— Researched and reviewed by Dr. Sandip Roy.
The dictionary says perfectionism is a synonym for excellence, but it’s not. Consider these two facts:
- Some discomfort is inevitable if you’re committed to excellence.
- Aiming for perfect results each time will lead to early burnout.
Striving for excellence leads to remarkable progress. But perfectionists turn that quest into unreachable targets. This disturbs their peace of mind and wrecks their ability to feel joy in anything.
Perfectionism is a flawed personality trait, ironically marked by desires and efforts to be flawless.
Perfectionists keep shifting the end-point of a task. They won’t stop until it’s perfect, even when it’s finished.
This makes them postpone their present happiness for future joy, falling prey to one of the 10 happiness myths that keep people miserable.
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How To Overcome Perfectionism: Strategic Ways
Perfectionism can sometimes help people achieve high and cope well. However, there is evidence that people high in perfectionistic concerns have:
- a strong tendency to overthink the bigger picture and what it all means (which isn’t helpful),
- an inability to focus on the actual details of the situation (which is more helpful), which often leads to depressive symptoms (Di Schiena & Luminet, 2012).
These are 6 basic, proven ways to overcome perfectionism:
1. Draw A Clear Line Between Excellence & Perfectionism
Perfectionism is not the pursuit of excellence.
- Excellence-focused achievers instinctively move on after learning from their mistakes, working on their growth and resilience.
- Perfectionists often dwell on their mistakes and become their own worst critics. This self-criticism causes stress, decreases productivity, and makes it hard to relax into relationships.
So, the first idea is to become aware of perfectionistic thoughts arising, and draw a line.
A simple way to build this awareness is to, whenever you find yourself saying “Let me make this a little better,” also ask yourself, “Am I trying to be perfect?”
It serves as a mental checkpoint, marking out healthy efforts from unhealthy perfectionism.
But this watchfulness does not have to be stressful.
Practicing mindfulness can help you become a calm observer of your own thoughts, giving you the ability to stop and change them.
Developing this self-awareness is a gradual process, but the effort is worth your well-being.
Sherri Fischer, author of The Effort Myth, says,
“Trying harder is not sufficient by itself. That’s because it’s not how hard you try that leads to success; it’s how you try hard.”
2. Audit Your Perfectionist Behaviors & Analyze Patterns
The first intervention is about learning to notice your urge to be perfect, this one is about auditing your actions and thoughts.
Collect data on how your perfectionism affected your day. Note down the times your perfectionist tendencies appear, at work, in personal relationships, or in self-talk.
A data-driven approach is always a good strategy. Because, what gets measured, gets done.
- If a full-day real-time tracking seems “undoable,” a bedtime journal entry is fine.
- Don’t feel bad if you skip a day because you were tired or went to bed late. Just pick it up the next day.
Once you have a few weeks’ data, reflect on it to spot the recurring patterns and triggers, which can help you set up targeted actions in the future.
To add depth to this audit, incorporate a cost-benefit analysis (CBA). This tool helps you understand the downsides of your perfectionism more clearly.
It also allows a form of cognitive restructuring where you challenge your beliefs and attitudes about why you must be perfect every time.
Did you know that perfectionism and depression feed off each other?
Perfectionists are more likely to get depressed, and depression can make perfectionism worse (Smith & Sherry, 2021).
I often tell my patients (who see me for depression and say they can’t stop chasing perfection) to adopt this simple mantra,
“I choose to leave it here and move away.”
It immediately takes off the pressure of being perfect, by giving you the agency to make decisions and be in control of your own learning experience.
3. Challenge Your Inner Critic & Reframe Your Beliefs
Perfectionism often comes with a relentless inner critic that amplifies negative self-talk.
The harshest judgments you face are often self-judgments.
Elisa Lee, a “Body Positivity” illustrator, points out that this critical voice can be a constant companion, telling you that you’re not good enough, not trying hard enough, or simply not enough.
This self-imposed narrative can trap you in a static place, stopping your ability to move past mistakes and grow.
Negative self-talk may come from low self-esteem or self-hatred.
