Is perfectionism really such a big deal? As a self-development topic it certainly gets so much press that perhaps you are tired of hearing about it, and prefer to see your habit of wanting the best out of every situation as nothing to worry about.
Psychology identifies two types of perfectionism. If your perfectionism is not affecting your moods, if you feel great when you achieve something and laugh when you don’t and keep aiming higher, great. You are what’s known as a ‘normal’, ‘adaptive’, or ‘positive’ perfectionist, or what some people would say should just be called a high achiever.
But if you are one of the many who suffer from their perfectionism, who live with a running soundtrack of self-defeating thoughts and constantly feel like life lets you down, then you have the personality trait of what’s known as “neurotic’, ‘maladaptive’, or ‘negative’ perfectionism. It’s bound to cause you low moods and poor self-esteem, but it’s also something you can work to change or at least manage.
(Want to know more about the different types of perfectionism, as well as further symptoms of perfectionism, known causes, and recommended interventions? See our help guide to perfectionism).
The problem with a advice on perfectionism
There is a sea of great advice about handling perfectionism available on the internet. Typical advice around perfectionism sounds like:
change your perspective
focus on the process instead of the end goal
lower your goals to make them more practical
look for positives to counteract negative thinking
give yourself permission to not be perfect
These are all sound suggestions that are worth trying and can work wonders…. for some.
But what if you’ve tried it all and it hasn’t worked for you?
Why advice on perfectionism can sometimes fail
If such advice as above hasn’t worked for you it might be because part of your perfectionism involves obsessive thoughts and/or black and white thinking (both common with those who exhibit neurotic perfectionism).
Such thought patterns are very powerful, usually deeply entrenched for years, and therefore challenging to budge. Looking at the common advice above you might notice that it almost exclusively focuses on changing your thinking, or replacing your present thinking with more positive patterns. As anyone who has had a bad day and has tried the advice of ‘think happy thoughts and you’ll feel better’ might know, replacing negative thoughts with positive ones is not as easy as it sounds.
Another glitch with common advice on dealing with perfectionism is that it can unwittingly instead feed your perfectionism by giving you yet something else to ‘be really good at’. Looking at the above methods, you might be triggered to try to find the ‘most useful’ new perspective, to find the ‘best’ easier goals you anxiously spend hours dissecting, or to become neurotic (i.e., a perfectionist) about giving yourself permission to be imperfect. In other words, you can end up trying to be ‘the perfect non-perfectionist’!
So what hope is there for breaking through perfectionism, then?
A lot of hope! Perfectionism is a personality trait, not a disorder, and does respond to interventions. It’s just that perfectionism sometimes require a multi-faceted approach that doesn’t just work on your thoughts but also introduces actions and new behaviours.
This is why Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has been proven in studies to work for changing perfectionism. CBT looks at the link between our thoughts, emotions, and actions, and will often use action to challenge and change thought patterns (see our article CBT behavioural interventionsto learn more on this idea).
And as for techniques that are about changing your perfectionist thoughts, they need to either use or at least accommodate your perfectionist tendencies so they don’t backfire.
So aside from attending therapy (which is by its very nature perfect for combatting perfectionism, as it focuses on creating a non-judgemental environment) what could these two approaches, using actions instead of just thought changes, and using perfectionism against itself, actually look like in practise? Let’s look at some ideas that might help you.
How to Stop Being a Perfectionist And Have Fun While You Are At It
1. Escape into the present.
Perfectionism tends to feed on the past and the future. It sounds like ‘you were never good at this as a child so have to work harder now’ (past), ‘when you did this job last year your boss thought you could do better’ (past), ‘if you don’t do this perfectly you will lose your job’ (future), ‘if you don’t make your children get better marks they’ll never get into a good school’ (future).
So one of the most powerful actions you can take against perfectionism is to work to be in the present moment.‘Present moment awareness‘ involves being completely committed to noticing what is going on for you right now, and not just with your mind, but with your senses.
With practise, it helps you control or even transcend your thoughts and mental ‘chatter’. If you are cutting vegetables for dinner, and you focus on the smell of the food, the colours you see, and the sounds of the music you are listening to, not only is there far less room to worry about the perfect way to make a meal, you won’t be thinking about what someone said to you at lunchtime that made you feel a failure. And you’ll be enjoying your life more, too, as an aside.
Mindfulnessis a form of now moment awareness training that is gaining in popularity, recommended by the NHS and now integrated into the practise of many psychotherapists. Look for a group or class near you.
