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Fair warning: learning how to stop being a perfectionist is no small nor easy task. If you’ve had your run ins with that all to familiar pit in your stomach and anvil on your chest at the slightest hint of a mistake, you may already know how hard it can be to get rid of that critical, perfectionist inside. That mistake feels like a neon sign on your forehead flashing “IMPERFECT! DEFECTIVE!” The voice of perfectionism rings of disgust and self loathing, “Your a failure. Pathetic. What’s wrong with you?!” It’s exhausting.
But the good news is, if you are willing to do the work and persevere, you really can overcome your perfectionism. And you can start doing that today with the strategies here. After all, there is no better time than the present, right? I’ve cultivated these tips over a lifetime of being a recovering perfectionist and mental health veteran.
What is Perfectionism, really?
I have a theory that perfectionism is equal parts shame and anxiety. It’s that critical voice in your head that exaggerates how terrible your mistakes are and what a horrible, stupid, pathetic idiot you are for making them. People have argued that perfectionism can be adaptive. But I would argue that if it’s adaptive it’s not really perfectionism. Perfectionism hurts.
Sometimes what people call perfectionism is actually high achievement (and vice versa). Here’s the difference between the two:
A high achiever’s goal may be lofty but it isn’t impossible and progress towards that goal is everything. Getting closer to the finish line is succeeding. As they keep working, a high achiever often feels motivated to continue forward without trying to resort to shaming themselves for not already having it accomplished. They generally don’t berate themselves for mistakes but learn from them and use that knowledge to move forward. High achievers often feel motivated and even excited to work toward the goal.
A perfectionist’s goal is often unattainable and progress is not important, Only the perfect outcome is relevant. Anything less than that is a complete and utter failure that leads to self loathing. Getting closer to the goal means little to nothing unless it is quickly followed by actually accomplishing the goal. Mistakes equal failure and are often used to criticize the perfectionist and shame them into “doing better.” But that shame often leads to self sabotage and procrastination. Perfectionism just hurts.
The extra costs of Perfectionism
In addition to shame and anxiety, perfectionism often comes with additional minion in tow. Low self esteem, procrastination, painful comparisons, hopelessness, and cynicism that we’ll never really “measure up.” It backs us into a corner and twists our thoughts into a maze that’s very hard to untangle. It convinces us that our accomplishments and failures are the measure of our self worth. Then it disregards our accomplishments because the good things “don’t matter” or “aren’t important” somehow.
Before we know it, we’re stuck with the belief that only our failures reveal our self worth. No matter how hard we try or how much we succeed, it’s never “good enough.” Is it any wonder that perfectionism is linked to so many mental health conditions? Things like increased depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse, self harm, suicide, and others. The cost of our perfectionism is unbearably high.
How to Overcome Perfectionism
Perfectionism is a monster that doesn’t go down without a fight. It’s often rooted in the pains of the past. But no monster is invincible and if you are willing to fight the good fight even when it feels impossible, you can overcome. It takes work, patience, and a lot of courage.
1. Learning to Stop Being a Perfectionist Starts with Awareness
It is impossible to overcome pain if we are blind to it’s effects. That’s why overcoming perfectionism starts with increasing your awareness of the impact it’s had and the part that it’s played in your life. Ask yourself the hard questions and let yourself take a mindset of caring curiosity rather than that of the critic. A cost/benefit analysis is a great place to start increasing awareness.
A cost/benefit analysis helps you identify the ways in which you have suffered because of your perfectionism as well as the ways it might have benefitted you. That often sounds ridiculous to people. But the truth is the humans don’t really continue doing things that have NO benefit to them at all. We might continue something that only brings us a small help or pleasure, but if it does absolutely nothing for us, we usually stop doing it.
Sometimes the benefit we get from harmful coping practices like perfectionism is the opportunity to avoid other emotions. And while that is a benefit that brings another cost along with it (ie avoiding emotions tend to keep them stuck rather than actually avoided), understanding what we get from perfectionism is really important. Without understanding it, our efforts to change often fail.
Identifying the price we’ve paid for being a perfectionist helps us identify the “why” that motivates us to change. It’s really important that as you are asking these hard questions of yourself, that you aren’t turning back toward shame to “motivate” yourself to change. That only increases the perfectionistic voice inside. But we often have to learn how to resist the self criticism and shaming because it comes so readily and naturally. That’s where the next step comes in.
