People with perfectionistic tendencies are usually aware of the fact that their perfectionism contributes to their suffering, that their stringent rules create experiences of failure almost by definition. But something happens when perfectionism and anxiety have always been accompanied by goal striving. The two get conflated. You might think you need that merciless perfectionism to be productive. Some feel that if they were to loosen their grasp on their perfectionism, they’d never have a worthwhile achievement again. The perfectionism seems like the engine of every success, and as a result, it grows.
Comparing ourselves to others can maintain perfectionism. Perceptions of others are at best an incomplete story. We know everything about ourselves, including the less shiny stuff. We then compare ourselves to what we can see about others whom we admire at a distance, seeing all of their shiny stuff and none of their struggle. There is an even bigger problem with perfectionism: you’ve lost before you’ve even begun. My work brings me into contact with individuals who are accomplished and even exceptional, and not once has that exceptionality and excellence translated into perfection. That’s because perfection is an impossibility.
Perfectionism may have fueled goal striving, but it’s also costly in every sense of the word. Practicing a talk for five hours will lead to improved performance, but will that performance be significantly better than if you practiced for one hour? Accomplishments can feel less triumphant because it seems the effort required is so much more effort than others need to put forth. Things that could be completed in half the time take twice as long. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy talks about the “bigger, faster, better, harder” mentality that fuels our chasing an impossibility. We can lose touch with what we care about. Sometimes, we are aware of the futility of the struggle for perfectionism. In these cases, perfectionism can fuel behavioral avoidance. We won’t engage in an activity that would potentially bring us vitality because we know if the goal is perfection, we’ve already failed. Instead, our repertoire narrows to areas of clear mastery, and we further shrink what we are allowed to do and be.
You can be exceptional at whatever it is that you care to do and you will always be imperfect at it. In that imperfection is every satisfaction you’ve ever had. Imperfection not only facilitates growth, it is necessary for growth. Your sense of meaning and creativity lives there, in that place of challenge between what comes easily now and what you are working towards.
Here are some suggestions to address perfectionism:
Select an area that feels relatively low-stakes for you and play with letting your imperfect self shine through.
Make small mistakes on purpose in the service of growing as a person, teaching you that they are survivable, or saving your time or energy.
Try something you do not have a natural talent for, something novel that would appeal to you except for the fact that you’re not great at it. For instance, think bowling if spatial reasoning is not your strong suit, improv if you expend a lot of energy coming across “just right” in interactions, or painting if you can barely manage drawing a stick figure.
Reduce checking behaviors & stop overdoing it. Send an email after proofing it quickly and only once. Make small decisions quickly. Choose a meal at a restaurant in under 5 minutes. Don’t check your appearance after getting ready; just leave the house.
Remember, what we see on social media is highly curated and is not the whole story. Also, passive social media use, or just scrolling through people’s posts without commenting, is tied to lower well-being, likely because we end up focusing on how we compare to others (Verduyn et al., 2017). If you’re not actively checking in on friends and commenting on their posts, it might be better to take a social media break.
Be compassionate towards yourself. To experiment with a different perspective, ask yourself, “If someone I love and respect were in my shoes, what would I say to them about this?” (Greenberger & Padesky, 1995)
Our minds often engage in misguided attempts to protect us from discomfort. Treat the judgments and discomfort that arrive when trying a novel strategy as an expected and temporary part of creating the positive change you’d like to see. If it were easy, it would already be done (Harris, 2013).
Consider your goals for the situation. Consider whether a "perfect" outcome is actually what you need. Would a "good enough" effort lead to the same outcome and save time?
Remind yourself what you could access if you weren’t beholden to perfectionism. Maybe it’s more time, a greater sense of self worth, increased spontaneity, or trying new things.
Be patient with yourself. Implementing these strategies will get easier over time.
Nehjla Mashal, PhD
If you are interested in learning about more strategies to ease suffering and live well, please contact Pacific Anxiety Group at (650) 762-8352 to find out more about our services. Pacific Anxiety Group has offices in San Francisco, Menlo Park, and Los Altos. www.pacificanxietygroup.com
Nehjla Mashal is the founder of Moxie and Candor, an online lifestyle magazine.
Egan, S. J., Wade, T. D., & Shafran, R. (2011). Perfectionism as a transdiagnostic process: A clinical review. Clinical psychology review, 31(2), 203-212.
Greenberger, D., & Padesky, C. A. (1995). Mind over Mood: a cognitive therapy treatment manual for clients. Guilford press.
Harris, R. (2013). Getting unstuck in ACT: A clinician's guide to overcoming common obstacles in acceptance and commitment therapy. New Harbinger Publications.
Harris, R. The happiness trap: how to stop struggling and start living. 2008. Trumpeter, Boston, 27.
Shafran, R., Egan, S., & Wade, T. (2018). Overcoming Perfectionism: A self-help guide using scientifically supported cognitive behavioural techniques. Robinson.
Verduyn, P., Ybarra, O., Résibois, M., Jonides, J., & Kross, E. (2017). Do social network sites enhance or undermine subjective well‐being? A critical review. Social Issues and Policy Review, 11(1), 274-302.