Have you ever wondered why you love planning but can’t seem to follow through? Do you procrastinate or do non-essential busy work to feel productive (when you’re really just avoiding the true work)? Do you look to other people or certain markers of achievement to feel worthy? Maybe you’re deeply afraid of failure…or success?
These are just a few signs that you might be a perfectionist. And if you’re anything like me, overcoming perfectionism is an ongoing effort in life.
At first blush, perfectionism seems like a humble brag or that thing you say in an interview when asked about your negative traits but want a positive spin. In reality, perfectionism is self-sabotage disguised as a virtue.
In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown says, “Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement, and shame. It’s a shield. It’s a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from flight.”
The Perfectionist Mindset
You might have a certain image of a perfectionist in your head: Someone who’s super organized, always put together and receives praise for high performance. In truth, there are endless ways perfectionism can show up in your life, even if you don’t fit the has-it-all-together vibe.
Perfectionistic thinking is about believing that approval, achievement, and being “perfect” is how we earn our worthiness. Ironically, perfectionism actually prevents us from reaching our highest potential. It also blocks our path to inner peace, creativity, authenticity, productivity, and contentment.
Typical perfectionist traits are:
- All or nothing thinking
- Harsh criticism of self and/or others
- Fear-driven motivation
- Unrealistic expectations of self and/or others
- Results-only focus
- Struggle to move forward after a setback
- Low self-esteem
Pitfalls of Perfectionism
The truly tricky thing about perfectionism is that it works really well…until it doesn’t. In school, we’re often praised for perfectionistic practices—getting straight As, being well behaved, never being absent, being the best in sports or other activities. As adults, we’re praised for being type-A, never making mistakes, always saying the right thing, being the perfect employee, parent, and partner all at the same time.
Later, we realize that the same perfectionism that once made us the “golden child” becomes the source of our procrastination, indecision, self-doubt, overthinking, comparison, and fear that holds us back from living our dreams and feeling fulfilled. In some cases, perfectionism can even lead to depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders.
So how do you progress toward your dreams while overcoming perfectionism?
For me, the key was understanding the mindset difference between being a healthy achiever and a perfectionist. Both types of people reach for similar goals and standards, but healthy achievers don’t dwell on their perceived imperfections and they don’t let fear or judgement hold them back.
Here are a few prompts to see where you might fall:
Do you celebrate how far you’ve come even if you don’t reach your goals?
Do you learn from your mistakes and move on or ruminate over your failures and give up if you can’t do it perfectly?
Do you praise yourself for trying your best or beat yourself up for every little thing?
Do you encourage yourself to try again or stay stuck to avoid failure?
Do you have healthy expectations or do you hold yourself and others to wildly unrealistic standards?
Do you embrace spontaneity or have to control every little thing?
Start With Self-Compassion
Once I realized how perfectionism was hurting me, I decided to see what it would feel like to let go of my unrealistic expectations and the harsh self-criticism and be gentler with myself.
I simply decided to give myself compassion, and you know what—it felt so good. There was a rush of relief, a permission from myself that I didn’t even know I needed. Did that feeling last? No, of course not; changing any mindset is a continual practice. But I did have a glimpse at another way of being, which unlocked the doors to more change.
Steps to Overcoming Perfectionism
Here are the steps I take to deal with perfectionism that you can try in your own life. If you’re struggling with a perfectionist mindset or dealing with anxiety or depression, please reach out to a mental health professional.
Become aware: Notice when your perfectionist tendencies come up and name it (“Hey perfectionism, I see you”).
Have self-compassion: Focus on kind self-talk, choose to view imperfection as a sign of your humanness, and see vulnerability as a doorway to connect with others.
Loosen your grip on control: Decipher what you can and can’t control and learn to build your trust muscle.
Move toward a growth mindset: See failure and challenges as an opportunity for growth, or as Maria Popova describes, “have a passion for learning rather than a hunger for approval.”
Take imperfect action: Done is better than perfect. Don’t let a cycle of fear, judgment, overplanning, and analysis paralysis get you stuck.
Love the process: Instead of fixating on end results, focus on daily practices, show up consistently, and congratulate yourself on your progress, whether or not you’ve reached your goal.
If perfectionism is holding you back from reaching your highest potential, know that you are not alone. In what ways do you struggle with overcoming perfectionism?