2. Learn and Practice Self Compassion
Mindful Self Compassion is an amazing practice that helps shift the voice of the inner critic. I’m a huge fan of it and I practice it myself. It’s been life changing for me and one of the biggest things that help me stop being a perfectionist. It is often challenging to practice in the beginning because it’s so foreign to the way the perfectionist’s mind usually sees things. But with practice, it really does become more natural.
I’ve written several times about the benefit of self compassion and what I have here is pieces of a much bigger framework. Start with what I have here but then check out The Mindful Self Compassion Workbook by Kristen Neff. Here are the basic steps:
Talk to yourself the way you would a friend
When a perfectionist makes a mistake or experiences a “failure,” the inner critic is often let loose. We berate and bully ourselves into feeling like the worst and most pathetic person on earth. And for some reason, that feels “right” to us. But I’ve asked many perfectionists over the years if they’d ever talk to a friend the way they talk to themselves in a moment of pain and I’ve never had someone say yes.
Why? Because we know how horrible it would be to say those things to someone. But for some reason, we don’t seem to realize how horrible it is to say it to ourselves. We see how it would damage another person to be torn down that way but we don’t seem to realize that saying it to ourselves damages us too.
Self compassion teaches us to talk to ourselves the way we talk to friends. When a friend tells you that she made a mistake and feels like an idiot because of it, how do you usually respond? Gentleness? Empathy? Reminding her of her best qualities? Reminding her that everyone makes mistakes? How different is that than what you usually say to yourself? Practice talking to yourself the way you’d talk to that friend.
Here’s a few mindful self compassion exercises to help you learn to practice this skill.
Look for the common humanity
When we make a mistake, it’s really quick and easy for us to spiral into thinking that we are the only idiot in the world stupid enough to have made this mistake. Then we feel like a freak and a failure. But what we need in a moment like this is the reminder that we actually aren’t the only people in the world who have experienced what we’re going through.
Intuitively, we often know that this is what other people need when they are feeling shame. When someone experiences shame over a mistake that they made, we often try to make them feel better by sharing about a mistake we’ve made in the past to remind them that they aren’t alone. This is called common humanity and it often does help us feel more connected and less like a freak.
What we often don’t realize is that we need the reminder as well. Instead of spiraling into the freak and failure internal monologue, we need to remind ourselves that we aren’t pathetic for making a mistake. That literally everyone on the planet can relate at the very least to the feeling we have in that moment. We’re in good company. I look for the common humanity by reminding myself “Yeah, this feeling sucks. But it’s okay to make a mistake and everyone in the world has experienced this feeling that I have. It’s not just me.”
Practice Radical Acceptance
Radical acceptance is a tough concept to explain and to fully grasp because it has a much deeper meaning than it seems to on the surface. To radically accept is to stop fighting reality. It is to fully let go and accept what is. It means that we stop recreating the ways it could have been prevented or turned out differently. Those are both ways that we often fight reality without even realizing it. To have radically accepted something is to let go of that “yes it happened but it shouldn’t have happened” because that is fighting reality and it increases your suffering.
We fight reality in order to avoid the feelings of what it means to us that reality turned out the way it did. As you are accepting what is, you have to let yourself feel the emotions. If I made a mistake, I may rehash the situation or look for ways I could have prevented the mistake in order to try to avoid feeling disappointed or embarrassed that it happened. Accepting it means that, rather than fighting, we allow ourselves to stop a “it happened” without adding the “but…” And then we let ourselves feel what we feel, work through it with compassionate self talk, and come out on the other side.
To help with practicing radical acceptance, I like to use quotes, coping statements, or mantras. That might sound something like “Everyone makes mistakes” or “Pobody’s Nerfect” or “Progress, Not Perfection.” Find quotes or reminders that help you resist the shame spiral and stop being a perfectionist, then repeat them to yourself when you need them.
To learn more about radical acceptance and how to start practicing it, check out this article from Bay Area DBT.
3. Change Your Definition of Failure
In the perfectionist’s mind, Success= Perfection and Failure=Anything else. This is what you call black and white, all or nothing thinking with an extreme and unhealthy conclusion. To stop being a perfectionist, we have to change those definitions. Here are my personal definitions. Write out your own and see what you can come to but in the mean time, feel free to use mine if you wish.