Worse, it can further lower your self-esteem and increase your self-hatred. It sends the message that you don’t like or value yourself.
- First, check yourself when you’re about to tell yourself things like “I’m stupid” or “I’ll never be good enough.”
- Second, practice cognitive reframing, a technique commonly used in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).
Whenever you catch yourself fixating on flaws or drowning in self-criticism, stop and challenge these thoughts.
To change the narrative your inner critic has built, try telling yourself:
“I don’t stress for the final result to be flawless. I embrace the adventure, take the lessons, and keep moving on.”
Look in a mirror for just 20 seconds and say these:
- I accept my mistakes
- I love myself
- I am enough
That can break through your perfectionist mental barriers and set you on a path to self-acceptance and life-satisfaction.
4. Embrace Imperfection & Forgive Your Mistakes
Ever notice how forgiving we can be of others but not equally forgiving of ourselves?
You’ve probably messed up a few times more than you can discount yourself for—didn’t close that big deal, didn’t ace that test, or feel like you’ve let down your family.
Truth is, it happens to everyone. Life rarely goes as planned. The key is to remember that you’re human, and humans make mistakes.
- Holding onto guilt or shame for something you left imperfectly done ruins your ability to enjoy really meaningful things in life.
- Beating yourself up over past failures keeps you stuck, and prevents you from focusing on what’s really important.
And here’s a reality check: you’re probably the only one who remembers those failures. People don’t care enough to give you as much thoughts as you think.
“Who cares that you’re not perfect? No one.”
To grow and succeed as a reformed perfectionist:
- Accept your flaws as human inevitabilities.
- Take your slipups as learning experiences.
- Set realistic standards for future projects.
- Learn self-forgiveness and self-love.
5. Change Your Attitude Towards Criticism
Most of us aren’t good at handling criticism, but it’s a skill worth mastering. We could all become better at relationships by learning how to handle criticism like an expert.
Correctly responding to criticism is not just about growing a thick skin; it’s rather about growing emotional intelligence and resilience.
If you are always getting defensive when criticized, it’s time flip the switch:
- Stay Open To Feedback: Keep your cool by taking a few deep breaths to relax and be receptive.
- View Criticism As A Learning Opportunity: Remind yourself that this is a chance to identify areas for improvement.
- Apply The Insights: Use the feedback to understand how others perceive your actions and make the necessary adjustments to better yourself.
Accepting criticism can shift your mindset, helping you escape the trap of perfectionism and discover new solutions to existing problems.
See the criticism as a lever to rise rather than a slap in the face. Sometimes, the harshest critiques (self-imposed or from others) can spark the biggest positive changes in unexpected ways.
However, if they always indulge in personal attacks, set boundaries with them.
Here’s how you can give an effective feedback:
- First, validate a behavior that is NOT the problematic one.
- Next, tell them what behavior you want them to change.
6. Enjoy The Task Process
There’s a mighty weight in this saying: enjoy the journey, not get impatient to reach the destination.
This is especially pivotal for perfectionists, who often get so wrapped up in the end result that they forget to appreciate the process.
This mindfulness mindset aligns well with Stoic philosophy, which emphasizes focusing on the journey rather than the outcome.
If you find yourself constantly stressed about achieving the perfect result, try to be present and savor each step of the task at hand.
Relish the little, enjoyable aspects of your work to break free from your perfectionism loop.
One way to do this better is through journaling. Write down your thoughts and feelings as you work towards your goals. Note what you’re learning along the way.
You can also join a group of like-minded individuals—say, people learning the same language as you—to share experiences and insights.
If you reach the end of a task and feel you haven’t achieved ‘perfection,’ take a moment to review your journal or chat with your group. You’ll likely find that you’ve made more progress than you give yourself credit for.
Don’t worry too much about the results of your work. Enjoy the process instead.
So, the next time you’re working on something, remember it’s more about the growth and learning that happens along the way.
What Is Perfectionism In Psychology
Perfectionism is defined as an unhealthy need to appear immaculate, produce perfect results, or expect others and their own work to be flawless. Perfectionists set very high standards for themselves and are critical of their own actions and results.
“Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfection is not about healthy achievement and growth.”– Brené Brown, a professor with over two decades of research on courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy.
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 has been associated with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other mental health problems.
Signs That You Are A Perfectionist
Most perfectionists refuse to admit that they are perfectionists.
Signs of a perfectionist:
- Obsessively micromanages tasks.
- Reluctant to delegate tasks to others.
- Becomes overly defensive when criticized.
- Preoccupied with the possibility of failure.
- Feels crushed by failure or disappointment.
- Unwilling to accept anything short of “perfect.”
- Sets unattainable and unreasonable standards.
- Driven to achieve perfection in every endeavor.
- Lives in constant fear of criticism and feedback.
- Sees mistakes as evidence of personal unworthiness.
- Haunted by the fear of not meeting high expectations.
Problems of Perfectionism
Perfectionists set sky-high standards for themselves and others, aiming for flawless results. But this mindset is not a badge of honor; rather, it’s a self-defeating cycle.
- A Barrier to Genuine Success: Perfectionism often masquerades as high achievement, but they’re not the same. High achievers find joy in the journey, while perfectionists are consumed by the end result. This focus on the “perfect” outcome hampers their ability to fully engage in tasks, leading to underperformance.
- Fear of Failure: Perfectionists are paralyzed by the fear of failure, causing them to apply themselves only superficially to tasks. This gives them an excuse for underperformance: “I didn’t give it my all,” allowing them to avoid confronting their need for improvement.
- Craving for Approval: Perfectionists often seek external validation and are highly sensitive to criticism. This makes them defensive and less receptive to feedback, which is crucial for growth.
- Mental Health Risks: The obsessive nature of perfectionism puts individuals at a higher risk for mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and even suicidal thoughts. The constant striving for an unattainable ideal can be mentally exhausting.
- Relationship Strain: The need for perfection can extend to the expectations of others, causing strain and conflict in personal relationships. This can lead to isolation, as the perfectionist becomes consumed with their own or others’ perceived shortcomings.
- Procrastination and Inaction: The fear that their efforts will never be “good enough” often prevents perfectionists from even starting a task. This leads to procrastination and a cycle of negative self-evaluation, further eroding their self-esteem.
Perfectionism is not the same as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), even when there is an element of obsessiveness in perfectionism.
|Nature||A personality trait that is not considered a personality disorder.||A mental health disorder classified in the DSM-5.|
|Awareness||Often unaware that their behavior is problematic.||Highly aware that their thoughts and actions are problematic.|
|Symptoms||Marked by a desire for flawlessness and setting exceedingly high standards.||Characterized by intrusive thoughts causing anxiety (obsessions) and ritualistic behaviors (compulsions).|
|Behavior||May avoid tasks they can’t excel in, but generally no severe avoidance behavior.||Exhibits severe avoidance behavior to alleviate distress.|
|Hoarding||Generally does not engage in hoarding behaviors.||May engage in hoarding behaviors, unable to discard old items or spend money.|
|Treatment||Often addressed through cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or coaching.||Typically treated with medication and specialized forms of CBT.|
|Impact on Relationships||May strain relationships due to high expectations of self and others.||Strains relationships due to the time-consuming nature of compulsions and the distress caused by obsessions.|
Perfectionism is a colossal waste of your time and energy; its effects are much like that of procrastination.
Procrastination and perfectionism are close cousins living in the same house, couch-surfing their way through life.
Take home messages:
- Embrace ‘Good Enough’ and Ditch Extremes: Stop aiming for perfection and let go of the all-or-nothing mindset. Focus on achievable goals and appreciate your progress.
- Manage Time and Prioritize Completion: Set deadlines and stick to them. It’s more important to complete tasks well than to get stuck on making one thing perfect.
- Reinforce and Expect Change: Use Post-it reminders to keep these principles front and center. Consistent practice will lead to positive changes in 3-6 weeks.
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√ Also Read: How Can You Avoid Self-Criticism?
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