What is perfectionism?

A textbook definition of a perfectionist is “someone who strives for or demands the highest standards of excellence”. Nothing wrong with that. However, in reality, it is considerably more complex than that. Perfectionism comes with both positive and negative aspects i.e. it can be both adaptive and maladaptive. In its adaptive form it can provide the motivation to achieve goals, or complete an activity to a high standard, when needed. If a job genuinely needs to be done to a high standard, then someone with perfectionistic tendencies is your man, or woman. If I had to face the operating table, I would want the surgeon to be someone who was a stickler for detail and was aiming for a 110% outcome. In its maladaptive form, perfectionism can result in striving for unreasonable, and at times unattainable, goals. It can also come with a high degree of pressure and stress.

Maladaptive versus adaptive styles

One way to determine which category perfectionistic traits fall into, is to compare them with maladaptive versus adaptive styles. Have a read through the table below and identify the characteristics that are most like you:

10 Symptoms of Perfectionism

  • All-or-Nothing thinking

  • Spending an excessive amount of time rechecking work over and over

  • Demanding high-performance expectations for yourself and others

  • Only focusing on mistakes rather than accomplishments

  • Viewing anything less than perfect as a failure

  • Procrastination

  • Excessive worry

  • Low self-esteem and self-worth

  • Avoid taking on new tasks for fear of failing

  • Self-critical

  • High levels of stress

10 Ways to Overcome Perfectionism

1. Become More Aware of Your Tendencies

The first step to overcoming perfectionism is becoming aware of your perfectionist thoughts and tendencies. Take some time to pause and pay attention to your thought patterns around perfectionism. You might even try writing these thoughts down, to understand them better. Once we are aware of how we allow perfectionism to take hold of our lives, we will be more able to alter our self-talk around this issue.

2. Focus on the Positives

Wanting everything to be perfect means that we tend to fixate on the negative parts of our work or of ourselves. However, it’s important that we make a conscious effort to also recognize the good. For everything you’re not quite satisfied with, challenge yourself to identify three things that you do appreciate.

3. Allow Yourself to Make Mistakes

When we allow ourselves to make mistakes, we can see that it’s not the end of the world when we fail. Mistakes are opportunities for us to learn, grow and do better. One way to practice this is by taking up a new hobby that you’ll likely not be good at on the first try. Instead of trying to be “perfect” at it, focus instead on enjoying the activity and slowly learning how to get better. What you might find is that mistakes are necessary to get to where you want to be.

4. Set More Reasonable Goals

Perfectionists tend to set goals that are unrealistic, because of impossible standards. One way to let go of perfectionism is to set goals that are more achievable and SMART. We will feel much less stressed and more confident in our ability to reach our goals when they are realistic and challenging in a healthy way.

5. Learn How to Receive Feedback

People who are perfectionists tend to have low self-esteem because they take criticism (feedback) personally. However, constructive criticism that can help us learn and grow is important. Try to recognize that healthy criticism can be helpful and is normal because it can allow us to do better. Mistakes or missteps are perfectly normal along the way.

6. Lower the Pressure You Put on Yourself

Remember that the person who pressures you the most is yourself. Be kind to yourself and practice self-acceptance by lowering unrealistic standards you set for yourself. If you are still motivated and doing your best, you’re doing just fine. There is no such thing as “perfect,” but we can be proud of doing our best.

7. Focus on Meaning Over Perfection

Try to shift your focus on finding meaning in what you do, rather than trying to do it perfectly. If something brings us joy and purpose, then it doesn’t matter if it’s not done perfectly. There is more fulfillment to be had in finding meaning along the way.

8. Try Not to Procrastinate

Perfectionists can be notorious procrastinators, giving themselves an excuse to slack off if they can’t ensure that they do their work perfectly. This can be really unhelpful and more stressful in the long run. The hardest part is always starting, but even creating a rough outline of our work ahead of time is better than nothing. Remember that it’s okay if your work isn’t perfect with the first try or first draft, and give yourself the grace to continue working on the project.

9. Cut Out Negative Influences

It’s important that we also monitor how things like social media, TV and movies, books, or podcasts can reinforce perfectionism. We should be especially wary of how social media promotes a narrative of “hustle culture” and perfectionism in our work. If you need to limit these channels, or delete them altogether, this can also help us shift away from perfectionism.

10. Talk to Your Counselor

Lastly, therapy can help with our anxiety around perfectionism. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in particular can help people struggling with perfectionism reframe their thoughts. Counseling can also help you to better understand the deeper reason behind feeling the pressure to be perfect.