Do you focus on minor mistakes you’ve made, rather than acknowledging all of the things you do well?
If a friend compliments your smile, do you brush off the remark with a derogatory comment about yourself?
If so, you may be suffering from perfectionism, a painful psychological state that can make life miserable for you and those around you.
Signs of perfectionism:
- You are acutely conscious and and intensely critical of errors and perceived inadequacies of yours. You procrastinate often. It’s difficult for you to get going on important projects.
- You aim to be number on in everything you attempt, even in areas that don’t really interest you.
- It takes you a long time to complete a project, due to your going over and over trivial details. In other words, sometimes you cannot see the forest for the trees, since you get caught up in the minutiae rather than focusing on the big picture.
- Actually completing projects is not your forte. It’s common for you to abandon projects prematurely, due to frustration that the associated learning process doesn’t come more easily to you.
- You have difficulty making decisions. Even minor choices such as what to eat for breakfast or what route to take to work can make you anxious.
- You think in all-or-nothing or black-and-white terms. For you, there is no grey area. You often say “should”, “have to”, and “must”.
- You tend to be unrealistic in your expectations for yourself and other people. As a result, your relationships with other people suffer or even end.
- You suffer from social anxiety or social phobia.
- You have excessive anxiety about trying new things, due to concern that you won’t be good at them or will make a mistake.
- You struggle with low self-esteem and rarely feel “good enough”.
- You suffer from feelings of depression, anxiety, guilt, or shame.
- You frequently feel empty inside.
- You suffer from stress-related physical conditions.
- You wrestle with binge eating, emotional eating, bulimia, anorexia, other eating disorders, or body dysmorphic disorder.
- You are prone to excessive alcohol intake or use of illicit drugs.
Saying yes to any of the above items doesn’t necessarily mean that you are a perfectionist. However, identifying with more than several items may be a sign that perfectionism is an problem for you.
Perfectionists place an inordinate amount of pressure on themselves and others to be faultless and perform flawlessly. Perfectionists are thus excessively critical of mistakes. While aiming for excellence can be healthy, perfectionism often results in depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, procrastination, eating disorders, substance abuse, self-harm, problems with personal and professional relationships, and performance at work.
As author Brene Brown puts it, “When perfectionism is driving, shame is riding shotgun, and fear is that annoying backseat driver.” When we approach life from a perfectionistic perspective, we are bound to be dissatisfied. We will never meet our own standards, because we are only human and therefore imperfect. The inner battle we fight leads to enormous suffering. Many issues addressed in psychotherapy sessions are caused in part by perfectionism. When stuck in this warped perspective, we see ourselves as not sufficiently kind, slim, intelligent, good-looking, interesting, or capable. We believe that “if only” we obtained or achieved this, that, or the other thing, we’d finally be happy – and all the while we are chasing a mirage.
Being a perfectionist is a depleting and deeply dissatisfying way to live, in which we become fixated on the unattainable goal instead of noticing and appreciating the journey.
The origins of perfectionism are numerous. Perhaps we had a traumatic childhood during which we felt threatened, helpless, or unable to cope with life – and we all had these feelings at some point, since young children are all dependent on their parents or other caregivers.
Maybe one of our parents was perfectionistic, and so we felt inadequate. Maybe this parent questioned the one B on our report card and didn’t comment on our A grades. It wouldn’t be surprising if we then adopted this perfectionistic approach to life ourselves.
Whatever the cause, perfectionism is extremely harmful to our well-being. When we accept that being a perfectionist is dangerous, we become more motivated to separate ourselves from perfectionism:
- Count the cost. Make a list of what your perfectionism is doing for and to you. In what ways has it worked for or against you, in the short and long run? How have your relationships, physical, emotional, and mental health, spiritual life, career, and finances been affected?
- Surrender the all-or-nothing mindset. Lower your expectations – yes, you can do this without sacrificing excellence. Accept that it’s impossible for you to do everything with 100% accuracy. Practice being okay with being human. Recognize that with every new endeavor there is a learning curve. Allow yourself to do things imperfectly and incompletely.
