How To Overcome Perfectionism
Published on January 12th, 2023
Updated on August 26th, 2023
Striving for perfection may sound appealing and ambitious, but it can cause some challenges in a person’s life. Since perfection does not exist, it is unreasonable to assume that anyone can be perfect. The stress that comes with the pressure to be perfect is overwhelming. It has a significant impact on a person’s mental health.
The goal of perfection tends to cause an intense fear of failure. This fear of failure can lead to overreactions to (what they may see as) personal errors. Perfectionists tend to believe that nothing they do is good enough. As a result, they believe that they are not worthy of acceptance, love, or approval from others unless they are perfect.
Perfectionists find it extremely challenging to deal with personal mistakes. They tend to be overly self-critical and regularly seek approval from others. Perfectionism may show up in childhood or develop later on in life.
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Note: Perfectionists may understand that it is impossible to achieve perfection. In such cases, they do not know how to change their standards to be less intense and challenging.
Those who struggle with perfectionism usually struggle with all-or-nothing thinking. This means they interpret the world in extremes. All-or-nothing thoughts may include:
- Black or white
- Right or wrong
- Perfect or flawed
- Successful or unsuccessful
- Beautiful or ugly
- Fat or skinny
Warning Signs of Perfectionism
- Criticism of others
- Setting unachievable goals
- Needing to look perfect at all times
- Unwillingness to take risks
- Struggling with making decisions
- Irrational fears about potential negative outcomes
Risk Factors Of Perfectionism
Perfectionism can afflict anyone, yet some may be more prone to struggle with it than others. The following are risk factors for perfectionism:
Coming from a family of over-achievers. Families that have unrealistic expectations for achievement put children at risk of perfectionism. The high expectations from parents cause children to feel pressure to perform.
High standards of achievement can also be learned through modeling from parents and siblings.
Desire to hide flaws. Everyone struggles with self-perceived flaws or deficits. These flaws may be about themselves, their life’s disadvantages, or their social status.
Some people learn how to cope with their flaws in healthy ways, while others feel embarrassment or shame for their flaws. Those who feel uncomfortable with their flaws may try to overcompensate to cover them up. This habit can develop into perfectionism.
Confusion between perfection and achievement. Children tend to learn through rewards. Appropriate or right behavior is encouraged through praise, recognition, and rewards. This solidifies the belief that to achieve is to do things right or to perform correctly. This idea can sometimes grow into rigid and unyielding thinking, leading to perfectionism in the future.
Common Assumptions of Perfectionists
“I must do everything perfectly.”
You cannot fail. Otherwise, others will think negatively of you.
“I will be rejected.”
Your fear of rejection prevents you from sharing ideas, thoughts, opinions, etc.
“I must check it again and again.”
You tend to check your work several times to flush out all mistakes. This can prevent the completion of tasks or difficulty with meeting deadlines.
“I must know the plan.”
You seek to control by wanting to know what is going on and what will happen at all times. This helps you feel prepared.
“I cannot rely on anyone else.”
You do not want to give tasks to others. You fear that something may go wrong or not be up to your standards.
“I must constantly be doing something. Otherwise, I’m lazy.”
You are compelled to constantly be on the move and always be doing something. You do not want to appear lazy, weak, or unproductive.
Negative Impacts of Perfectionism
Striving for achievement and having ambitious goals are not bad things. Ambition pushes people toward achieving goals and achievements. Having ambition is not the same as perfectionism. It becomes a problem when a person’s drive develops into obsessive thoughts. Negatively and anxiety impacts their functioning and sense of well-being. Some consequences of perfectionism include:
- Being highly critical of others. Perfectionists are very judgmental of themselves. Because of this, their disapproving thought patterns can also affect how they judge other people.
- Inability to open up to others. Due to an extreme fear of failure, perfectionists struggle with feeling vulnerable with other people. They fear being judged and do not want to appear out of control by showing their emotions. This prevents them from opening up to others.
- Defensiveness. Perfectionists often assume others are judging them the same way as they tend to judge others. This can cause them to be defensive, even when there is nothing to defend against.
- Anxiety. Perfectionism can cause increased levels of stress and anxiety. If left unaddressed, this may lead to a depressed mood and other mental health issues.
- Procrastination. The stress caused by the need to be perfect can make even the simplest of tasks feel overwhelming. Because of this, perfectionists can often fall into a pattern of procrastination to avoid the stress of completing the task.
How To Overcome Perfectionism
Challenges associated with perfectionism are treatable. You can recover from the negative effects of perfectionism with therapy and lifestyle changes. Overcoming perfectionism is not aimed at changing your standards. Instead, the goal is to decrease the extent to which you base your self-worth on being perfect.
It is best to start addressing your perfectionism with therapy. Therapy helps with making your self-image more dynamic by incorporating more parts of yourself than your achievements. It also helps with minimizing all-or-nothing thinking and exploring other ways that you can build your self-esteem.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an approach frequently used in treating perfectionism. It encourages adaptable thinking and identifies and challenges negative or unrealistic beliefs.
A CBT therapist will help you identify perfectionistic thinking that is damaging to your daily life. It also helps with setting specific, achievable, and measurable goals.
Identifying irrational thoughts is a key part of the CBT process. With increased awareness, you can then challenge your negative or irrational thoughts. This process involves incorporating more realistic and rational ways of thinking. It can also help with modifying perfectionistic behaviors that cause stress.
Example: To challenge the irrational thought that you must always be doing something to not be lazy, a CBT therapist may have you practice doing nothing. An example of how this may be done is by assigning you homework to sit in a coffee shop for 30 minutes and read a book.
Mindfulness can also help with learning how to manage perfectionistic thoughts and behaviors. Mindfulness is a practice where you learn to be present in the moment, and free from future worries or past stressors. Mindfulness is used to quiet the mind and allow you to be fully focused on the here and now. This practice helps with reducing stress.