How to Overcome Perfectionism: 5 Powerful Steps

This article was last updated on September 7, 2017

Do you find yourself constantly criticizing yourself or others for not living up to ideals or unrealistic expectations? Are you more driven by fear of failure than enjoyment of the present moment? Perfectionism is nothing to be proud of. In fact, it can not only prove disastrous to accomplishing goals, but also sabotage enjoyment of life. If you’re one of the 30 percent of the general population who suffers from perfectionism, read on to learn about five proven strategies for combating perfectionism—before it combats you.

  1. Instead of focusing on the end-product, focus on the process.

If you are a writer, you may already be familiar with this quote from Anne Lamott:

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a s****y first draft.”

In other words, if you write or create art or practice a craft or hobby or any kind of skill that requires practice and repetition in order to be any good—which is everything—you should be aware that perfectionism is nothing to be proud of. It’s not the thing to say in job interviews as a lame excuse for a “weakest trait” answer.

You need to focus on the process of creating a piece of art or executive summary or whatever it is you are trying to accomplish. If you don’t, you’ll never realize your goal. If it’s easier for you to come up with new interests and goals than to accomplish any of said goals, you are likely a procrastinator. So stop procrastinating, and start doing—no matter how difficult it is to face imperfection, at first. The more time you spend on skills and activities you love, the better and more skilled you will become.

To put things into a bit more perspective: it’s commonly said that it takes ten years to become a true expert at anything. Let that idea sink in for a moment. Then get to work on whatever it is you wish you were doing but are too scared to do.

  1. Don’t compare yourself to other people; compare yourself to your own progress.

Comparing ourselves to others is a recipe for a self-esteem-disaster. Studies have shown that too much time spent on social media can be damaging to one’s confidence and self-esteem—in part because people tend to post about their achievements and successes, rather than setbacks or difficulties. All this enthusiastic posing can make it seem like other people are accomplishing more than you—especially if they are people doing things you aspire to do as well—such as getting published or scoring that job promotion: classic elements of “the American dream.”

If you’re curious about what you could be making, if you were to obtain a particular job, you could always calculate a hypothetical paycheck and see what your take-home pay could be if you were making a different hourly or yearly amount. If you compare yourself to your past successes and focus on what you’re capable of achieving, rather than what others are achieving, you’ll feel less anxious about the results.

  1. Don’t allow fear of failure control you; instead, strive toward something positive.

While there are some forms of idealistic thinking that aren’t damaging, usually it works as a negative, rather than a positive, framework. Ultimately, what this means is that perfectionists are driven by fear, which is not healthy. According to Fast Company, it ultimately boils down to an inferiority complex:

The characteristic is a concern with making mistakes. As a result, perfectionists are driven by their fear of failure, and it’s this drive that motivates them to achieve what others can’t. It’s what psychologists term an adaptive manifestation of the impostor syndrome: because you think you aren’t as good as you actually are, you invest a great deal of energy and time into getting better.

This is not a healthy way of living and existing in the world. Rather than allowing fear to drive your actions and way of being in the world, focus on positive, good things about yourself and your life in order to work on cultivating gratitude. Once you do this, you may start to realize that you have a lot to be thankful for, and you can change your motivation from a negative to a positive one—one that is based on joy and happiness, rather than fear and insecurity.

  1. Aim for concrete, achievable goals unique to you—rather than ‘perfection.’

A great example of this can be found via personal health and fitness goals. Are you comparing your current level of fitness to yourself, or to some high-profile trainer on national television? If your only exercise involves getting from point A to point B, try starting with walking or hiking, then begin incorporating a bit of strength training and more vigorous aerobic exercise that gets your heart rate significantly up.

Do you spend a lot of time throughout your day sitting in a chair? If you don’t break a sweat on a regular basis, you are setting yourself up for health problems, as you get older. A study by the American Journal of Epidemiology found that people who sat more than six hours per day died younger than those who sat for fewer than three hours a day.

In addition to setting concrete goals for yourself, it helps to write them down on paper. Moreover, instead of simply writing those goals down, losing that piece of paper, and never referring to it again, try a more deliberate, calculated approach. Matt Mayberry suggests focusing in on one particular goal—what he calls the “game-changer” goal, then writing down “20 to 50 things you need to do to achieve that major goal of yours.”

  1. Focus on self-awareness, self-esteem, and community building.

Though self-awareness may not initially seem connected to community building, it it. Intense, hyper-focus on the self can betray a kind of narcissism more concerned with personal achievement than the well-being and success of others. However, as with anything, it’s possible to become burnt out and over-extend yourself so that you don’t have enough time to recharge and cultivate the energy and enthusiasm necessary to help others.

Try to resist giving in to a sense of all-or-nothing about either yourself or social justice and sustainability issues. For example, to take sustainability and climate science as an example: you can serve as a source of education and awareness about public health-related issues by sharing public health facts related to climate change and making an effort to reduce your personal carbon footprint. And realize that mental health is connected to public health, so the more you’re able to spread awareness about positive, healthy standards for achievement, the better.

For one, spreading the truth that nobody is perfect could go a long way toward preventing the scourge of perfectionism. As Drake Baer explains, this notion of perfecting the self is fundamentally wrong-headed and impossible, but it’s what fuels so much of the diet and fashion industries—just to name two of the many industries that feed upon doubts and insecurities. The assumption begins in childhood, and it goes something like this: “If I’m perfect, I won’t be rejected, ridiculed, abused—I’ll be loved and accepted.”

The connection between an unhealthy perception of self and perfectionism:

Baer further stresses the profound connection between an unhealthy perception of self and perfectionism:

As they understand it, perfectionism isn’t about perfecting things: your job, a specific project, the way you look, or a relationship. At a fundamental level, it’s about perfecting the self, and this urge doesn’t come from a healthy place: “All components and dimensions of perfectionism ultimately involve attempts to perfect an imperfect self,” the authors write.

Thus, if these notions of a ‘perfect self’ aren’t adjusted via counseling or radical self-awareness, the damage can be long-reaching and profound, for both the self and others.

The best thing to do, if you find yourself having similar thoughts, is to seek out an objective third party like a therapist, a counselor, or another trusted professional who is knowledgeable and certified in dealing with combating negative self-talk, in order to find a practical solution to this kind of destructive thinking. In the end, you’ll be helping not only yourself but also others around you by learning how to focus on positive thoughts and actions, rather than perpetuating unrealistic stereotypes and ideals that serve nobody.

Do you have any advice for others dealing with perfectionistic tendencies? What would you tell others who struggle with this common way of thinking, in order to help them stop holding themselves to unrealistic expectations? Share your thoughts in the comments section, below.

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