A good way to use action against perfectionism is to just go ahead and do something badly. For example, if you have never done art in your life, buy some paints and a canvas and set aside half a Saturday to do the worst painting this side of the Eastern hemisphere. Nobody else has to see it. Or write a really bad poem, create a ridiculous modern dance routine, or build a shelf. Anything you know you will be terrible at.
It’s smarter than it sounds. Trying something that you aren’t good at helps challenge and reprogram your core beliefthat if you aren’t perfect life will go wrong (for more on this see suggestion number three, below).
That said, don’t expect your mind not to revolt and try to stop you reprogramming it by making you feel panicky, or by telling you a million different reasons to not try this thing you are not good at. Do it anyway. If necessary, rope a friend in to try your chosen task with you (as long as they are not good, either, or that will trigger your competitive perfectionist side).
Or do your chosen activity with a toddler. If you’ve ever made a cake or done finger painting with an average 3 year-old you’ll know how much little kids care about perfection – they don’t. Try to tap into their ease and wonder for yourself. What does it feel like to do something without even thinking about whether you are doing it the right or wrong way?
3. Make a perfect record of your perfectionism
This one is an action that uses perfectionism instead of fights against it – with a twist. It’s all about recording the things you are trying to be infallible at, or are asking others to do perfectly. Keep a list, writing every little thing down, even if it’s just that you caught yourself trying to brush your teeth perfectly. Notice when you expect your children to make their beds perfectly, or your partner to listen to you go on about your day perfectly.
It can help to give yourself a gold star for every ten things you manage to notice and write down about your perfectionism.
The more perfect you are at this, the better, because what it’s really doing is training you to notice your patterns instead of carry them out unconsciously. The less we are perfectionists on autopilot, the more we can choose differently and make less demanding and diminishing requests of ourselves and others.
Secondly, this tactic can help you realise what your perfectionism is costing you. You will notice that you wasted fifteen minutes trying to sew a button on perfectly instead of the five it should have taken, or that your kid didn’t talk to you all night when you expressed disapproval he got a few wrong on his maths test.
You might also start to notice patterns to the moods you are in when you attempt perfectionism. Is your perfectionism a mask to cover up emotions you can’t control like anger, sadness, or defeat?
And this tactic does help you to laugh at yourself. In fact if you have a perfectionist friend you can compete with and compare lists with once a week if it adds to the fun. You can laugh together that you spent fifteen minutes trying to get a wrinkle out of a linen shirt, and this will likely mean the next time you find yourself doing such a thing you’ll remember the laughter and think, maybe I don’t need to do this to myself.
4. Take calculated risks.
Perfectionism is often at heart a way to control your world so that bad things don’t happen. Behind perfectionism can be a core belief that the world is not a safe place to be and that you cannot trust it.You might not even realise that you feel this way. Core beliefs tend to be ideas we learned as children and then carry mindlessly and without question into our adult lives.
A fun way to begin to challenge and break this need for control that is at the heart of perfectionism is to start to allow yourself to take tiny risks, similar to ‘exposure therapy’ used sometimes to treat phobias.
We are not talking dangerous risks, here. The idea is not to actually make your world unsafe, but to prove that it is safer than you think it is! So no need to bungee jump off anything. It’s more about noticing ways you overdo things, then starting to risk a subtle change. If you fell asleep without flossing your teeth, will they all fall out? Or not? If you always spell and grammar check your emails, will the world fall apart if you send one without doing so?
Build on your little risks, moving into medium ‘risks’. If you always come back from your lunch break fifteen minutes early so that you look the most dedicated employee, what if you came back only five minutes early?
Remember, if you don’t like the new experience, you can always go back to the old one. It’s not about finding permanent change, it’s about reprogramming your mind with small actions until it accepts the proof that the world is not as dangerous as once thought.
5. Get Beneath the Perfectionism
Of course those beliefs about the world being dangerous,as well as any other core beliefs you might have (typical ones held by perfectionists also include ‘I am never good enough’, ‘I can never win no matter how hard I try’, and ‘everyone else finds life easier than me’) didn’t just pop into your life out of nowhere. They were either formed by your past experiences, or taught to you by someone you looked up to, like a parent or guardian.
Identifying how you created these core beliefs, getting ‘under’ your perfectionism, is one of the best ways to change your habit of pushing yourself and others too hard.
This can be done by hiring a coach, finding a support group, experimenting with journalling and self-therapy, or working with a psychotherapist or counsellor who can create a safe environment for you to explore. While it might not feel like fun at first, in the long run it can create seismic shifts in your view of the world and yourself that can help you finally give yourself a break and start to feel content with yourself, others, and the world around you. And that, ultimately, IS fun.
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images by San Jose library, DetroitDerek photography, King Huang, Andrew Baron, Bandita, and Alan Light.