Many people take it as a compliment to be labeled a perfectionist. They assume there can be nothing wrong with being perfect, comparing yourself to the best in their category, and setting the highest possible standards for everything. So why should you even consider overcoming your perfectionism?
Striving for the best possible results, excellence and perfection is a wonderful thing and enhances our experiences and personal development in life. But for some people, perfectionism and being perfect becomes like an obsession leading to compulsive behavior and causing a lot of stress. Perfectionism can lead to a long list of health problems such as distress, anxiety, and even depression – and it’s on the rise!
So let’s find out how to stop and let go of perfectionism!
If you don’t want to read the entire article feel free to jump to the section that interests you most:
- What is perfectionism?
- How Society and the Media Contribute to the Rise of Perfectionism
- Is (compulsive) Perfectionism a disorder?
- What Causes Perfectionism? Fear is the Root Cause of Perfectionism
- Let’s Compare Striving for Perfection or Excellence and Perfectionism?
- Perfectionism and its connection to our Self-Worth and Self-Esteem
- Perfectionism is often a Vicious Cycle
- How to Overcome Perfectionism – 10 Tips For Every Master of Self-Criticism
- 1) Perfectionism Test – Am I a Perfectionist?
- Perfectionism Examples – Typical thought patterns of a perfectionist
- Signs of Perfectionism
- 2) Understanding Perfectionism: Become aware of your unrelenting standards, expectations, and rules for living
- 3) Letting Go Of My Perfectionism – Setting The Right Goals
- 4) Identifying And Dealing With My Perfectionism Triggers
- 5) STOP Comparing Yourself to Others: Why it makes you unhappy and how you stop it
- 6) Know Your Self-Worth
- 7) Break The Vicious Cycle Of Perfectionism-Procrastination
- 8) Nobody Is Perfect: Train Your Imperfection Tolerance Will Help You Go Through Life More Relaxed And Less Stressed
- 9) Perfectionism Journal: Allows every Master of Self-Criticism to become aware and control their perfectionist thinking
- 10) Regular Reflection – Goodbye All-or-Nothing Thinking. It’s time to become aware of my progress and to identify room for improvement
- How to Deal with Perfectionism – Wrap Up
What is Perfectionism?
Perfectionism involves putting excessive pressure on ourselves to behave or do things a certain way. Everything must be perfect all the time. A perfectionist sets non-negotiable standards or unrealistic goals and feels crushed or even worthless when they are not accomplished.
Perfectionism is often confused with striving for excellence. It sounds like the same but they are not the same thing – at all. There is a huge difference between the healthy pursuit of excellence and perfection and obsessive perfectionism.
There can be various driving forces behind compulsive perfectionism. Perfectionists can be divided mainly into two groups:
The first group includes people who set unrealistic and non-negotiable goals and standards for themselves. It usually includes all or nothing (black and white) thinking. If these people fail to achieve their goals, they often feel like failures or even assume they are worthless.
On the other hand, if they manage to accomplish their goals they don’t appreciate and acknowledge their achievement. Often thoughts like “It was just luck or everyone could do that“ arise. The next goal or standard has to be even higher and more demanding. This creates a vicious circle of higher, faster, better, and the desire to achieve more and more.
There is nothing wrong with having big ambitions and setting ambitious goals, but this group is restless and chasing goal after goal and is never satisfied. These people define themselves and their self-worth exclusively through their performance and achievements (Usually in their career).
The second group contains people who compulsively do certain things or avoid them. They set themselves relentless and non-negotiable standards that are deeply anchored in their daily lives.
This behavior often has its origin in past experiences, especially in childhood. But also modern society, particularly the internet and social media play a huge role in this perfectionist mindset and behavior.
How Society and the Media Contribute to the Rise of Perfectionism
Wherever you look you are constantly reminded that the only way to happiness and satisfaction is to look and dress in a certain way, to own the right things, and have a certain lifestyle. You can see it all over the media, especially in the social networks many of us spent hours per day.
