Society tells us that perfectionism is a good thing.
Perhaps you too have been praised and rewarded for your high capacity, high standards, and meticulous work.
You may have also believed that perfectionism was the same as trying your best and showing your commitment to the task at hand.
Perfectionism made me look good but eventually, I realised the hidden costs. I often say it started as an asset and ended up a burden.
The undercurrent of perfectionism is fear. Fear of being rejected or unloved for not being good enough. This fear drives us to do anything to avoid these outcomes.
When we live in avoidance of not being good enough, we are under a lot of stress. We’re always on the lookout for flaws, mistakes, or risks and spend inordinate amounts of time doing the work to fix or mitigate them.
Perfectionism can cause us to:
- Avoid doing things or procrastinate so that we won’t fail.
- Need to plan and control everything to ensure the desired outcome.
- Overthink decisions.
- Avoid asking for help.
- Not take breaks when we need to.
- Be overly focused on what others want and think of us.
- Lose touch with what we want.
- Feel creatively stifled.
- Hide our mistakes or how we are really feeling and coping
- Be highly critical of ourselves.
What is perfectionism costing you?
How to overcome perfectionism
I decided I wanted my peace of mind back, among other things, and so many women tell me they want the same.
Perfectionism is learned patterns of thinking and behaviour, which means with intention and effort we can learn new, more supportive patterns to replace it.
If you’d like to loosen the grip perfectionism has on you, here are 5 things you can do to start overcoming perfectionism.
1. Catch yourself in the act
We can only change what we are aware of.
Women often say to me “I know I’m doing it, but I can’t seem to change. I’m not making any progress.”
What they don’t realise is that they are making progress. To change, we first have to notice. Increased self-awareness is progress and is worth celebrating!
So, start with noticing when you are slipping into perfectionism. You may only catch it in hindsight at first. That’s still helpful! Then you’ll start to notice in the moment. Then you’ll often be able to anticipate the situations that may trigger your perfectionism.
You’ve got to start somewhere!
2. Identity your unrealistic standards
There’s a difference between the healthy pursuit of excellence and doing your best and relentlessly holding yourself to impossibly high standards.
When things are going well and we are able to hit our goals, we feel good. But no one is perfect and it’s impossible to do things perfectly all the time, so inevitably we will not meet our standard, and then feel terrible. Even when you succeed you may still think you could have done better.
Identify the areas of your life where you are holding yourself to impossibly high standards.
Do you know where this standard came from?
Is it something you truly believe is necessary to be accepted and good enough or is it an external standard you feel you should be meeting?
What would be a more realistic standard that feels right for you?
3. Compassionately reframe perfectionistic thoughts
Perfectionistic thoughts centre around what we need to do to be accepted and good enough. They also tend to be of the all-or-nothing variety. For example:
- I’m either a good mum or a terrible mum.
- I have to enjoy motherhood all the time.
- My house must look like a showroom all the time.
- I have to do everything on my to-do list before I can relax.
When you notice these thoughts, rewrite or reframe them with a compassionate voice. A compassionate voice is kind, understanding, and recognises the fact that everyone struggles and makes mistakes. The aim here is to reassure yourself that even if you don’t reach this perfect standard you can still be accepted or good enough.
For example, here’s how it could work if you just yelled at or spoke very harshly to your child.
Perfectionistic thought: “I’m a terrible mum. I must never lose my temper with my children to be a good mum.” (This is all or nothing thinking, which is common in perfectionism.)
Reframe this to be more balanced: “No one is calm all the time. When I am under a lot of pressure sometimes I feel angry or get triggered more easily. This is normal. I can repair with my children and it will be ok.”
You can go one step further: “What can I do to help me calm my nervous system and reduce the pressure I’m feeling at the moment?”
Some people think that self-compassion means letting themselves off the hook or making excuses but research shows that self-compassion is a much more powerful motivator for change and improvement than self-criticism.
4. Celebrate the things you do well
People with perfectionistic tendencies are adept at finding flaws and overlooking or brushing over the things they do well.
Either the flaws taint the successes meaning the overall outcome is not perfect, or there’s no time to savour the successes because there’s more to do, more flaws to fix, more standards to meet.
We can train ourselves to see and savour the things we do well, even if they are little and part of an overall outcome that didn’t quite hit the mark. Intentionally look for these things each day and take a moment to celebrate them.
5. Experiment with being imperfect on purpose
I know this sounds really scary but it’s one of the best strategies for overcoming perfectionism. I use the word “experiment” on purpose because it feels less threatening than suddenly committing to doing things differently forever. Just try it out and see what happens.
Choose something small to start with, such as:
- Arriving somewhere a little late.
- Asking for help with something small.
- Telling someone you trust about a mistake that you made.
- Not cleaning up a small area of your house before your visitors arrive.
- Voice your opinion on a relatively uncontroversial topic.
- Submit a piece of work without the final check.
Then take notice of what happens as a result of your experiment.
Did it cause rejection or prove that you were not good enough?
Was it what you feared or did nothing bad happen?
Experimenting with being imperfect is a great way to gently stretch your comfort with not striving for perfection.
Overcoming perfectionism may take time and effort, but it is absolutely possible to reclaim your peace of mind and live in a way that is much more aligned to who you are and what you want for your life. You can learn to take guidance from your own authentic standards and desires, rather than external ones. You can change the thinking patterns that create the fear of rejection or inadequacy and learn to embrace the imperfection that is inherent in us all.
Which of these 5 strategies will you try first?
If you’d like to read more about perfectionism head to these articles next:
Before you go…
If you are ready to release perfectionism in your life and feel happier, calmer and more confident, then I can help you! This is one of my favourite areas to work with clients on and I know how much of a difference some one-on-one support can make.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to chat about how we can work together.