Success: the ability to adapt and to make something work even if it isn’t exactly what you were going for. Endurance is a synonym.
Success is perseverance and progress. A step forward is a success, no matter how small. Sometimes even a step backwards is a success if I choose to persevere and use it to adapt and make the most of what I have. If you remember, this mindset is one of the things that separates high achievers from perfectionists.
Failure: to give up. It’s something that happens or a choice that is made–not a personal flaw. It is not indicative of the person being a failure. Everyone fails and failure can be a great source of information to help us overcome in the future.
Thomas Edison tried to create the light bulb thousands of times before he actually got it right. He wrote, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work. I am not discouraged because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.”
JK Rowling, creator of the Harry Potter series, has a similar experience with failure. Have you ever read the commencement address she gave to graduates at Harvard? She titled it The Benefits of Failure. She told them: “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”
Both Edison and Rowling (along with many others) have a healthier definition of failure. I’ve often found using these quotes are a great way of practicing common humanity in times of struggle and to stop being a perfectionist.
4. Use Your Support Network
Perfectionism is shame and it’s been said that the antidote to shame is human connection. These are wise words.
When we reach out to someone that cares about us and share what we’re struggling with, we chip away at the block of shame we have been carrying. Experiencing acceptance in the face of shame changes the experience. It reduces the emotional overwhelm and the negative self talk.
One time while I was pumping gas, I forgot to take the nozzle out of my tank and started to drive away. I was mortified because other people saw it and they had to be thinking some judgmental stuff. I felt really stupid. So I called my husband because I knew that sharing it with him and feeling his acceptance of me anyway would help turn down the volume on the shame of that mistake. And it did. Within minutes, I was starting to feel better and even laughing at myself (in a good natured way).
Utilizing our support system in times of shame is a really powerful way to combat the spiral. Perfectionism and shame often make us want to hide it though. They convince us that we will feel worse if we share it and people will think less of us if they know. But sharing it with a caring, accepting person is the shame antidote and hiding it increases our suffering. You may have to talk yourself through that one the next time you experience the burden of shame, but it’s worth the effort. If you want to stop being a perfectionist, connecting with others is an important part of that.
5. Practice Experiments
A while back, I developed this mental framework that has really changed the way I approach things. It occurred to me that one of the reasons we perfectionists are afraid to put ourselves out there, risk a mistake, or try things we don’t already know we are good at is we believe the outcome means something about us personally. If we succeed we are a success. If we fail, we are a failure. To overcome the fear of mistakes and being imperfect, we have to find a way out of personalizing the outcome.
That led me to the idea of viewing my efforts as an experiment. In a research experiment, the outcome of the experiment never really says anything about the researcher. If his hypothesis is proven at the end of the study, great. If it’s disproven, cool. Either way, the emphasis is placed on the information he gained as a result of his study. Information which he can then take and use to create new studies.
I started trying to see if I could adopt that framework to my own efforts in life. Rather than seeing everything as a performance test that will measure how significant I am, I started looking at things as if they are a research experiment or a beta test. My thoughts moved from “I’m going to do this and it better work or I’m a failure” to “I’m going to try this and see what it does.” If it works, great. If it doesn’t, I look for what I can tweak that might produce a better outcome. It’s taken the pressure off and opened me up to try new things without so much fear. It has been one of the biggest things to help me stop being a perfectionist.
If you want to learn more about this framework and how to use it, here’s the article I wrote detailing it.
It Takes Time to Learn How to Stop Being a Perfectionist
This is a small post on a big topic. Perfectionism is like a wad of chewing gum in your hair. It holds on for dear life and you have to pick it out a little bit at a time because you don’t have any mayonnaise or peanut butter on hand. Don’t get discouraged if it’s hard to shake–it may not go down easy but with the strategies above and a good therapist, you can win the battle. If you need a good therapist and haven’t found one, I recommend checking out Bettherhelp. They offer therapy online and even through text so it’s easy to make time for it.
It may be a tough battle but don’t give up. Keep fighting the good fight because even if it sometimes feels impossible, perfectionism can be overcome. Someone once told me “don’t let perfect be the enemy of good” and it stuck with me. Now, I’m passing it on to you. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. Keep going.
Are you a perfectionist? Tell me, how are you fighting your perfectionism?