It even goes that far that perfectionism behavior involves if and how we express our own opinion. Many people only dare to share their opinion if they are sure it will align with the beliefs of the majority. This goes even into topics like nutrition, health, way of life, and politics. If you don’t deviate too much from the opinion of the majority you are safe from criticism and ridicule. Peer pressure is one big keyword here.
Is (compulsive) Perfectionism a disorder?
Compulsive perfectionism itself is not considered a disorder. Perfectionism, in psychology, is a broad personality style characterized by a person’s concern with striving for flawlessness and perfection and is accompanied by critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others’ evaluations. It is best conceptualized as a multidimensional and multilayered personality characteristic, and initially, some psychologists thought that there are many positive and negative aspects.
Perfectionism drives people to be concerned with achieving unattainable ideals or unrealistic goals, often leading to many forms of adjustment problems such as depression, anxiety, worry, OCD, low self-esteem, suicidal thoughts and tendencies, and a host of other psychological, physical, relationship, and achievement problems in children, adolescents, and adults, although perfectionist sights can reduce stress, anxiety, and panic. Recent data show that perfectionistic tendencies are on the rise among recent generations of young people.
What Causes Perfectionism? Fear is the Root Cause of Perfectionism
The driving force behind perfectionism is often fear: Fear of failure, consequences, criticism, ridicule, not being loved and accepted, or even social isolation. A common reinforcement of this behavior is also the striving for external affirmation and appreciation that makes people lose themselves in obsessively perfectionist behavior.
Perfectionists often tie their identity and self-worth to external factors. They define themselves and their value through their performance and condemn themselves over every mistake. Perfectionism often serves as a protective shield against criticism. The belief is: If I do everything perfectly and without mistakes, I’m safe from criticism.
Ultimately, this leads to perfectionists being trapped in their own perfectionism behavior (habits) and non-negotiable standards. Perfectionists perceive the world differently than someone who is a little more relaxed about things.
They often get lost in unimportant details and miss out on new experiences. After all, it makes no sense to start something new when you don’t know whether the outcome will be perfect or if you can do it perfectly.
Let’s Compare Striving for Perfection or Excellence and Perfectionism?
As mentioned at the beginning, striving for perfection and excellence is a wonderful thing. Let’s try to illustrate this by comparing the healthy pursuit of perfection and compulsive perfectionism.
Perfectionism means everything must always be perfect. Think of a woman who never leaves the house without makeup. It doesn’t matter whether she goes to a job interview or just takes out the garbage. No chance she would leave her house without makeup (non-negotiable standard)
While someone with a healthy attitude towards perfection knows that certain things require perfection, such as surgery or repairing brakes on a car, while this requirement is not necessary when choosing a restaurant or a dress for the evening.
The perfectionist considers his mistakes as personal failures instead of seeing them as opportunities to learn something and do better next time.
Often compulsive perfectionists get lost in small and unimportant details or avoid tasks they believe they won’t be able to fulfill perfectly. Someone who has a healthy relationship with perfection focuses on the essentials and can distinguish the important from the unimportant.
Perfectionism is usually extrinsic and often driven by fears. The fear of not being good enough, the fear of what others might think of you, the fear of not being loved or accepted, the fear of criticism, or the fear of (assumed) consequences.
While the healthy pursuit of perfection is intrinsic. It’s about setting realistic goals and doing your best to achieve them, no matter what others think about you. It leads to progress, self-improvement, and self-growth.
Perfectionists often equate their self-worth with external and measurable accomplishments. It’s not about the thing or the process itself, but about the external recognition and validation by others.
Perfectionism and its connection to our Self-Worth and Self-Esteem
As already mentioned, perfectionism serves as a protective shield. It’s about protecting yourself from criticism or the negative judgment of others. But the perfectionist achieves exactly the opposite with his behavior. Instead of accepting criticism and considering what one could learn from it, perfectionists feel personally attacked in their self-esteem and self-worth.
