Most people believe that aiming for perfection is a good thing. But it can be a dangerous compulsion.
In our success-driven society, being perfect is the ultimate goal. The traits of perfectionism — constant striving, attention to detail, high standards, commitment to results, direction, hard work, achievement, planning and preparation — are highly praised and admired.
However, ask a perfectionist what his or her life is really like and the response is stark:
- “If I’m not the best, then I’m a failure.”
- “I can’t ask for help, people will think I’m not good enough.”
- “I’m exhausted but I can’t relax — I always have to stay one step ahead.”
- “I never feel satisfied and nothing I do is enough.”
- “If I make a mistake it proves I’m worthless.”
- “I feel hollow, like I can never be happy.”
Perfectionism, when taken to its extreme, has negative consequences. It can lead to workaholism, eating disorders, over-training, social anxiety, body dysmorphia, chronic stress, obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, insomnia, and heart disease.
So, what is perfectionism and why does it matter?
What Perfectionism Really Is
Let’s start with what perfectionism is not. It’s not the pursuit of excellence or the setting of challenging, but attainable, goals where achievement brings a healthy sense of satisfaction and reward.
Perfectionism is the quest for unrealistic standards. It’s characterized by a compulsive striving for perfection, equating self-worth to achievement, being highly self-critical and judgmental, persistent dissatisfaction, a paralyzing fear of failure, and a tendency to procrastinate until things are “just right.”
Instead of helping to achieve goals, perfectionism can be a hindrance. It can thwart happiness, keep you stuck, leave you feeling unsatisfied with progress, make you believe anything short of perfect is a failure, and lead to a restricted view on the “perfect” way to work, live, eat, and exercise. It can keep you so busy planning, preparing, and obsessively chasing perfection that you’re deprived of growth opportunities along the way.
If these tendencies sound familiar, there are ways to change your thinking patterns and instead focus on your positive traits. Here are six steps to avoid the dangers of perfectionism:
Step 1: Recognize Perfectionism
First, figure out if you have a problem with perfectionism. There’s nothing wrong with having high standards — it’s when those standards are unrealistic and the pursuit interferes with your enjoyment of life that perfectionism becomes an issue.
Here are some common signs of perfectionism:
- You feel like things should always be done a certain way
- You beat yourself up for making mistakes
- You believe if it’s not perfect, it’s a complete failure
- You procrastinate until circumstances are just right
- You worry others will see a flaw and judge you
- You think asking for help is a sign of weakness
- You feel the need to be in control
- You’re afraid of starting something new in case you’re not the best
- You attach self-worth to achievements, i.e. “I failed therefore I’m a failure”
- You think you should be doing things better, and rarely give yourself credit
- You tend to abandon goals if you make a mistake or fall off the wagon
Many people will have some of these traits, but if most of these apply to you, chances are you’re a perfectionist.
Step 2: Where Did It Come From?
It’s important to understand where your perfectionist tendencies came from. Implementing strategies to curb perfectionism will be more successful if you have a deeper understanding of its origin.
- Was perfectionism instilled in you as a child?
- Were you expected to perform perfectly at school?
- Did peer pressure encourage you to have the perfect body, grades, or partner?
- Did early career experiences lead you to think perfection is the only way to get ahead?
- Is societal pressure forcing you to conform to a perfect ideal?
For many of us, perfectionism manifested during adolescence. From a young age, we learned that doing things right is “good.” We were measured by how well we did at school, sports, and work. We were taught to avoid failure. This reinforced the belief we should only do something if know we can do it right. Unfortunately, this leads to a narrow view of life where we rarely break the mold.
Another common source of perfectionism is the media. We are constantly exposed to images of the perfect body, house, children, meal, car, and career. The pressure to conform to this ideal can be relentless, especially if we compare our behind-the-scenes reality to the highlight reels of celebrities on social media.
This pursuit of perfection leaves many people feeling inadequate, insecure, and self-critical, leading to unattainably high expectations and standards. It’s no longer enough to be normal — we believe we need to be exceptional to feel worthy.
Step 3: Curb Your Fear of Failure
We all fear failure to some degree. For a perfectionist, this fear can be paralyzing. Failure is viewed as a direct reflection of self-worth.
If you’re a perfectionist, you may find yourself doing and re-doing, checking and double-checking, and always doing things a certain way. You don’t want to be out of control or appear out of control. By focusing on the details, you feel you can control the outcome and avoid failure.
The key to overcoming this fear is to accept that failure is a normal part of life, and acknowledging it as one of the best ways to learn, grow, and create opportunities.
Try this simple but powerful exercise:
- Make a list of your past failures (big and small).
- Next to each item, write the outcome of that failure, i.e. the lessons learned, the knowledge gained, and the benefit of the experience.
Recognizing past failures and accepting the benefits of failing can help switch your mindset from fearing failure to embracing it.
Step 4: Overcome Procrastination
One of the hallmarks of perfectionism is procrastination. The endless planning, preparing, and organizing creates a false sense of doing. For a perfectionist, starting something new can be terrifying. Therefore, procrastination serves a purpose — if you don’t start, you can’t fail. And if you can’t do it perfectly, then why bother starting?
The key to overcoming procrastination is to start small. Every goal needs one first step. It might be writing a shopping list for healthy meals, laying out clothes at night for morning exercise, or cleaning out one kitchen drawer. Write yourself a deadline for this first step and tell a friend or family member about it.
I know how tricky procrastination can be. For many years, I wanted to start my own business. I lay awake at night thinking about it, I researched the heck out of it, I wrote business plan after business plan. I scouted locations, wrote to-do lists, created procedures, and enrolled in too many online courses to count.
I rationalized the delay by telling myself the research, planning, and preparation was necessary to control the outcome. When I had nothing left to busy myself with, I then told myself “There’s too much going on, I’ll start when things settle down,” or, “I’ll start when I know more,” or, “I just need to find another course,” or, “I’ll start in the new year.”
I was stuck in a dependent, reactive state. To overcome this inertia, I used a combination of strategies. I gave myself a deadline, I held myself accountable to others, and I started with one small step. It was enough to create momentum and kill procrastination.
Step 5: Get Perspective
The all-or-nothing approach is common among perfectionists. There’s a strong belief that if something can’t be done perfectly, it’s not worth doing.
In the grand scheme of things, making a mistake is not the end of the world. Missing one workout will not derail your goals. Neither will eating one bowl of ice-cream, or leaving the dirty dishes in the sink for a night, or making a mistake in an email.
Just because you slipped up doesn’t mean you should throw in the towel. In fact, it’s likely others won’t even notice your mistake.
To get this perspective, take the 50,000-foot view. Will that mistake matter one year from now? Five years? Ten? What’s the worst that could happen? Will you survive it?
Step 6: Accept Imperfection
We are all imperfect and incomplete. When you think about it, it’s often the flaws and quirks that we love most about our friends, family, and partners.
But to a perfectionist, the idea of embracing imperfections can be overwhelming. So, start small. Try something new — something you’ve never done before that’s a fun, no-pressure activity. Bake a new cake, take a gardening class, try roller-skating with friends. Have some fun, laugh at your mistakes, and enjoy feeling like a beginner again.
Accepting imperfections means embracing your quirks, allowing yourself to make mistakes, and being human.
Perfectionism doesn’t bring success. Striving for the unattainable will leave you fearful, dissatisfied, overwhelmed, and stuck.
Instead, aim to be little better than yesterday. Results come from doing things imperfectly, learning and adjusting, and making gradual improvements consistently over time.