Coastal Center for Anxiety Treatment

Name card of Dr. Eric goodman.

Overcoming Perfectionism

How do you know whether you are a perfectionist or not?

  • If you spend ten times as long on a task as other people in order to get it just right…you might be a perfectionist.
  • If you receive an A- on a school assignment and get upset that it wasn’t an A+…you might be a perfectionist.
  • If you obsess about minor flaws in your appearance, despite evidence that other people think you look just fine…you might be a perfectionist.
  • If you agonize over even small decisions (Coco Puffs versus Lucky Charms)…you might be a perfectionist.
  • If you clean things that most people would think are already clean…you might be a perfectionist.
  • If you can’t stand to be around people because everyone has something about them that really bugs you…you might be a perfectionist.
  • If nothing you do can ever meet your expectations…you might be a perfectionist.
  • If you procrastinate because you know that you cannot possibly live up to your own standards…you might be a perfectionist.
  • If you are still reading this article…chances are, you might be a perfectionist!

So just what is a perfectionist?

The simple answer is that it is someone who cannot stand the thought of doing at least certain things imperfectly.

There are many reasons why someone might feel that way. Some are just hard-wired for perfectionism, as is the case with many people with OCD. Other people might have had parents who demanded perfection and punished mistakes. Some have the mistaken belief that they can only feel good about themselves if they are flawless.

Whatever the case may be, perfectionism, by definition, is a miserable way to live a life. Since no one and nothing can be perfect, the perfectionist is doomed to failure and frustration at every turn. No wonder so many perfectionists procrastinate to such a large degree!

So if perfectionism feels so unpleasant, why do people continue to behave perfectionistically?

1. First there is a triggering event. For example:

  • Going to a party
  • Noticing a bodily sensation
  • Seeing one’s reflection in the mirror
  • Undertaking a school or work project

2. The triggering event “activates” perfectionistic thoughts and beliefs

  • All-or-nothing thinking
    • If I am not 100% perfect I is will be rejected!
    • It is either an A+ or I am a failure!
    • This pimple means I am hideous!
  • Catastrophizing
    • If I am rejected then I will never be loved and will be alone and miserable forever!
  • Belief that it is possible to achieve perfection
  • Belief that it is desirable to achieve perfection
    • Yes, maybe in some cases it would be desirable, but most of us dislike people who are perfect know-it-alls. Most people like others who are imperfectly human…like us!
  • Unfair Comparisons
    • Life is terrible unless I am smarter than Einstein or prettier than a supermodel!
  • Shoulds
    • I should (must, ought to, have to) be perfect in my appearance and everything I do!

3. In the face of such rigid beliefs the stakes of performance seem very high. This can lead to anxiety and dread.

4. In order to decrease these negative emotions, the perfectionist engages in safety behaviors, such as:

  • Procrastinate
  • Over-prepare
  • Checking, rechecking, rechecking, rechecking, rechecking……
  • Desperately hiding perceived flaws
  • Obsessive cleaning, straightening, worrying
  • ETC!!!

5. In the end, the catastrophic fear does not come true

  • I was not horribly rejected.
  • The C- on the paper did not “count” because I really did not try my hardest.
  • I was not killed by germs

6. The FACT that nothing catastrophic happened is attributed to the safety behaviors (rather than the fact that nothing catastrophic would have happened anyway).

  • “My safety behaviors are serving a useful function!”
  • “Had I not done them, I would have been in big trouble!”

7. This reinforces the belief that you had better strive for perfection!

  • You do not get to learn that being imperfect will not lead to catastrophic consequences!

How can I learn to NOT be a perfectionist?

Well first of all, are you sure that you want to give up perfectionism?

Giving up a life of perfectionism means that you would miss out on all the “fun” of hours upon hours of stress, anxiety, frustration, and perceived failure.

If you spend a hundred hours trying to write the perfect paper, you may get a better grade. But is it worth the cost? How else could you have spent that time that would ultimately lead to a more rewarding lifestyle?

Giving up a life of perfectionism means only striving for excellence at some of the things you do—and for other things, being willing to live with “good enough.”

Often the most challenging step in decreasing perfectionism is truly committing yourself to that goal.

It is also important to challenge your perfectionistic beliefs.

  • Is life truly ALL-OR-NOTHING? If your belief is that you are either perfect or worthless, perhaps consider that life is not so black-and-white. Begin to look for the shades of grey. I may not be the most attractive person, but I am not the least either. I may not be the best student, but I’m doing well compared with many of my peers. I may not be suave like James Bond, but I’m no Woody Allen either.
  • Is it true that you SHOULD perform perfectly? MUST you always be loved and accepted by everyone you meet? Do you really have to give one-hundred percent effort into everything that you do? Why? Who says?
    • If you want to survive you must have food, water, and shelter. Other than that, life is truly all about preferences. You can prefer to strive for excellence, because you prefer to have a well-paying job—but you don’t have to!
  • Is imperfection truly catastrophic?
  • Is it really helpful for you to compare yourself to extremes? Must you look better than a super-model, be smarter than Einstein, and have more money than Bill Gates in order to be happy? Since when did N.O.R.M.A.L. become a four-letter word?

Still reluctant to decrease your perfectionism?

How about learning to be more selective in picking your perfectionism battles? Maybe you could put more effort into major exams and be willing to put less effort into minor quizzes or extra credit. Maybe deciding upon a breakfast cereal should take less analysis than whether to propose to your girlfriend. If you’re obsessing over wearing the perfect outfit to a formal party, maybe you could fret less over what you’re going to wear to the grocery store.

You can also re-define your definition of “success.”

Instead of defining it as an outcome, you can define it as a process. If you ask a potential romantic partner out on a date and you define success as an agreement to go on a date with you then you take the success out of your hands and give the power to the other person.

Instead, you could define success purely based on what you have control over:

  1. Dress in an attractive way (success)
  2. Agree to attend three social events (success)
  3. Brush up on current events (success)
  4. Go to the social events and make small talk with five potential romantic partners (success)
  5. Muster up your courage and ask one person for a date (success)

If you have a big presentation to give at work you could define success if you:

  1. Brainstorm for ideas and select a topic (success)
  2. Prepare an outline (success)
  3. Rehearse once or twice (success)
  4. Present your material at work in a pleasant and professional manner (success)

If get a date and your presentation is a hit, then that is icing on the cake!

Think about the object/s of your perfectionism. Can you break the task down and set reasonable goals? Could you consider declaring victory if you achieve your reasonable goals…despite the actual outcome?

Now I have a more radical idea for you to consider. Maybe imperfection is not such a bad thing. In fact, maybe imperfection is a good thing.

Consider this. Maybe perfectionistic tendencies have not served you so well, after all. Maybe the successes you have had has not been because of trying to be perfect, but despite your perfectionism. Maybe perfectionism has been a chain around your neck dragging you under as you fight to stay afloat.

Imperfection has value.

Imagine someone who is perfect: Dresses flawlessly, make-up artfully applied, not a single hair out of place, knows everything about everything and expresses it with professional eloquence, never makes a single mistake…ever.

How would you like to spend the next 50 years married to that person? I thought not. We like people who validate our own humanity by being wonderfully flawed, just like you and I. In other words: Social perfection is a social flaw!

Embracing imperfection can make decision-making easier.

If you can’t be certain you are making the perfect decision then you may agonize endlessly. If you are willing to make decisions imperfectly then you are free to make decisions.

Is an imperfect decision catastrophic? Probably not. If you pick breakfast cereal A over cereal B, what are you risking? Maybe B is slightly more tasty or healthier than A, but isn’t that a small price to pay for the freedom to make decisions. If you are trying to decide between college A or college B, it is impossible to know with 100% certainty which one will be best. College A might give you a slightly better academic experience, but B might be the place where you will meet your soul mate. The point is to risk making the slightly “less good” decision (not a catastrophic decision) in order to have the freedom to make decisions without years of agonizing delay. If you wait to make a decision until you are one-hundred percent convinced it is the perfect decision, you might be waiting your entire life.

Embracing imperfection can lead to getting more done!

If you treat each task as if it was your life’s work, you will put massive amounts of time and energy into it while neglecting other areas of your life—there are only so many hours in a day! Perhaps the quality of your work will be better on a given task (if you can get yourself not to procrastinate), but the QUANTITY of your work will suffer.

In other words, you can spend one hundred hours getting one task done exceptionally well, but if you settled for just doing a good job (say ten hours’ worth of work) you could get ten times the amount of work done. And, if your goal was to do a good job, rather than perfect, you can feel good about the work you did, rather than being consistently disappointed by chasing the impossible goal of perfection.

Ultimately, whether you like it or not nothing you ever do will be one-hundred percent perfect—it is an impossible goal for us mere mortals. Embracing that fact makes for a freer and more rewarding life.

Try an experiment:

Take a task that you push yourself to be perfect on. Instead of one-hundred percent effort, try ninety-percent. Back off a little bit.

Did the sky fall?

Maybe you even performed adequately. How was your level of enjoyment of the task relative to your past perfectionistic efforts?

If the task turned out okay, how about experimenting with eighty-percent effort or even less? See if you can decrease your standards while increasing your emotional well-being and enjoyment of life. Wouldn’t it be nice to see that seventy-five percent of your usual effort produces good-enough results with less stress?

The bottom-line is that perfectionism leads to a life of hopeless struggle. No matter how successful you are it will never be good enough…you will never be perfect. Instead find your freedom by embracing imperfection.

Note: I have strategically placed errors throughout this article. If you have found them all…you might be a perfectionist.

Eric Goodman, Ph.D.