While someone with a balanced relationship with perfection usually handles criticism better, take these opportunities as a chance to grow and improve. This results in more resilience and freedom.
Perfectionism is often a Vicious Cycle
Perfectionism is a vicious cycle: Criticism and so-called failure are blamed on a lack of perfection. The result is that the perfectionist tackles the task even more relentlessly and causes himself enormous stress and pressure. Even if goals have been achieved, one’s own performance is dismissed as coincidence or luck and a new, more ambitious goal needs to be found.
Perfectionists find it difficult to make decisions or they often dwell on past actions and decisions. They are always in doubt.
These people often avoid and miss out on new experiences. They are hesitant to try new things or accept new challenges, for fear of failure or not doing as expected.
A perfectionist’s value is always equated with the achievement of non-negotiable standards, goals, and their own performance.
Perfectionists constantly compare themselves to others. The best in each category often serve as a role model and blueprint on how to succeed. And if they reach this level, they consider themselves a failure. When they compare themselves they often put their focus only on the area where the role model stands out. All other aspects of this person are not considered and included in the comparison. This is a perfect recipe for becoming unhappy and dissatisfied.
Overcoming Perfectionism – For a Joyful and Relaxed Life
As you have seen, perfectionism has different forms and origins. Perhaps you have not even considered yourself to be a perfectionist before and have now realized that you actually are in one area or another.
In this case, we have good news. It’s possible to overcome your perfectionism! Hopefully, the following tips will help you transform your perfectionism in one or more areas into a healthy pursuit of perfection, excellence, and growth. This is the way to a more joyful and relaxed life.
How to Overcome Perfectionism – 10 Tips For Every Master of Self-Criticism
1) Perfectionism Test – Am I a Perfectionist?
Before starting to work on perfectionism, it is important to become aware of the areas in which one tends to perfectionism and how severe it is. Some people are only perfectionists in a certain area of their life (for example at work), while in other areas they don’t tend to this behavior at all. Others, however, will find that they are prone to perfectionism in many more categories of their life.
Perfectionism Examples – Typical thought patterns of a perfectionist
- I always feel the pressure to do everything right.
- I feel like I’m a failure if I can’t perform certain things.
- I only deserve love and appreciation when I’m perfect and don’t make any mistakes.
- I’m afraid others will laugh at me or reject me if I do something wrong.
- I often don’t even start things because I’m afraid to fail or not be good enough.
- I avoid doing things when I’m afraid not to meet my standards or expectations.
Think about which of the statements applies to you and in which areas of your life. You will find a detailed test for perfectionism here
Signs of Perfectionism
Perfectionists tend to be people who…
- feel like they fail at everything they try.
- procrastinate regularly — they might avoid tasks or resist starting them because they’re afraid that they’ll be unable to complete them perfectly.
- struggle to make decisions, as they could be wrong.
- become very controlling in their personal and professional relationships.
- adjust their actions according to the expected reaction of their environment.
- become obsessed with rules, lists, and work, or alternately, become extremely apathetic.
- constantly feel restless and stressed out because it feels impossible to accomplish one’s goals.
- do everything to avoid being criticized or ridiculed.
2) Understanding Perfectionism: Become aware of your unrelenting standards, expectations, and rules for living
After taking the perfectionism test you may have identified one or more areas of your life where you tend to be a perfectionist. The next step is to take a closer look at your standards and the reason behind them, as they are often the reason for our perfectionist behavior.
What are your standards and rules for living?
We all live by our own unwritten and often unconscious rules every day of our lives. Almost all of your actions, perceptions, and reactions are determined by these rules. Even if we don’t realize it we are perceiving the world we live in, and everything that happens in it, through the filters of our own personal standards.
Many rules are helpful but it becomes problematic if they are unrealistically high and inflexible. We are talking about standards that are almost impossible to achieve or only at a very high cost (e.g. neglecting everything else in order to accomplish this standard).
