Well-Being//

How to Stop Perfectionism From Plaguing Your Life

1. Recognize when your perfectionism is holding you back.

Courtesy of EvgeniiAnd/Shutterstock
Courtesy of EvgeniiAnd/Shutterstock

It took me 3,205 days to launch my site.

This is the year I’m going to launch crackliffe.com, I wrote in a Facebook post on New Year’s Day in 2010. I’m going to make it happen.

My vision was clear, but my fear persevered. And it had other plans.

First, my insecurity manifested in a steady stream of questions that rolled in like the tide, each negative thought drowning out the last. Do you have the time to devote to that? The voice of doubt whispered convincingly. Do you have the money, either? It continued. Who would want to read that anyway? It questioned, chipping away at my confidence. And then came the kicker that triggered my sense of not being enough: Do you really have what it takes to do this?

That moment of quiet self-betrayal was the moment where the nail seemed to meet the coffin.

Once the doubts took hold, they morphed into many different forms of procrastination. There was the busy work schedule into which I threw myself fully. There was the completely packed social calendar that kept me busy every night of the week. The more I avoided, the more likely I was to keep avoiding.

I’m too tired.

I don’t feel like doing that right now.

I’ll get to it later.

I kicked the can down the road so many times that it ended up in the gutter. And then it was left there to rot. For over eight years.

But then, after my dream became deferred, my curiosity stepped in to intervene with a different set of questions: What if you just tried? What’s the worst that could happen? What if you just took the first step?

It took many years, but I finally mustered the courage to start.

I bought the domain and picked a template. I organized the pages and got the sitemap in order. I found a free photo service and wrote my first blog post. Once the ball got rolling, it became easier to maintain the momentum. I wrote three blogs in just that first week alone.

I was no longer paralyzed by all the tasks I knew I needed to complete. I was no longer overwhelmed at the thought of not knowing where to start. The idea of doing things perfectly no longer plagued my mind and left me frozen in my tracks.

Without the chains of perfection holding me back, all that was left was the freedom to try—and to learn. I guess that’s the real beauty of giving up the guise of being perfect: Once you throw your hands in the air, strap on your boots and take the first step, you give yourself permission to be as you are without judgment or expectations. The cuffs don’t just loosen; they fall off entirely.

And the burden of living flawlessly is lifted. What remains in its wake is an unmistakable impulse. The voice of doubt whispers, why try? But intuition intervenes with an auspicious answer:

Because I can. And I must.

Understanding Perfectionism

What is perfectionism?

The American Psychological Association defines perfectionism as “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.” Like an expressionist painting, perfectionism looks tidy and serene from afar. The desire to seek perfection masquerades as a perfectly harmless attempt at being successful—and, in cases of adaptive perfectionism, that’s true. After all, there’s nothing wrong with a drive to improve that’s balanced with an understanding for when to let go. But when perfectionism crosses over from adaptive to maladaptive, it’s much more multifaceted and complex. And, in those maladaptive cases, far more dangerous and risky than we’ve been led to believe by corporate America.

The roots of perfectionism run deep into our psyches, according to Dr Andrew P. Hill, a leading researcher on perfectionism at York St. John University in the United Kingdom. “Perfectionism isn’t a behavior. It’s a way of thinking about yourself,” Dr. Hill says.

If the story I shared above about launching this site is any indication, then he’s spot on. What we tend to see as a perfect shell on the outside is really just the tip of an iceberg floating in a deep ocean of insecurity, anxiety, shame—and, sometimes, avoidance of all of the above. At its core, perfectionism is the desire to have things be just right in order to gain approval, status or validation. It’s not so much about the outcome of perfection as it is about the drive and desire to make things perfect in the first place.

In that regard, perfectionism is a mindset that can trap you into thinking things must be a certain way in order to belong. And that you’re a failure if you don’t live up to those standards. As you’ll see next, this way of looking at the world falls into several discrete categories, and its impacts are pervasive.

What are the different types of perfectionism?

There are three main types of perfectionism, which Dr. Thomas Curran of the University of Bath in the United Kingdom highlights in his 2018 TEDMED talk. They are defined as follows:

  1. Self-oriented perfectionism: Excessively high personal expectations.
  2. Socially prescribed perfectionism: Excessively high social expectations.
  3. Other-oriented perfectionism: Excessively high expectations of others.

There are also two important sub-dimensions of perfectionism, which are:

  1. Excellence-seeking perfectionism: A fixation with—and demand for—excessively high expectations to be met.
  2. Failure-avoiding perfectionism: A fixation with—and aversion of—failure.

People who experience perfectionism can exhibit one or multiple types and one or both sub-dimensions.

How common is perfectionism?

Perfectionism is widespread, affecting nearly one or two in five young people (depending on the study and the age range). And it’s on the rise.

All three types of perfectionism have increased over time, but socially prescribed perfectionism, which is most highly correlated to serious mental health conditions, has increased the most. From 1989 to 2017 the number of young people who reported clinically relevant levels of socially prescribed perfectionism rose from 9% to 18%, doubling in the span of less than 30 years.

Dr. Hill and Dr. Curran believe the uptick is a result of several cultural forces, including the encouragement of individualistic tendencies and the emphasis of the meritocracy, as well as the rise of comparison through social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and more.

The connection between perfectionism and mental health

In a Q&A with Goop, Dr. Curran says, “Perfection is an impossible outcome and a core vulnerability to serious mental illness. Those who become preoccupied with it set themselves up for failure and psychological turmoil.” The research backs him up.

Perfectionism, while not a discrete mental health condition of its own, has been linked to anxiety and depression, increased levels of burnout, obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorders, and even suicide. “There are studies that suggest that the higher the perfectionism is, the more psychological disorders you’re going to suffer,” says Sarah Egan, a researcher on perfectionism at Curtin University in Perth, Australia.

The bad news is that perfectionism is a precarious risk factor for serious mental and behavioral issues. The good news is that there are specific steps you can take to overcome perfectionism. And that’s exactly what I outline below.

11 Ways to Overcome Perfectionism

1. Recognize when your perfectionism is holding you back.

As you’ve already seen, not all forms of perfectionism are bad. Striving to do your best is healthy and helpful in some circumstances and situations. It’s when you keep revisiting and tweaking and fixating despite diminishing returns that the pursuit of perfection becomes problematic. Perfectionism becomes maladaptive when your expectations become more important than the reality of the situation you’re in.

Brené Brown touches on this in her second book, The Gifts of Imperfection, when she writes, “Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life.”

Learn to recognize when these impulses arise within you. Do your best to take a step back and ask yourself some of these questions:

  1. Do I need to take a break and come back to this with a fresh set of eyes?
  2. Am I striving for progress or perfection?
  3. Are my expectations realistic?
  4. Will the extra effort make a meaningful difference here?
  5. Is this good enough?

2. Practice self-compassion.

Perfectionism can be unbearable because of the constant condemnation directed at the self or another. All of that negative energy can really weigh on you over time and breed more negativity. But fear not: Self-compassion can rescue you from your own self-criticism. Start with the practice of positive realistic statements, or small affirmations that reorient your energy. These mantras will help remind you that you’re just another human doing the best you can with what you’ve been given. They’ll also reframe your internal narrative from one that’s steeped in disapproval to one that’s rich in reassurance. Here are some examples of positive realistic statements:

  1. Everybody makes mistakes.
  2. No one is perfect.
  3. I’m trying my best and that’s enough.
  4. I can tackle this little by little and one step at a time.

Try incorporating these into your routine first thing in the morning or immediately before bed and see what a difference a little perspective can make in your life.

3. Address the root cause.

We’ve already established that perfectionism is a mindset. But how do you address and begin to shift that mindset? As Drake Baer writes for Thrive Global, “Once you understand the perfectionism’s function—a way of seeking security, love, self worth—then you can understand the deeper emotional machinery underlying a behavior.” The recognition of your need for emotional safety can be an extremely powerful tool in beating your perfectionism. Instead of tinkering with things on the outside and treating the symptoms, you can get right to the heart of the matter just by shining a light on what’s really going on internally. When you become cognizant of this feeling, you can begin the work of unpacking the limiting beliefs that got you there in the first place. One of my favorite tools for challenging automatic negative thoughts is a line of questioning, which I also detail in my piece about how to cope with anxiety:

  1. What are the beliefs that are driving this behavior?
  2. When did it start?
  3. What do I know to be true?
  4. How does this thought make me feel?
  5. Is the opposite of the thought more likely?

Next time you start to feel that inkling to seek emotional safety, take a deep breath and employ the questions above to re-center yourself. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.

4. Revisit your expectations.

In our age of constant comparison, it can be all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking everyone else is living a perfect life and here you are just struggling to make ends meet. When these thoughts arise, acknowledge the compulsion to perfect your own life and choose to revisit your expectations before you act on that compulsion. The reality is that your expectations of perfection are what make you feel so inadequate. So, do your best not to compare yourself with anyone else. Do things because you want to do them, not because of anyone’s expectations—most of all, your own. Do your best to strip things down to the bare essentials.

In the end, life rarely turns out like we expect it to. Three things ultimately define our short time here:

  1. Do I have the courage to show up?
  2. Do I have the willingness to let life unfold?
  3. Can I find comfort in not knowing?

If you can learn to push beyond your expectations to live in this uncertainty, you’ll be golden.

5. Play out the script.

Also known as decatastrophizing—one of the 12 ways to defeat cognitive distortions—playing out the script in your head can help you realize that the catastrophic outcome you’ve imagined is actually not all that likely to happen. And, even if it does, you won’t be labeled an absolute failure, you won’t be riddled with shame and you won’t be a worthless piece of trash. Truthfully, it’s crazy what we tell ourselves sometimes. Just make sure you don’t get caught up in believing it.

6. Purposefully do things imperfectly.

One of the most direct ways to confront your perfectionism is to see what happens when you don’t do things in a manner that you’d consider “perfect.” This approach is called exposure therapy and is an integral part of cognitive behavioral therapy for perfectionism.

If you’re struggling with your expectations of perfection, try confronting your expectations head-on by doing the exact opposite of what you want to do. Try leaving the “mess” and see what happens. Send that text with an error and see how the other person responds. Wear that t-shirt with a stain on it that no one else will likely notice.

Once you have the courage to show up imperfectly in these small ways, you can train yourself to understand on both a mental and emotional level that imperfection does not lead to failure or catastrophe.

7. Chunk it up.

Big projects and major life choices can feel debilitating when you think about doing everything at once. The solution? Break things down into smaller steps so they don’t seem overwhelming or unmanageable. Instead of trying to tackle 100% of the task in one fell swoop, try four smaller steps where you complete a quarter of the work, or three chunks where you focus on a third at once. Bottom line: You’re much more likely to start—and finish—something when you don’t have to do it all in one sitting. Learn to give yourself the time, space, breaks and moments to recharge that you need. You’ll get there in due time.

8. Take the first step.

What if Whitney never picked up a microphone? What if Jordan never picked up a ball? What if Shakespeare never picked up a pen? You never become an expert if you aren’t willing to be an amateur first, which also means taking that crucial first step. So, get out there and just show up. Even if things don’t go as you planned, at least you’ll hone your craft and get one step closer to where you want to be.

And that’s a beautiful thing.

9. Establish firm boundaries.

Setting firm boundaries is one of the best things you can do for yourself if you have a tendency to expect perfection. As a person with a natural inclination to strive for more and to do better, it can be especially difficult for you to say no, which means that it’s even more important to get clear about what you’re willing and not willing to do. Make sure you do just that.

10. Accept that you won’t excel at everything.

Most people spend a lifetime not thriving—not pursuing their curiosity or passion—because they convince themselves they don’t have what it takes or that they shouldn’t just start because why bother if you don’t know how? It’s psychological paralysis to think that you’ll get it right or perfectly if you only had more time or more money or were more capable.  Even the pros don’t get it right every time. MLB players make errors. And so do CEOs. We’re all human and that means that we’re bound to make mistakes and not fulfill all of our own expectations.

But one core lesson remains: You never learn if you never try.

I’d much rather try imperfectly than remain blocked by the impossible standards in my head. I’d much rather embrace the risk of imperfection than risk letting life pass me by.

Anything meaningful and beautiful is done authentically and imperfectly because that’s what it means to be human. Falling in love is done imperfectly Going after your dreams is a master class in imperfection. You can’t excel at anything if you don’t have the courage to show up for something.

Don’t spend your life blocking out the darkness; you won’t have time to let in the light.

11. Believe that done is better than perfect.

Crossing the finish line imperfectly is better than never completing the course at all, right?

Right.

How has perfectionism manifested in your life? What are some of the ways you’ve used to combat it? Tell me in the comments below—or Tweet me @crackliffe.

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