How to Break Free From the Perfectionist Trap

By Nadene van der Linden

“I have done my best. That is all the philosophy of living one needs.” – Lin-yutang

When clients are stuck, I sometimes find we have encountered perfectionism at play. Perfectionism has many guises. Perfectionism can masquerade as anxiety, procrastination, controlling behaviors, failure to launch or relationship difficulties just to name a few.

Perfectionism means setting unrelenting standards for yourself and defining your self-worth by your ability to achieve those standards. I must be perfect, look perfect, there must be no mistakes,  my home must always be tidy, I must look flawless, my children must behave perfectly or be perfectly groomed are common thoughts associated with perfectionism. A big cost associated with perfectionism is excessive self-criticism and never feeling good enough. While it may look “perfect” on the outside, with perfectionism comes inevitable difficulties with enjoying life and relationships.

Some people have perfectionism in almost all areas in their life. In some, it’s more specific to one domain such as home, work or appearance. In either case, perfectionism creates a narrowing of the quality of life.

What drives perfectionism?

If perfectionism is part of your life, it can be helpful to understand the factors that maintain it. Common drivers of perfectionism are:

Rigid rules and assumptions:  Flexible rules and assumptions help us navigate life. When our rules and assumptions are too rigid, such as “I must never make a mistake” or “the job is not done unless it’s perfect” “I must always be perfectly groomed” it creates conditions for perfectionism.

Unrelenting Standards/ perfectionist thinking: Unrelenting Standards are standards set so high that they are difficult or nearly impossible to meet. These are presented as “I must” or “I always.” Extreme views of success and failure are typical such as “only first place counts” “I must be the best””failure is not an option.”  Perfectionists tend to pay attention to when they are not achieving, and not noticing other periods of success, or successful areas of their life.

Perfectionist behaviors: Perfectionists often employ a range of unhelpful behaviors to ensure high standards such as procrastinating, avoidance, checking, correcting, list-making and slowness.  One of the problems with perfectionist behaviors is that you can’t test if your perfectionistic beliefs are true because you refuse to do anything unless it meets the standard. For example, how do you know if people would think less of you without makeup on if you never test this?

These behaviors can also significantly interfere with quality of life as they can be time-consuming and done at the expense of other important activities. Sometimes extremely slow team members are thought to be unproductive, but they are often working hard but are slow because they are double checking every detail to make sure it’s perfect. That guy at work who can never meet a deadline is probably not lazy; he’s likely caught in a web of perfectionism.

How to Break Free From the Perfectionist Trap

1. Change your habits one step at a time

Reduce perfectionistic behaviors such as excessive checking, list making and correcting others. Experiment with being less perfect. Develop a step by step list of activities to work towards this. For example, if you cannot leave the house until all chores are done perfectly, start with leaving one or two washed dishes in the sink and then work towards not doing dishes at all before you leave the house. Each step requires repeated practice until you are comfortable. You will probably need breathing strategies to calm you down and to remind yourself of the cost of perfectionism.

2. Change your thinking

Start noticing perfectionist thinking, especially self-criticism. Write these thoughts down. This helps detach from the thinking a bit so you can be more analytical. Challenge these thoughts with questions such as “is this 100% true?” “Am I being kind to myself when I think this way?” “What would I say if a friend told me they thought this?”

Look for examples of people who are successful without using perfectionist and unrelenting standards. One helpful idea I saw recently was a family whose father asked at the table each dinner “what mistakes did you make today?”. He would then be pleased to discuss these mistakes as he saw mistakes as opportunities to learn. This is the opposite of perfectionist thinking. Using self-compassion techniques can also help to reduce perfectionism.

3. Find other measures for self-worth other than achievement

Perfectionists tend to define their self-worth against performance standards. Try thinking about other parts of yourself that are worthy: are you kind, are you loyal, do you have good relationships? Do you lighten social situations with humor? If you are the perfectionist, you may find this hard to do, and your mind might even down play other qualities with statements such as “ anyone can be kind.” This is because of an over-focus on achievement. Try to broaden your interests and commit some time to those activities, not just achievement goals.

4. Redefine success. Consider values based living 

Sometimes the result of perfectionism is losing sight of what’s important to you. Think about how you currently define success. Is it too narrow? Are your perfectionist ideals stopping you from seeing different ways of being successful? So for example, having a perfectly clean home may be taking time away from spending time with your children or stopping you from being spontaneous with them for fear of looking less than perfect. Get in touch with what is important to you beyond the rigid standards. Use them as a guide when you are finding it hard to let go of the unrelenting standards of perfectionism.

There is a significant personal cost to perfectionism. All is certainly not perfect in the world of perfectionism. I wish you well in your journey to reduce perfectionism in your life. Remember, you are not your perfectionistic rules, you are so much more.

For more, see the fantastic free workbooks at here.

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