Becoming aware of your own personal standards is a big step towards overcoming perfectionism as they are a major factor that keeps it going. It will allow you to understand why you’re acting and reacting in certain ways.
Learning to understand your own standards can be immensely liberating and gives you the chance to adjust them if you wish.
Try to identify the standards and rules you set for yourself in each area of your life and then analyze them: There’s a worksheet included in the Perfectionism Toolkit that will help you.
3) Letting Go Of My Perfectionism – Setting The Right Goals
Overcoming perfectionism requires willpower and discipline. It means to accept ourselves with all our strengths and weaknesses. Because that’s what makes us human. To accomplish this we have to train our imperfection tolerance. Instead of giving up all your standards and rules in general you adjust them according to the situations and challenges you’re facing.
Many of our demands on ourselves have developed over the years or even have their origins in our childhood. Therefore, it is understandable, that you will be tempted to fall back into old habits and routines throughout this change process.
It is important to forgive yourself for mistakes and setbacks and to stick with your plan. Eventually, you will reduce or even overcome your compulsive perfectionism.
You may be a perfectionist in various areas of your life, but we recommend concentrating on changing one area at a time. Try to identify the area that you would like to work on and do it step by step.
It’s a good idea to choose an easier area first and to work on the next area once you see some results. Don’t expect to be perfect and try your best and eventually, you will achieve your goal. The goal-setting worksheet included in the Perfectionism Toolkit will help you to find the right goal.
4) How to Deal with Perfectionism – Identify And Deal With Your Perfectionism Triggers
Our perfectionism behavior is usually triggered by something. This can be a situation, a person, a thought, or a mental picture for example. But the trigger is not the event itself. It’s the thought about a situation that leads to a response to that situation. In other words, it’s not the situation or the feeling that’s the problem; it’s our perception that causes the perfectionist behavior.
This Toolkit includes a worksheet to identify these triggers and the thoughts that come with them. Once this is done you try to come up with a healthy and more balanced reaction to the trigger.
Challenging thoughts in our heads can get quite confusing. That’s why it’s so helpful to write your ideas down. It enhances you to reflect on them consciously.
5) STOP Comparing Yourself to Others: Why it makes you unhappy and how you stop it
Constantly comparing ourselves to others is one of the main sources of compulsive perfectionism. It starts in our early years: We are confronted with role models that one should emulate in order to be considered a successful person.
Instead of concentrating on our own qualities, talents, desires, and traits and developing them further in order to express our unique personalities.
However, if we tend to be perfectionists, these comparisons quickly become torture. We think we are a failure if we don’t perform like our role model, we lose the joy in what we do, and our life becomes more and more stressful and less free. It also distracts us from our innate qualities, interests, and desires.
So you should find ways to stop comparing yourself to others all the time. We designed a worksheet that will guide you through the steps. It is part of the Overcome Perfectionism Toolkit.
6) How to Stop Perfectionism? – Know Your Self-Worth
Oftentimes, the source of compulsive perfectionism is a misperception or lack of self-worth. This means that the better you know your own worth and cultivate it, the smaller the chances that perfectionism becomes an issue for you.
We often don’t know our self-worth because society, media, and even education teach us since we are small to strive for certain values and emulate so-called successful role models. This makes it so hard to develop our self-worth. We are constantly comparing and judging ourselves based on the standards society teaches us. And if we don’t reach them we often feel miserable and not worthy.
The worksheet included in the Perfectionism Toolkit is a great way to increase your sense of self-worth.
7) Break The Vicious Cycle Of Perfectionism-Procrastination
Procrastination and avoidance are very common symptoms of perfectionism. The fear of being unable to complete a task perfectly makes perfectionists avoid things entirely or at least put them off as long as possible.
Again that perfectionist mindset comes into play and the fear of not meeting a goal means they are a failure, unworthy or stupid. Not being able to perform as expected creates the fear of criticism or ridicule.
