Why Perfectionism Won't Make You Perfect

Interviewer: "So what are your biggest weaknesses?"

Me: "I'm a perfectionist."


If asked about our weaknesses in interviews, in the past we were taught to come up with something we perceive as a strength, but make it sound like it's a weakness, so that we don't have to expose an ACTUAL weakness. Because if we have any weaknesses, nobody would hire us, right? (or so the common belief)


But even if it sounds like a positive trait, perfectionism is in reality not a strength at all. The pressure to be perfect and the subsequent fear of failure actually makes us worse compared to when we take a more relaxed approach. Perfectionists are driven by a fear of failure, which can get in the way of performance. They might become so hung up on details or so scared of failing that they sabotage their own progress.


High achievers are driven by a potential achievement and would be happy with a good result, even if it's not perfect. Perfectionists on the other hand aim towards avoiding failure and would beat themselves up about a 99% score. So not only does perfectionism get in the way of achievement, but even if perfectionists achieve a great result, they are less satisfied with it than non-perfectionists.


Do you know anyone whose perfectionism actually made them perfect? And even if you think they look perfect from the outside - are they genuinely happy?


The tricky part is that we might not even realize we suffer from perfectionism. It's not as obvious as being super organized and color-coding your closet.


Perfectionism presents itself in a variety of feelings and behaviors:

  • people pleasing

  • being scared of negative feedback or getting defensive when receiving feedback

  • being scared of forgetting something, or the constant feeling of running behind/not doing enough

  • not starting things because you're scared you won't live up to your own expectations (procrastination)

  • a constant need for validation

  • measuring your worth by your accomplishments or productivity (we discuss this topic in detail in one of our latest articles: "How to Escape the Productivity Trap")

  • extreme focus on results

  • hating to lose

  • needing to feel in control

  • fatalistic thinking (one failure will lead to total failure)

  • obsessing over little things

If you recognized yourself in any of the above behaviors and your perfectionist tendencies cause anxiety or frustration in your life, there are some things you can try in order to change them. The goal here is to remove the need for perfection so that you can be happier and more at ease. It's important that you don't take these tips as another thing you need to be perfect at. You're already great the way you are and don't need to change, but if you are struggling with perfectionism these tips might help you feel better. Here is what helped me:


Step 1: Understand the Cause of Your Perfectionism


Like with any behavioral change, it helps to begin by understanding where your behaviors are coming from and why they developed. Perfectionism comes from an underlying belief that others will only approve of you or love you if you are flawless. And this belief likely formed throughout various situations in your childhood.

According to Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy in their book Big Feelings, like so many behaviors in our life, "perfectionism is often a response to trauma." If you felt responsible for your caretakers' feelings and often tried to manage their moods or emotions, chances are you developed perfectionist tendencies. You might have been trying to make your parents happy or get their approval by being perfect.

"Even if you grew up in a loving and supportive environment, you still may have received messages that focused on the value of achievement" and taken those to heart more than intended. For instance, if you were rewarded only for achievements and not for the effort you put in (results-focus), you might have learned that your value depends on your accomplishments, and not on the person you are.

These are only two examples of how perfectionism might have been sparked in your childhood, but there are numerous other situations that could have contributed. It helps to reflect on what might have been some contributors for you to understand your motivations behind the perfectionism.


Step 2: Become Aware


Once you understand where this perfectionism could have come from, it's time to develop an awareness for how and when it presents itself and causes challenges for you in your life. Become aware of when you feel bad about yourself and reflect on where these feelings might come from. You can go through the list above to identify the situations in your life when one of those behaviors shows up. Write down the situations that could trigger any of these perfectionist tendencies. That way you prime yourself for recognizing perfectionism even before it arises in the moment.


When you find yourself in one of those situations, just be aware of the feelings that come up and the things you tell yourself in your head. If it helps you, you can write down what you are feeling. Acknowledge that these feelings and behaviors have developed for valid reasons, but are not serving you anymore, so it's okay to change them.


Step 3: Cultivate Compassion


It's okay to stop at step 2) and simply be aware of your own tendencies. But if you want to change them, there are things you can try that might, over time, improve your inner dialogue and change your reaction to situations. I'll start with the practical tips that helped me, before going into the more complex ones.

  1. Journal. Write down your negative self-talk and feelings, and also your expectation of perfect. What would it look like if you were perfect in this situation, and would it lead you to feeling satisfied? What are you scared of in this situation that makes you strive for perfection? Write down every little thing you're proud of, and all the little "wins" and good moments you experience every day. This list will serve as a witness next time you are tearing yourself down and doubting yourself.

