable strategies to overcome your perfectionism and become happier as a result.
1. Record Your Behaviors
What we are trying to achieve here is gaining a self-awareness into our problem.
Becoming aware of your hairsplitting tendencies is a key to overcoming them, as you may not even have realized how much perfectionism has intruded into your life. Recording your behaviors help you see how many of your actions in a day are colored in perfectionist tones.
If you can’t do this throughout the day, you could at least do it at the end of the day. This lets you become more conscious of your thought patterns in the coming days.
If you feel like you’ve ‘failed’ or if you do not have time to do this—try another day. Keeping a record of your behaviors is a visual confirmation of your perfectionism habit.
2. Avoid Negative Self-talk
Those who struggle with perfectionism often realize they have patterns of negative thoughts throughout the day relating to their activities and interactions.
Says Elisa M. Lee, a lifestyle writer,
You may realize that they have a critical voice in their head telling them that nothing they do is good enough, that they’re not trying hard, and that they are not enough. It’s critical to alter your self-talk and not let that ‘voice in your head’ bring you down all the time.
Having a constant mantra of ‘I am such a failure’ or ‘I can’t do anything right’ inside your head only causes you to be stuck in a self-loathing cycle, never moving past the mistakes.
You may not realize it, but perfectionism, low self-esteem, and even self-hatred go hand-in-hand. Sometimes, the harshest things we hear about us are often from ourselves. So, be careful of what you say to yourself.
Noticing your inner voice, and consciously challenging its negative patterns, can go a long way in boosting your self-esteem and happiness.
The idea is to tell yourself every time you overly fixate on the details of a task: “Let’s leave it here and move away.”
3. Forgive Yourself For Your Mistakes
What if we were as forgiving of ourselves as we often are of others?
Sure, you must have messed up a few things in life—maybe you didn’t secure that crucial deal at work, couldn’t score a 60% on a test, or haven’t been the best son or daughter.
Despite all that, at a certain point in your life, you must accept you are human. And humans make mistakes.
Why not, instead, forgive your mistakes and tell yourself you learnt from them?
Constantly beating yourself up over failure means that you don’t get to move on and focus on the important things in your life. Take the learning and move on.
Besides, know this: no one really remembers your failures; only you do.
Things rarely go exactly by the plan. So, no one will reject you if you are not perfect. By holding onto your pain, guilt, or shame (or all three), you make it even worse for your future success.
Set human standards for yourself and stop labeling yourself as a ‘failure’. Everyone has flaws—how we overcome them makes us who we are.
4. Change Your Attitude Towards Criticism
Do you know how to handle criticism? Actually, most of us do not know that art well enough.
Notice if you are always reacting defensively to criticism, rather than taking it sportingly and working to mend your mistakes. Take steps to change what you have been doing until now and make a U-turn after each valid criticism.
Accepting you are a human, with flaws as any human would have, allows you to listen to others’ feedback and make efforts to change your annoying habits.
This nudges you to climb out of your hamster-wheel of perfectionism and move ahead. Rather than being stuck in a cycle of poor performance and seeing criticism as personal attacks, you find fresh ways to tackle old issues.
Sometimes, the harshest criticism can actually help us change ourselves for the good in entirely unimaginable ways.
So, remember, mistakes are often excellent opportunities to learn new things and discover alternate solutions.
Also, for the self-critique in you, stop thrusting your sword of disapproval into any mistakes you come across, yours or someone else’s.
5. Enjoy The Task Process
Perfectionists often focus intensely on the end-game—and decimate some part of themselves trying to make it a perfect ending. To overcome perfectionism, try to live more in the present, and enjoy the process in the present moment.
Don’t be too anxious about the results of what you are working at. Enjoy the process instead.
Re-living the enjoyable quirks of the work process often helps cut down the perfectionism streak.
Consider journaling about how you feel as you work towards a goal and how much you learn on the way. Join a group of like-minded people (for example, a group learning the same language as yourself).
And, if you don’t feel you have achieved ‘perfection’, look back on your journal or talk to your new friends, and realize how much you progress you have made that day.
Having an all-or-nothing approach to life, and beating yourself up for your failures or those of others, never gets you far on the path to success. At the end of the day, no one is perfect, and the sooner we accept that and love ourselves—and others—regardless of our perceived ‘imperfections’, the better the world becomes.
Let go of your strict perfectionist streak and go for good enough. Every time you feel you’re fussing over the details of a task, giving it undue time and energy, remind yourself it’s okay to go for good enough. That way, you could finish the project at hand and go for another.
Set up deadlines and let yourself go when it’s time, whatever stage you’re at. Do it every time you take up a task, and it will form into a habit.
With time and experience, you start to find it easier to stop at a point of good enough.
You intuitively understand your result can’t go up from 93% to 99% even if you gave it two weeks of extra time. You learn to leave it at 93 percent, or a figure around that, on the deadline. Because that’s what normal humans do.
After all, you will want to be known for the tasks you took up and delivered rather than the one task you took up but never delivered.
Tip: Write down these 5 tips on a few post-it notes and tape them at several places. Make sure to put them where you spend at least a few minutes everyday, as your refrigerator door, and your bathroom mirror. You’ll start seeing serious positive results within 3-6 weeks.
[Disclaimer: This post is for informational purposes only and should not be taken as a substitute for medical advice. We understand everyone’s situation is unique, and this post does not take into account the unique circumstances for every individual. For specific questions about your health needs, seek the help of a healthcare professional.]
Perfectionism often makes you badly criticize yourself. So, How Can You Avoid Self-Criticism?
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Authors’ Bio: Michael Dehoyos is an editor and content marketer at PhD Kingdom. He helps companies market their strategies, and writes for several publications. Sandip Roy is psychology writer, happiness researcher, and medical doctor. Founder of Happiness India Project, and chief editor of its blog.
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