Perfectionists usually have a low tolerance for frustration and failure. If the upcoming task or challenge is perceived higher than they feel capable of, they avoid taking it.
The perfectionism worksheet included here will help you to better understand the vicious circle of avoidance and to find solutions to break it. Ideally, you will realize that the fear of failure is mostly irrational and it will be much easier for you to do things that you have been putting off before.
8) Nobody Is Perfect: Train Your Imperfection Tolerance Will Help You Go Through Life More Relaxed And Less Stressed
Perfectionists usually find it difficult to deal with their own mistakes and weaknesses. Everything has to be perfect or it’s worthless. This is the typical black and white thinking, and the result is that the perfectionist often avoids doing certain things entirely or gets lost in endless details while trying to finish a task.
In both cases, the perfectionist becomes extremely unfree and is forced to do things in a certain way. Because in their opinion that’s the only chance to make things perfect.
It is very liberating if we manage to free ourselves from these restrictions by accepting (at least to some extend) that we are simply not perfect and never will be.
We included a worksheet about imperfection tolerance in the Perfectionism Toolkit. Imperfection tolerance means accepting ourselves with all our flaws and weaknesses. You will analyze an area of your life or a certain task that usually brings out the perfectionist in you.
9) Perfectionism Journal: Allows every Master of Self-Criticism to become aware and control their perfectionist thinking
Do you criticize yourself a lot during the day? Or think that everything you do is wrong—while rarely noticing what you do right? If so, regular journaling can help you let go of perfectionistic thinking, self-criticism, create balance in your life, and set realistic expectations.
Perfectionism can be very stubborn. Even after you’ve recognized how much stress and bad feelings it’s causing, it’s hard to break free of it.
The Perfectionism Toolkit contains a worksheet with journaling prompts that will help you to become aware of your perfectionistic thinking throughout the day. You will also identify situations where negative self-talk came up. The goal is to understand when perfectionism and an unhelpful inner dialogue come up.
10) Regular Reflection – Goodbye All-or-Nothing Thinking. It’s time to become aware of my progress and to identify room for improvement
On your way to breaking free of your perfectionism, it is extremely helpful to recognize and appreciate small improvements and achievements.
Many perfectionists live by the all-or-nothing principle. It’s the typical black and white thinking that states if it’s not perfect it’s worth nothing. Small improvements and accomplishments are often dismissed as insignificant or pure luck.
As soon as one problem has been solved, they put the focus on the next without acknowledging their progress. This leads to permanent dissatisfaction.
Problems and challenges that they have been able to overcome are quickly forgotten. This obviously decreases motivation over time and harms the progress in the long run.
That’s why it’s so important and helpful to become aware of your own progress and the small milestones you’ve already taken on your journey. Try to reflect regularly (weekly) and recap what you have tried and done to control your perfectionism and how it worked out. We included a reflection worksheet for you in this Toolkit.
How to Deal with Perfectionism – Wrap Up
We found out that there are many roots, causes, and effects of perfectionism. While one person only tends to be a perfectionist in one specific area, another person’s life is completely determined by compulsive perfectionism.
Depending on the severity the treatment ranges from small everyday life changes to coaching or even therapy. In the worst case, perfectionism can lead to a number of diseases such as anxiety disorders or depression.
The good news is that it is possible to stop and overcome perfectionism. All of the tips mentioned in this article provide a good guide on how to do this.
To finally let go of your own perfectionism is truly liberating! It will allow you to accept and love yourself with all your quirks and flaws. You’ll have more resilience and learn to accept yourself for who you are. Without the constant fear of criticism, ridicule, or rejection. Say goodbye to the feeling of not being worthy and good enough.
This automatically leads to more authenticity and thus more happiness, inner satisfaction, and health.
This Perfectionism Toolkit includes 13 worksheets has been developed by experienced psychologists and coaches, gives you step-by-step instructions. It is suitable for self-coaching or for your work with clients: