Perfectionism is a complex issue. Essentially, a perfectionist is someone who strongly ties their self-worth to the meeting of demanding, self-imposed standards. While this can lead to a more engaged and driven individual, the fear of failure may instead encourage counterproductive tendencies such as avoidance, procrastination and ‘all-or-nothing thinking’.
With these outcomes in mind, it may be beneficial to personally assess (a) whether we have perfectionistic traits and (b) whether they are proving helpful or not. We can then decide how to move forward.
There’s been a rise in perfectionism over the last three decades and, alongside it, a rise in a variety of clinical issues (e.g. anxiety and depression). This is not to say that one directly causes the other, but it is interesting to consider how personal expectations may influence mental health and with that, our role in shaping it.
Ultimately, the act of striving is not in itself a bad thing. However, when our self-worth becomes dependent on the high standards we set, there can be a variety of issues that later follow. This article will delve deeper into the unhelpful behaviours associated with perfectionism and explain what can be done to tackle the issue.
Put simply, the irony of avoiding failure is that failure itself is a critical component of success. In order to grow, it is imperative that we make and learn from our mistakes. The problem is then, when we are paralysed by perfectionism; scared to take the small steps out of fear of doing them less than perfectly, we miss out on crucial learning opportunities that would otherwise serve as building blocks to our larger goals and aspirations.
For perfectionists, this ‘paralysis’ may manifest as avoidance, procrastination or incessant performance-checking behaviour – all of which either slow or postpone progress.
In constantly trying to maintain high and (perhaps) unrealistic expectations, it may become easier to simply avoid engaging in a task altogether.
On the other hand, we may decide to simply put a task off for a while. Perhaps, due to a time constraint, we feel anxious and under pressure. Or maybe we’re convinced that we’ll do a better job later, knowing that if we were to start now the result would be less than perfect.
Procrastination affects a lot of us, granted to varying degrees. Some of us may procrastinate because of the inherent excuse it provides: “if I don’t do well, it’s because I didn’t have enough time.” For others it may stem from a deeper fear of failure.
The harsh reality is there’s never a perfect time to start working towards your goals but now is probably better than later.
After getting started, perfectionists may stall their progress further by constantly assessing their performance, for example by comparing their work to others or excessively editing and rereading an assignment.
This can prove detrimental for a couple of reasons. For a start, by constantly interrupting our work to assess its quality, it becomes far more challenging to reach a flow state where we aren’t second guessing every decision or loitering on one. What’s more, comparison can often be discouraging and it is, ultimately, not a good basis for our self-esteem.
By identifying the behavioural patterns we fall into as well as the underlying beliefs that often give rise to them, we can then consider what changes we’d like to see made and how to go about making them.
In the pursuit of any goal, it’s crucial that we strive for progress rather than perfection. Moreover, the focus should be on making sustainable progress. This approach not only ensures continuity, it also makes the actualisation of our goals that much more likely.
The underlying idea here is to try to deviate away from “all-or-nothing thinking”. This is because the world is seldom – if ever – so black and white. Thinking in this way is irrational and often leads to self-sabotaging behaviour.
If you can’t perform a task exactly the way you’d like to, find the next best alternative rather than giving up entirely.
Change begins with awareness. Thus, a crucial step in overcoming perfectionism is to, firstly, identify the areas in our life that it affects.
Journaling is a great way to do this. By taking the time to reflect and write our thoughts down on paper, we’re able to look at them in a more objective light.
Consider the areas in your life that may be affected by perfectionism (e.g. work performance, health, appearance). Take the time to note any expectations you have surrounding each and then consider any of the negative behaviours that can (or do) arise as a result.
If you use this reflective approach, it should become easier to see where your sticking points lie. This is because, in reflection, you’re often able to detach yourself from the situation. Cognitive behavioural therapists refer to this practice as ‘self-distancing’ and many consider it a vital technique for therapeutic change.
Self-distancing allows us to explore different ways of thinking that may be more productive and less emotionally distressing. When reflecting on a past experience, we’re able to note how we reacted at the time; how we may prefer to react; and from there, identify the bridge between the two.
The general idea is to introduce a greater degree of self-awareness into your day-to-day life. Meditation is another tool to consider, along these same lines.
It’s much easier to avoid or procrastinate on a task when you’re overwhelmed or unsure of where to start. This is because perfectionism is closely related to a fear of uncertainty. Inevitably, the further away your goal or finished project lies, the greater the ambiguity in getting there.
The remedy to this is to break down your goals into small, manageable steps that would read almost like an instruction manual. Focus on making these steps as specific as possible so it becomes easier to follow through and not get disheartened.
As noted earlier, perfectionism is characterised by demanding personal standards and these take time to change. By breaking down our goals, we create tangible and achievable milestones which make larger tasks appear less daunting right from the get-go. What’s more, when we succeed in carrying out a small task, we build confidence and create momentum that then spills over into the next.
The Pareto principle is an observation of how, across many events, 80% of the effects often result from only 20% of the causes. It was originally considered by the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto after noticing how 20% of the pea pods in his garden were responsible for 80% of the healthy peas.
Though not a law, the pareto principle – or 80/20 rule as it often referred – is based around the idea of diminishing returns. The rule suggests that 80% of your results will come from only 20% of the actions you take and thus, it is a powerful idea to consider when tackling perfectionism.
Specifically, application of the rule can help in allocating our time and willpower more effectively. In understanding that not all efforts are equal, we’re able to home in on what we consider of vital importance, knowing these acts will determine the majority of our results. By following the Pareto principle, we avoid wasting time by needlessly perfecting every little detail.
Our words carry weight – and not just those we say to others but equally those we say to ourselves. By being self-compassionate we help relieve the anxiety and other mental health concerns that prevent us from taking action. Treat yourself like you would a good friend – focus on acknowledging the positives, be encouraging and recognise that you’re only human.
To expand, rather than creating “strict rules you must follow” perhaps aim for “flexible guidelines that you’d like to follow” instead. This might sound like a trivial suggestion but simply reframing your thoughts in this way will likely result in you feeling less pressured.
It’s important to recognise that change doesn’t happen overnight. If you’ve struggled with perfectionism in the past, you’ve likely developed an array of habits that reinforce the issue. Changing our habits is a challenging task that requires patience and focused effort. To reiterate the central message: simply strive to make progress.
Also, recognise that progress is not linear; there will be ups and downs; days where you will repeat prior mistakes and days where you’ll more consciously avoid them. By having self-compassion, we’re able to quickly bounce back – we’re able to look past the situation at hand and recognise that, as a human, we will make mistakes but they don’t have to define our self-perception.
Finally, there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution for overcoming perfectionism; you’ll have to find what works best for you. The methods outlined here will hopefully challenge you to become more reflective and, at the very least, provide some food for thought.
If you’d like to explore the topic further, you might consider ‘Overcoming Perfectionism’ by Roz Shafran, Sarah Egan and Tracey Wade.