by Maria Lebron, May 2022
There’s a difference between being a high-achiever and being a perfectionist. High-achievers are motivated to do their best, but perfectionists are motivated by fear. Having high standards can push you to strive for excellence and give you a good work ethic. However, perfectionism is the result of trying to live up to an internal ideal which is often unrealistic and can lead to feelings of anxiety, dissatisfaction, and low self-esteem.
Perfectionists usually believe that anything short of perfection is unacceptable and even small mistakes can lead to disaster. For most people it’s important to do their best and try not to make mistakes, however, they also realize that making mistakes once in a while is inevitable and it doesn’t make them a failure. Perfectionists have an unrealistic belief that they should never make mistakes and if they do, it means they’re a failure or a bad person for disappointing others. This kind of pressure causes perfectionists to experience anxiety, stress, and low self-esteem when they are unable to meet their own unrealistic, high standards.
Perfectionism can lead to chronic procrastination and difficulty completing tasks because of a fear of failure, criticism, or judgment. Perfectionists can feel overwhelmed and procrastinate thinking about the time and effort needed to achieve perfection. This procrastination often leads to more anxiety and worsens over time. Setting realistic goals, breaking down larger tasks, and setting priorities can help with procrastination.
Perfectionism can also lead to “analysis paralysis,” whereby the anxiety over making the perfect decision leads to prolonged deliberating, circular thinking, procrastination, or not being able to make any decision at all.
Examples of perfectionistic thinking are:
- believing that any outcome less than perfection means you have failed
- believing that asking for help means you’re weak or vulnerable
- believing that all problems or roadblocks should have been prepared for beforehand
- believing you need to spend more time on a task than may be needed or you’ll be seen as lazy, unprepared, or not knowledgable enough by others
- making elaborate to-do lists and then feeling like a failure that items remain on the list
- avoiding new things for fear of making mistakes
How to Overcome Perfectionism
— Perfectionists are often very critical of themselves, therefore the self-critical or perfectionistic thinking needs to be replaced with more realistic and helpful thoughts that you will try to do your best, that everyone makes mistakes, and that you can’t be liked by everyone.
— Perfectionists hold themselves to a much higher standard and it would be helpful to consider why you may not necessarily think less or expect more from someone else.
— Perfectionists often think in extremes and use all or nothing thinking. It would be helpful to try to be more flexible and consider what you’d find tolerable in resetting your expectations to accept imperfections. Gradually letting yourself make mistakes or lowering your standards of preparation can help you to see that it’s not as scary or disastrous as you may have thought.
— Focusing on perfection can cause perfectionists to fixate on any negative rather than acknowledging the accomplishments or good efforts they’ve achieved.
— Perfectionists often get bogged down in the details rather than seeing the big picture and they spend a lot of time aiming for perfection when it may not be warranted. Consider asking yourself what the consequences would be of having something be 95% accurate instead of 100%. For some things, such as financial issues, it may be necessary to obtain 100% accuracy but in many other situations, the extra effort to aim for absolute perfection may not be worth it.
— Remember that lowering your standards of perfection doesn’t mean you’ll make mistakes all the time because you’ll still have standards in place. Mistakes can be opportunities to learn and grow from and may be necessary in order to get better at a task. The goal is to set more realistic and attainable standards.
— Learning to let go of being in total control can help reduce the fear of not being perfect. Understand what is realistically in your control and avoid focusing too much on what is out of your control.
— Perfectionists have difficulty taking in constructive criticism. Constructive criticism can help you to learn and grow and can help you to do better.
— Rather than trying to focus on perfection, focus on what meaning you can find in what you do. You may be able to find more satisfaction and fulfillment in the task’s meaning rather than in whether it’s done perfectly.
It may take a while before you feel comfortable trying any of these things so don’t be discouraged if your anxiety about being perfect doesn’t lessen right away. Keep trying and repeating these techniques as often as you can.