If you’re reading this article, you may have noticed that you’re a bit of a perfectionist. There’s nothing wrong with trying to perform well and succeed in life, but if your tendency toward perfectionism is impacting your life, it’s time to take a step back and investigate why you feel the need to be perfect all the time and how to stop being a perfectionist.
In this article, we will explore where perfectionism comes from, its dangers and health risks, and how you can make some healthy changes in your life to stop perfectionism from taking over. Read on to discover more about the nature of perfectionism and how you can avoid it from controlling your life.
What is Perfectionism?
The New Oxford American Dictionary defines perfectionism as ‘the refusal to accept any standard short of perfection.’ A study published by the American Psychological Association describes perfectionism as ‘an irrational desire to achieve along with being overly critical of oneself and others.’
Perfectionism is harmful to your health and well-being. It is strongly associated with shame. The perfectionist tries so hard to make things perfect because they likely fear that if they make mistakes, or their efforts and achievements are sub-par, they will feel a sense of shame, low self-worth, and low self-esteem.
Instead of deeply understanding that their self-worth and validity as a person is inherent, the perfectionist has learned to base their sense of self on the quality and outcome of their efforts. This is harmful to one’s sense of self esteem because, in reality, no one can be perfect all the time.
What Causes Perfectionism?
Perfectionists hold themselves and others to unreasonably high standards. Failure is not good enough, and success is prioritized over health and well-being. It is unrealistic to expect oneself or anyone else to be perfect all the time, but perfectionist tendencies don’t have their roots in logic and reason.
Below we have outlined some of the common causes of perfectionism. You may notice that one or all of the following apply to your life and experience. If so, later in this article you will find some useful tips to help you overcome perfectionism and live a healthier, happier life, free from the unrealistic high standards and expectations you place on yourself.
Parents who constantly paced their own unrealistic expectations on you throughout your childhood and adolescent years may have created in you a tendency toward perfectionism. If you’re an adult reading this, try to understand that the expectations they had for you may have been unreasonable, and you don’t have to adhere to them any longer.
If a parent made you feel ashamed or worthless in your childhood, you may have tried to win them over by pushing yourself to extremes and by making everything perfect.
Other possible causes of perfectionism include:
- Excessive praise
- A need to control
- All-or-nothing thinking
- Mental health issues (Anxiety, depression, stress, personality disorders)
The Dangers of Perfectionism
Perfectionism is detrimental to your health and well-being. If you don’t let yourself relax and accept that you’ll make some mistakes every now and again, you might experience a lot of harsh, negative self-talk and suffer from a lot of unnecessary stress.
Below, we have outlined some of the most common dangers and disadvantages of perfectionism. You may already be experiencing some of these, or they may be on the horizon if your perfectionism continues to control your life. As such, it’s important to consider and follow the helpful tips we have outlined later in this article.
If you believe you need to make everything perfect, you might procrastinate on a project. By the time the deadline comes around, you won’t have even started because you were afraid of getting it wrong. Perfectionism can lead to procrastination, which adds to the existing stress of trying to be perfect.
2. Low self-esteem
Perfectionists set high standards for themselves, then feel bad when they don’t meet their own expectations. Frequent failure to meet one’s own expectations, even when they are unrealistic, is not good for confidence.
The perfectionist is likely to suffer from low self-esteem and a lack of confidence, which permeates into almost all areas of life. They will come to believe that they are not good enough, which may demotivate them to keep trying or get out of their comfort zone in the future.
3. Relationship issues
Living with perfectionism can be challenging, and so is living with a perfectionist. The perfectionist’s high standards for themselves and their life mean they are likely to feel inadequate or like a failure quite often. As such, you might have a hard time receiving love and affection. You might believe you are unworthy of it, despite how much your partner tells and shows you.
Naturally, your partner wants to reassure that you are loved and cared for, but if you constantly shut down their affection because you don’t feel good enough, eventually your partner might find your behavior exhausting. Perfectionism can damage your relationships, so it’s something worth working on.
4. Mental health issues
There is a strong link between perfectionism and mental health issues. According to this study, perfectionists face a higher risk of eating disorders, anxiety disorders, and depression.
Most of the time, perfectionism and anxiety exacerbate each other. If you fear mistakes or that someone will consider you less than perfect, you might experience a wave of anxiety when things don’t go the way you’d like.
If you put off a task or project because you’re afraid that it won’t be perfect, you’re likely to experience stress and anxiety when the time comes for the task or project to be complete.
There is also a strong link between anxiety and depression. If you’re a perfectionist, and you lack the coping skills necessary to effectively manage stress, you face an increased risk of depression. The low self-esteem associated with perfectionism also increases your likelihood of suffering from depression.
5. Physical health issues
Perfectionists are more likely than the general population to suffer from physical health issues. The need to make things perfect all the time leads to extreme stress, which is harmful to the body. Prolonged stress leads to inflammation, which is one the leading causes of illness and disease.
How to Stop Being a Perfectionist
Below we have outlined eleven important tips to help you stop being a perfectionist. You don’t have to apply all of these tips and techniques immediately, as it can take some time to really hear the message we’re trying to tell you.
Still, read over these tips several times and try to imagine what it would be like to apply them to your life. If you need to, save this page as a bookmark and come back to it whenever you feel your perfectionist tendencies taking over.
1. Recognize the Signs of Perfectionism
Learning and recognizing the signs of perfectionism is an important first step in overcoming it. Remember that it’s okay to want to achieve the best in life, but if your standards and expectations are too high, they may get in the way of your education, career, relationships, and your overall health and happiness.
If you think you might have an issue with perfectionism, ask yourself the following questions:
- Do I find it difficult to meet my own standards?
- Have others told me that my standards are too high?
- Do I feel stressed, frustrated, angry, and anxious when trying to reach my standards?
- Do my standards and expectations get in the way of my life?
If you answered yes to the above, then perfectionism may be an issue for you. Once you recognize it, try the following tips and techniques to help you let go of your need to constantly be perfect.
2. Learn How to Accept Mistakes
You’re human, so you’re going to make mistakes. Mistakes are powerful learning tools, so don’t be afraid to make them. The important thing to remember is that a mistake is something that happened, not something you are. “Our successes and failures come and go—they neither define us nor do they determine our worthiness.”, says Kristin Neff, author of Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself.
3. Manage Your Expectations
If you’re a perfectionist, you expect yourself to be the best all the time. You want everything you do to be perfect, leaving little room for imperfection. Instead of setting your expectations unrealistically high, try to lower them to a realistic level.
You probably put more pressure on yourself than anyone else. Since you’re the one setting these high expectations, you can also be the one to lower and manage them.
4. Consider the Bigger Picture
People with perfectionism get lost in the minute details and worry or ruminate excessively over things others would deem insignificant, such as which color shirt to wear to a wedding. If you want to worry less, ask yourself some of the following questions:
- What’s the worst-case scenario? Is it actually likely to happen? If it does, will I survive?
- Does it matter?
- Will this matter later? Tomorrow? Next week?
5. Think Realistically
People with perfectionist tendencies tend to be overcritical of themselves because they often fail to meet their own lofty expectations. Instead of believing that you need to excel beyond your capabilities, think more realistically.
When you find your struggling with an obsession to be perfect, tell yourself some of the following statements:
- ‘I don’t have to be perfect’
- ‘I can only do my best’
- ‘A mistake does not define who I am’
6. Set Reasonable Goals
One simple way to overcome perfectionism is to set more realistic goals. Instead of overarching and pushing yourself beyond what you’re capable of, maintain your well-being by setting goals you know you can achieve.
Of course, it’s important to push ourselves beyond our comfort zone, but if that means losing sleep, feeling chronically stressed, experiencing a decline in your work or school performance, or jeopardizing your relationships, then take a step back and reconsider what’s actually important to you.
The SMART acronym is a helpful goal-setting tool. SMART is an abbreviation for:
- Specific – be specific about what you want to achieve
- Measurable – make a reasonable checklist for your goals and follow it
- Achievable – set a goal you can realistically accomplish
- Relevant – set a goal that really matters to you
- Time-bound – set yourself a realistic deadline instead of trying to get everything done at once
7. Stop Procrastinating
Earlier we mentioned that perfectionists can be chronic procrastinators. The belief that you can’t do something perfectly or flawlessly becomes an excuse to simply not do it at all. This becomes a source of even more stress later, when what we needed to do hasn’t been done.
If you can help it, don’t procrastinate. If you have a project, task, assignment, or chore, get it done as soon as you can. Don’t obsess over doing it perfectly, just make sure you get started. It’s likely that once you take that first step, the rest will fall into place more smoothly than you expected.
8. Learn How to Take Criticism
Low self-esteem is a common trait among perfectionists. This may have something to do with taking criticism personally. Criticism to the perfectionist can sound like a negative comment on their entire existence.
To help you overcome your obsession with perfection, learn how to take criticism well. Not all criticism is negative – often people are just letting you know where you could improve. If you can take criticism well, and not take it personally, you may notice a significant improvement in how you get things done!
9. Focus on Positivity
Try to Stay positive, as much as possible. When we want everything to be perfect, we tend to hold a microscope to anything we perceive as a flaw or mistake.
Looking at things in such a negative light doesn’t serve us well. Of course, it’s hard to stay positive all the time, but positive thinking can be cultivated through practice.
Perfectionists tend to focus heavily on the negatives, on their failure, and on their short-comings. To tackle this way of thinking, shift your focus to the things you have achieved, and the things for which you’re grateful.
It’s a simple trick, but one that can lead to a significant shift in perspective and will help you maintain your mental health and happiness.
10. Practice Self-Compassion
No matter what issue or struggle you face, self-compassion is always a powerful, life-affirming tool to keep in your belt. Self-compassion involves offering yourself unconditional love, acceptance, and validation.
Practicing self-compassion can be hard for the perfectionist, as the behavior and thought patterns often stem from a deep sense of non-acceptance and low self-worth. Still, through consistent practice we can cultivate compassion for ourselves and reap its many benefits.
There are several ways you can practice self-compassion. To begin with, make sure that you nourish yourself daily with exercise and nutrient rich food. Be mindful of how you talk to yourself, and consider if the language you use in your self-talk would be appropriate if you were talking to your best friend.
Practice relaxation techniques and mindful breathing to calm your levels of stress and anxiety. Perfectionism leads to a lot of unnecessary stress, which isn’t good for your mind and body.
11. Know When to Seek Help
Finally, if perfectionism is having a serious impact on your well-being, it may be time to speak to a professional. Trained therapists are available to help you address the root causes of your perfectionism and help you develop effective, practical coping skills and tools for healthier self-management.
Remember, there is no shame in getting help. If you need to speak to a therapist about an issue, that’s perfectly fine. Try to let go of any stigma or reluctance, because those will serve your health and well-being far less than a compassionate counselor or therapist will.