People often think of perfectionism as a desirable trait – perfectionists may be viewed as more effective, punctual, accomplished, and just generally seem to “have it together.” As a result, it is often thought that, “I’m a perfectionist” is a good answer to the question, “What is your biggest weakness?” on a job interview. Unfortunately, striving for perfection can be harmful to the individual, and also to those around them. In fact, for some people, perfectionism contributes to the development of psychological problems such as depression, anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and eating disorders.
A hallmark of perfectionism is the tendency to hold high standards for yourself or other people. If you are often disappointed with your performance, even when you meet or surpass the expectations of everyone else, you may be struggling with perfectionism. Similarly, if you find that you’re often frustrated with others who do not live up to your standards, you may be falling into the perfectionism trap.
Perfectionism can be challenging to overcome, but it is possible if you are willing to try some new ways of thinking and behaving. Here are some tips on how to start breaking free of perfectionism:
1) Weigh the Costs and Benefits of Your High Standards
This strategy involves looking at the ways in which perfectionism is both helpful and harmful, and using that information to decide whether or not there may be benefits to loosening up some of your standards. On the one hand, you may think that striving for perfection leads you to work harder, do a better job, and accomplish more things. On the other hand, striving for perfection may cause you a lot of stress, lead you to focus on unimportant details, and take up a lot of your time. You may realize that you have more to gain than to lose by decreasing the effort you put in to achieving unrealistic ideals.
Try assessing the costs and benefits of your perfectionistic ideals to determine if perhaps there might be more to be gained than lost by loosening up on some of the rules or standards you live by.
2) Look at the Bigger Picture
Keep track of the negative self-talk and practice taking a different perspective. For instance, if you are disappointed in your performance on a task, rather than beat yourself up about it or tell yourself all the ways in which you are a failure, look at it from a different perspective. Ask yourself the following questions:
• How important is this to my life in general?
• Will anyone else even notice my “failure”, and even if they do notice, will they actually care?
• Is this going to be something I will remember next month? What about in a year? Or five years?
• Is this truly a catastrophe, or is it more of an inconvenience?
Answering these questions may help you take a broader perspective and put things into context.
3) Practice Being “Imperfect”
People who fall into the perfectionism trap have unrealistic ideas about what will happen if they fail to live up to their own rigid rules and expectations – because they have never tried to do otherwise to see what really happens!
Changing behaviour is an effective way of learning. If you start to challenge yourself by allowing some “imperfection” in your life, you just might learn that your feared outcomes do not come true. Not all perfectionists are the same, so you will need to figure out in which domains you are most perfectionistic, and then take on some challenges specific to those domains. Here are some examples in the domains of punctuality, appearance, and tidiness.
• Punctuality – Show up five minutes late when meeting a friend for coffee, going for a hair appointment, or to a movie (Note: I would not recommend purposely doing this one for something where punctuality may be more important, such as a job interview!).
• Appearance – This all depends on what areas of appearance you focus on, but some ideas are to wear less or no make-up when you go out, mess up your hair in some way, or wear shoes that just don’t “go” with your outfit.
• Tidiness – Purposely create some imperfection and practice tolerating it, for instance, by hanging a picture crookedly, or leaving papers scattered on your desk. You could also delegate chores to other family members and let them do it their own way, even if it is different from how you would do it (and do not go later and “fix” what they have done – that will defeat the purpose!).
The whole point of these types of practices is that you will feel uncomfortable in the short-term, but there is a long-term pay-off. By challenging yourself to let go of unhelpful, difficult-to-maintain standards, you will be more flexible in how you spend your time and feel less stress overall.
Author: Dr. Jennifer Boyd, C. Psych