Are you a perfectionist? There’s nothing wrong with doing your best or striving for excellence. But when it comes at the expense of your health, it becomes a problem. Perfectionism can undermine your health, happiness and success. It can lead to anxiety, depression and relationship difficulties. So it’s important to recognise it, and learn how to overcome perfectionism. Here’s how to spot the signs, understand the causes – and lower your standards!
What is perfectionism? And why is it important to overcome it?
Wanting to do your best is understandable, and a good thing. But there’s a big difference between being a high-achiever and being a perfectionist. Both types of people want to succeed. But, while high-achievers are motivated to do their best, perfectionists are often motivated by fear and feelings of inadequacy.
Perfectionism is a combination of excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations. You believe that whatever you do must be perfect, with no errors or mistakes. You’re concerned about how others evaluate or judge you. It’s a way of thinking that can be very detrimental to your mental health.
Perfectionism drives you to chase unattainable ideals or unrealistic goals, often leading to problems such as stress, anxiety, low self-esteem and depression. It can lead to relationship difficulties. It holds you back from achieving your goals – because your perfectionism leads to procrastination. And it’s just exhausting, as you push yourself harder and harder to achieve the impossible.
It’s also a very common problem, in today’s competitive, ‘always on’ culture. Research shows that perfectionistic tendencies are on the rise – particularly among recent generations of young people. If you’re a perfectionist, you’re not alone.
10 signs of perfectionism
Do you think of yourself as a perfectionist? Or have other people told you that you are? Perfectionists tend to exhibit certain telltale behaviours that reflect their striving for perfection and fear of falling short. Do any of the following sound familiar?
- Unattainable standards. You may be highly critical of yourself and beat yourself up over anything that doesn’t meet your very high standards. Maybe you’re constantly trying to improve things by re-doing them. But you always feel like you could have done better. Your standards are so high they might be unattainable.
- Fear of failure. Do you fear that, if you don’t shoot for perfection, you’ll become a low-achiever and won’t reach your goals. You might also avoid trying new things, or learning new skills, since that is likely to involve making mistakes.
- Procrastination. Do you find it difficult to complete tasks – or give up easily? Are you a chronic procrastinator? Many perfectionists are. You want to do well. However, your fear of failure is so great you procrastinate because you’d rather not do something at all if it can’t be done perfectly.
- Physical symptoms. Do you have unexplained symptoms? The body expresses tension in various ways, such as headaches, back pain, skin issues, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), high blood pressure or difficulties sleeping.
- Time pressure. Do you feel like there’s just never enough time in the day? So much to do and so little time… You feel constantly pressured by time – rushing from one thing to the next.
- Irritation. Do you feel irritated and annoyed a lot of the time? You never feel like you’re doing enough, so you’re plagued with frustration. This might extend to other people too – since no one can meet your high standards.
- No fun. There’s no sense of silliness or ‘fun’. Life is full of responsibilities and none of the good stuff.
- Obsession with details. Do you sweat the small stuff? Perhaps you agonise over small details, feel angry and stressed when everything isn’t ‘just right’. Or you’re overly cautious and thorough in tasks. Do you excessively check for spelling mistakes on an email before you send it, for example?
- Overworking. All of this can lead to overwork. The drive to succeed is so strong that you’d rather run yourself into the ground than run the risk of failure.
- Poor decision-making. You may struggle to make decisions – because you’re always searching for the perfect option, which rarely exists. If you have unrealistically high standards, you may wait until the perfect option comes along – which may never happen.
Spotting the signs is the first step to learning how to overcome perfectionism.
Common perfectionist thoughts to watch out for
Watch out for the following thoughts too. These ‘thinking traps’, or unhelpful thinking styles, are examples of perfectionistic thinking:
- Black-and-white thinking. For example: “Anything less than perfection is a failure”.
- Catastrophic thinking. For example: “If I make a mistake in this presentation I’ll be sacked”.
- Shoulds and musts. For example: “I should never make mistakes”.
How can perfectionism affect our mental health?
At the heart of most perfectionists is a deep fear of disapproval, of not being ‘good enough’. The drive for perfection can lead to stress, anxiety, depression and, ultimately, burnout. Some of the ways perfectionism can affect our mental health include:
- Stress. If you’re constantly projecting into the future, thinking about what you can achieve next, you’re likely to be left with a sense that there’s never enough time in the day. This can be incredibly stressful.
- Anxiety. You may fear being judged or criticised if your work is less than (what you consider to be) perfect. This can lead to chronic procrastination. Or you may be plagued with worries that you’re inadequate, or a failure.
- Low self-esteem. Because you’re always striving for perfection, and you peg your self-worth to achieving it, you may suffer from low self-esteem.
- Depression. If you have unachievable standards, over time this takes its toll – and can lead to depression. You might feel ‘empty’ and like something’s missing. Maybe you try to cover up your feelings of low self-worth with success, but no matter what, you’re always left with a sense that something’s missing.
