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How To Overcome Perfectionism, According To A Therapist

Overcoming perfectionism isn’t easy, and it isn’t fun, but it’s a necessary step towards healing and growth. I define perfectionism as the culmination of desperation for control coupled with conscious or unconscious feelings of worthlessness. When we feel perfectionistic, we want things done in a certain way. But, it’s more than just that. We equate a sense of order with […]

Overcoming perfectionism isn’t easy, and it isn’t fun, but it’s a necessary step towards healing and growth.

I define perfectionism as the culmination of desperation for control coupled with conscious or unconscious feelings of worthlessness. When we feel perfectionistic, we want things done in a certain way. But, it’s more than just that. We equate a sense of order with a facade of security and safety. We feel like the world will somehow have our backs if we have all our ducks in their proverbial rows.

And what happens when we don’t get our way? We feel dejected or inferior, rejected and incompetent. And when we do get our way? We may feel relieved for a moment- but the intensity and pressure only continue to escalate as we set our own bars higher and higher.

So, how do we break the insidious cycle? We take a reflective step inwards and take action.

Identify Your Perfectionism Extremities

Some people are perfectionistic in every single aspect- from their relationships to their housecleaning to their job to their hair. Others fixate on more areas than others (which can actually lead to neglecting essential elements of their lives).

To identify your own extremities, take some time to reflect on the following areas of your life:

  • Interpersonal relationships
  • Finances
  • Work/career
  • Academics
  • Physical appearance
  • Reputation

What would a mistake in any of these areas mean to you? What if you made a colossal mistake or error in one of these areas? Reflect on what kind of anxiety you would face. Healthy perfectionism entails wanting to be the best versions of ourselves. Unhealthy, obsessive perfectionism entails needing to be the best versions of ourselves- and being unable to tolerate anything less. 

Identify the Benefits of Perfectionism

When it comes down to it, perfectionism is a coping skill. It’s a way to manage the distress in your world by exerting a force of control over the things in your life. I’ve learned that anytime we seek to change a habit, we need to identify its purpose in our lives.

After all, we don’t behave in random and unsuitable ways. Instead, we react in methods that protect our survival. Reflect on the following questions:

  • How has your perfectionism benefited you?
  • What problems has your perfectionism helped you avoid?
  • If you no longer had to be perfect, what do you fear could go wrong?

Answering these questions will help you identify the barriers that could impede your progress towards recovery. Because identifying is the first step towards awareness (which is the first step towards change), it is essential that you consider those answers.

Break the Black-Or-White

Dichotomous thinking is a cognitive distortion (all my CBT fans know this one well), and it’s one characterized by two options. For a perfectionist, the possibilities are perfect or failure. In other words, there’s no in-between, no shades of gray, and no wiggle room. You are good or bad, all or nothing, black or white.

At best, this kind of thinking is distorted and unhelpful. At it’s worst, it’s self-deprecating and utterly shaming. Because, here’s the million-dollar question: what is perfectionism, anyway? And what is a failure, anyway?

They’re both largely subjective, and we tend to be our own worst critics when it comes to labeling behavior. When you can learn to embrace the middle ground- all that glorious in-between, you can start overcoming perfectionism and living a more realistic and rounded life.

Embrace Who You Are Instead of What You Do

Many of us base our worth and successes on our external achievements. We pat ourselves on the backs for top grades, six-pack abs, and job promotions. We praise ourselves for what we can post on social media- our checklist of accomplishments.

This isn’t wrong per se, but overcoming perfectionism entails a sense of acknowledging and embracing your inner self. And that’s a whole lot more than just what you bring to the table or give to other people.

Many of us do not receive ample validation for who we are. This problem may stem back into childhood , but we also quickly reinforce it with our perpetual dialogues of negative self-talk. If you can shift your thinking just slightly away from acknowledging the external strengths and focus on your internal character, you’ll feel a greater sense of peace within yourself.

Reframe Your Goals and To-Do List

So many well-intentioned people struggling with perfectionism have an iron-clad grip on their goals and to-do checklists. When they (inevitably) fall short in completing one of those tasks, it’s an impending sense of inadequacy and incompetence. Some people may choose to drop the goal altogether, and others will neurotically beat on themselves for a perceived ‘failure.’ What do both of these spiral into? Massive self-esteem problems.

It’s healthy for all of us to learn how to set goals and milestones. After all, they help keep us inspired and motivated to move forward in our lives. Without goals, many of us would lack purpose and direction.

Here’s how to strike a compromise with yourself: You’re allowed to set remarkable goals for yourself, but you need to practice acceptance if you’re not able to always complete them. There’s absolutely no reason to riddle yourself with unhelpful or shaming ultimatums.

The principles of mindfulness (one of the keys of DBT) encourages people to focus on the joys and experiences of the present moment- without judging the thoughts or feelings that arise. If you’re finding yourself sneaking back into that self-destructive thinking, take a moment and meditate. You’re allowed to press pause!

Try Something New- Time & Time Again

One of the best ways to become comfortable with a sense of humbled pride and humility? Being a complete beginner in a new setting. This may feel strange and uncomfortable especially if you desire (and strategically place yourself) to be successful in all settings. But overcoming perfectionism means overcoming the idea that you need to be the absolute best.

With that said, it can feel empowering to absorb a multitude of people who are better than you in a particular skill. You’ll learn that it doesn’t mean they are better than you as people- they just have merely dedicated their time and energy to practicing their improvement.

If you’re letting your perfectionism impede your ability to try new things, you risk missing out on a world of adventure and opportunity. What’s something you’ve always wanted to try but been too afraid of messing up? Permit yourself to go for it.

Commit to the Process of Overcoming Perfectionism

What do most perfectionists want to do when they decide to overcome perfectionism? They want to do it perfectly, of course! While the irony may seem humorous, it’s not helpful for propelling change.

Understand this: you will not undo perfectionism perfectly! 

You may slip back into old habits and find yourself obsessing over details or thinking irrationally over a minor mistake. These feelings are reasonable, and it’s crucial for you to embrace them with grace and dignity. When you find yourself stumbling back into old ways, take a moment to stop and reflect. What feelings are you experiencing? What fears are you holding onto? Are there any other ways to fulfill those needs?

Like any recovery process, overcoming perfectionism takes time, willingness, and patience. Saddle up and get ready for the mistakes- after all, you’re here to embrace them!

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