  2. Change your goal-setting approach. If you are one of the people who set goals and get discouraged if you don't achieve one of them, try setting intentions instead. This will put emphasis on the actions you do instead of the outcomes you are expecting yourself to achieve. I've come to realize that HOW you do things is often more important than WHAT you do. That's why I am trying to put more attention on the attitude I approach things with, and the inner peace I cultivate, instead of the material outcome I achieve.

  3. Stop procrastinating and just start. If you're struggling with procrastination, try working in the smallest possible steps. Give yourself 5 minutes to work on something you need to get done, and then allow yourself to stop. It doesn't matter if you don't finish a task, it's all about practicing to start. You don't have to get everything exactly right. It's better to get something done okay than not getting it done at all because you're scared it won't be perfect. Recognize that even small steps in the right direction will eventually get you there, even if you won't be as fast as you want to be. For instance, if you're trying to learn a new language, but you don't have the time or energy to study half an hour every day, try to study 5 minutes every day. Or 10 minutes every week. Small steps are still steps.

  4. Use social media mindfully. If you are using social media and don't want to get rid of it completely, cultivate an awareness for the feelings it brings up in you. Be aware when content is causing you to compare yourself or makes you feel like you're not good enough. Unfollow accounts that cause those feelings for you and follow people who promote or model self-compassion and awareness. The messages we consume every day really have an impact on our inner dialogue, so try to filter them for healthy and supportive ones.

  5. Recognize that you have options. If you are prone to fatalistic thinking, or all-or-nothing thinking, try to pause before going down a spiral and realize that there are more options than the one you are thinking of. You might think you have no options, but you always do. If you are stressed about a particular decision or situation, make a list of 10 different options or paths this could go. Be creative and come up with crazy ones too. The point is to show yourself that there are always different paths you can take, not just the one your mind is jumping to straight away.

  6. Get better at receiving feedback. Understand that feedback is an indication of what you can improve, not a sign of failure or personal defect. It's a reflection of your behavior, not your value as a person. No one will ever be perfect, so even the people who are the best in their field can receive feedback that would make them even better. And lastly, feedback is almost always subjective. You don't have to believe or action on all of it.

  7. Swap control with curiosity. Not everything has to go exactly how you planned it for you to be able to be happy. You can learn to be happy even if things don't work out the way you planned. Learn to become comfortable with chaos. Embrace fun and play. Instead of trying to control situations, develop a curiosity for how things will play out. Things go wrong, we can't guarantee that every day everything will go perfectly. And we don't need things to be perfect in order to be happy.

  8. Cultivate compassion for yourself. This is probably the hardest one. You'll have to become aware of your inner dialogue and the way you criticize yourself, and then replace that critical voice with a loving and supportive one. The goal is to learn to accept ourselves the way we are, and have compassion even if we're not perfect. One way to approach this is to think of your inner child. Think of your younger self, trying so hard to be perfect to get approval. Would you demand them to be perfect? Or would you be able to love them just the way they are? Another technique is to give your inner critic a name in order to distance yourself from it. Recognize it as its own entity that is trying to pressure you into being perfect. Then you can talk to it from a more compassionate place and over time your compassionate inner voice will become louder.

  9. Cultivate compassion for others. Become aware when your perfectionism is showing up in relationships with others. Are you setting unrealistic expectations for others and get frustrated if they're not met? If you are judging other people by the same unrealistic standards you set for yourself, try to recognize this as well and understand that it's not possible for everyone to live up to your expectations. But they can still be amazing friends, family, or colleagues, who enrich your life.


Were these tips helpful to you? Do you have any other recommendations for how to moderate perfectionism? Let us know in the comments!



Disclaimer:

I am not an expert, I just researched this topic from a place of personal interest. If I used incorrect terminology or expressed something incorrectly, please feel free to let me know.


Sources:

  • Big Feelings - How to Be Okay When Things Are Not Okay (Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy)

  • https://raywilliams.ca/why-perfectionism-is-so-damaging-and-what-to-do-about-it/ "Canadian psychologists Gordon L. Flett and Paul L. Hewitt studied the debilitating effects on athletes of anxiety over perfect performance. They uncovered “the perfection paradox.” “Even though certain sports require athletes to achieve perfect performance outcomes, the tendency to be cognitively preoccupied with the attainment of perfection often undermines performance.” Overconcern about mistakes orients them to failure."


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