- Difficulties in relationships. If you’re single, you may struggle to find a partner because you’re always looking for perfection. If you’re in a relationship, perfectionism can take its toll. You may get frustrated with a partner who doesn’t live up to your high expectations. And you might also find it difficult to stay ‘present’ which can make it difficult forming authentic connections.
Learning how to overcome perfectionism can also help you overcome some of the problems it causes.
What is the root cause of perfectionism?
Perfectionism is a coping mechanism that you may have learnt in childhood. One explanation, from Schema therapy, is a lifetrap or ‘schema’ called unrelenting standards. This is an unhelpful pattern of thinking and behaviour that has its roots in childhood. If you have unrelenting standards, nothing is ever good enough. You feel stressed and pressured a lot of the time – and there’s never enough time – there’s always something else to do. However, this can leave you feeling overwhelmed, exhausted – and depressed.
Perfectionism is often a response to growing up in an environment based on conditional love. Perhaps your parents were cold and distant, and you only received care and attention when you achieved something or you behaved ‘perfectly’ in their eyes. Or maybe they were very goal-oriented themselves and there was a heavy emphasis on achievement at home. As children, we have a tendency to model what we see. In all these situations, perfectionism has become a strategy for connection.
Or maybe you’re a people-pleaser? You worry about keeping everyone happy at the expense of your own needs. This can result from the approval-seeking lifetrap or schema. You want to be liked. That’s normal. But approval-seeking becomes a problem when it causes us emotional difficulties or prevents our own needs being met. The approval-seeking schema is driven by a need to be liked and recognised. You might strive for perfection in order to get approval from others.
Whatever the root cause, if you’re a perfectionist you may misinterpret your value as being based on external factors – as opposed to understanding that you are valuable simply for being yourself. You are enough.
10 ways to overcome perfectionism
The reality of life is that most things aren’t perfect. If you try to make them that way, you’ll burn out your resources – both physically and psychologically. If you struggle with perfectionism, some things you can do to overcome it include:
- Identify your perfectionist tendencies. Do you recognise any of the characteristics of perfectionists in yourself? Try to become aware of any perfectionist thoughts, behaviours and tendencies. This is the first step to learning how to overcome perfectionism. Consider writing them down in your journal.
- Allow yourself to make mistakes. We all make mistakes. Don’t beat yourself up when you mess up. Try to cultivate a growth mindset. People with a growth mindset view mistakes as learning opportunities – rather than evidence that they’re no good.
- Set realistic goals. You may have heard of ‘SMART’ objectives, from job appraisals. The A stands for ’Achievable’. Set SMART, achievable goals, and you’ll feel less stressed and more confident in your abilities. Apply this to a skill you want to learn, tolerate mistakes as part of the process – and enjoy achieving mastery in a healthy way.
- Reduce your effort. This may sound challenging if you’re a perfectionist! But try lowering your standards – and see what happens. If you reduce your effort by 25%, most people won’t even notice. Try to focus on being good enough – rather than perfect. Most times good enough is enough. Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.
- Practice self-acceptance. Remind yourself that your value comes from within – not from your achievements. You are worthy, and you are enough. You are the person who pressures you the most. So be kind to yourself. Practice self-acceptance by lowering your standards – and just be proud of yourself for doing your best.
- Make a decision. Perfectionists often struggle with decision-making. It can be a great source of anxiety. Try to remember that your decisions don’t have to be perfect – just made. See our post on how to overcome your indecisiveness for some tips.
- Beware of social media. Be wary of how social media promotes images of other people leading perfect lives. Remember that social media posts are carefully curated! If you find that social media is contributing to your feelings of needing to be ‘perfect’, consider limiting your use of them, taking a digital detox or even deleting your apps.
- Tackle procrastination. This is easier said than done – but just try to make a small, imperfect start on that project you’ve been putting off (you know the one). Try the Pomodoro technique: set a timer for just 20 minutes to work on your project. It doesn’t have to be any good, especially on your first draft or first try. You can always improve it later. Starting is the key. A good enough finished project is better than that perfect thing in your imagination that never gets done.
- Focus on meaning over perfection. Rather than trying to do it perfectly, focus on finding meaning in what you do. Pursue things that make you happy. Think about your values, what you enjoy, and focus on the process rather than the end goal. It may not be perfect. However, if your task or project is aligned with your purpose and brings you joy, it doesn’t matter.
- Speak to a therapist. Therapy can help you unravel and challenge your belief systems, and understand the ways in which your perfectionism might be holding you back. It can also help with anxiety around perfectionism. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) in particular can help you reframe your thoughts, and your therapist can give you tools to help you tackle the problem and learn how to overcome perfectionism. And Schema Therapy can help you to better understand deeper issues behind your perfectionism that may be rooted in childhood.
Sadly, perfectionism has become one of our most accepted addictions. And because it’s often embedded from an early age, it can be hard for us to see anything wrong with it. But it can hold us back in life, and result in mental health difficulties. So it’s important to learn how to overcome perfectionism.
Above all, remember that your value doesn’t depend on external achievements. You’re fine just as you are. You don’t need to be perfect: you just need to be perfectly you.