- In fact, try being imperfect on purpose. Leave a plate in the sink overnight and discover that the world did not end as a result. After all, are you really attracted to people who are grimly harsh with themselves and others? Humility can be very appealing. You may find that when you practice humility (“perfectly imperfect”), people will find you to be more approachable.
- Keep your eyes on the big picture. Let go of focusing on unimportant details. Do not “miss the forest for the trees”.
- Give yourself a pat on the back for your achievements, be they seemingly large or small, instead of zeroing in on what you did not accomplish.
- If you get caught up in the trap of “not having enough”, consider whether you really need something and what it would add to your life. You probably don’t need another toy just because it’s the current “thing” or because you’ve seen a compelling ad. Ads make money by convincing us that we absolutely must have something (namely what they’re selling), so consider the source.
- Get clear on your priorities. Having 20 items at the top of your daily to-do list is not realistic. Pick one to three things on which to focus, and devote a reasonable amount of time to each item.
- Give yourself a reality check. Ask yourself, “How important is this, really? How much will this matter to me in a week? A month? A year?”
- Prepare mentally for the worst-case scenario. Would it be so horrible if you wore two mismatched socks? If you forgot a friend’s name? If you gained five pounds?
- Focus on the process, not the result. Adopt a curious, courageous, and kind attitude, appreciating every step of your journey, even the unpleasant ones, as opportunities to learn and grow.
- Practice radical self-acceptance. Appreciate yourself, warts and all, and accept life on life’s terms. You cannot control everyone and everything.
- Replace your self-doubt with self-respect, self-love, and self-compassion. Getting to know your real self, as opposed to an idealized image you wish to portray to the world and yourself, is the antidote to perfectionism.
- Allow yourself to experience all of your feelings. Perfectionism demands that we feel certain emotions and not other emotions. What often happens in this scenario is that we end up being estranged from all of our emotions, as it’s almost impossible to pick and choose what we’re going to feel. The healthier choice is to bear compassionate witness to the full gamut of your emotions, without judgment.
- Make healthy relationships a priority. Let other people know your true, quirky, imperfect self. This is the only way to develop authentic relationships. Even if you managed to pull off a “perfect” act for awhile (highly unlikely, but just for the sake of argument), you’d probably be concerned that people might reject you if you let down your guard.
- Take good care of your body, mind, and spirit. The basics: good nutrition, regular exercise, sufficient sleep, relaxation, fun, intellectually challenging projects, an active social life, meditation, and connection with a higher (i.e., bigger than you) purpose.
- Don’t overthink things. Just dive in there and get going. You can revise later or try another option.
- Stop using the words “should”, “should have”, “must”, “have to”, and “if only”. These can sound dictatorial. Instead, use phrases like “want to”, “choose to”, “prefer”, and “now I’ll…”, which put you back in the driver’s seat and have a flavor of kindness.
- Understand that while your perfectionism and associated wish to control your feelings and environment may have developed from childhood attempts to deal with anxiety (it’s scary being a helpless child), you are older now and can employ other more effective methods of coping.
- Don’t let fear have the last word. You can feel uncomfortable and still take action. Courage wouldn’t be courage if it didn’t involve overcoming fears (rather than not having any fears to begin with). Your inevitable mistakes don’t define you. Done is better than perfect.
- Determine your most important values and life purpose, then let these be compasses as to how you allocate your time, energy, and resources. Use these ideals as guidelines, not absolutes, to avoid perfectionism in this area. Although you may continue to keep to-do lists, refrain from letting your lists (and thus your achievements) determine your self-worth and direction.
We are all human. None of us is all good or all bad. And this is okay. As you shed the perfectionism habit and embrace being the glorious person who you really are, you’re likely to be a lot more relaxed, happier, easier to be around, healthier, and, yes, more productive.