Perfectionism & Helpful Tips to Begin Working Against this Common Mindset
By: Dr. Jeff Zeidenberg,
ND, RP (qualifying), MACP (cand.)
Recently, I felt inspired to discuss my experience with perfectionism. I am fortunate to work with many individuals, who struggle with similar issues. Reaching high levels of success and self-confidence is what drives many of us, but it can be quite damaging when this need to achieve and perform flawlessly interferes with obtaining actual wants and desires. While being a “perfectionist” can be
beneficial and motivating at times, it can also be debilitating, and has been linked to the development of mental health issues including generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)1. My overall desire and hope to be perfect at whatever I engage in has impacted many aspects of my life. While setting higher personal standards has had its payoffs, it has also provoked strong feelings of anxiety, low self-worth and avoidance behaviours. I hope that by sharing this story I may encourage others who struggle with this common way of thinking. Know you are not alone, and to reach out for assistance and guidance.
I wasn’t an athlete, a drama major or a musician but I did one thing well; Academics.
I found both high school and university to be challenging. I had supportive parents, good friends, and enjoyed learning, but silently suffered with a high-degree of anxiety and low self-esteem. I struggled to find an identity, outside of academics. This was because, as a student I felt capable of achieving my goals and received positive feedback when I did. I quickly believed this would be my “recipe to success” and a means to gain acceptance from others. I wanted to avoid any potential criticism and channelled all my energy into becoming a model student. Truthfully, I needed the “best grades possible” to avoid experiencing self-doubt and disappointment from my harshest critic, myself.
This “all or nothing” form of thinking gradually generalized into a strong belief that “making mistakes means I’m worthless”. Ultimately, it became my goal to never let anyone know that I had made any academic mistakes. I didn’t want to experience disapproval or failure from any instructor and felt it would disappoint my friends.
What would happen if I ever submitted something that indicated to another person that I was not perfect?? I never once questioned the reality of my thinking back then. It was the only way I knew how to operate and get through high school and later, university. I remember feeling that I had failed myself and my parents, upon receiving any exam deemed to be less than perfectly completed. I should note that my parents never put any academic pressure upon me and at times were annoyed with my need to achieve and self-criticism. Similarly, my friends seemed perplexed as to why I was all-consumed with my grades and would encourage me to do a “half-assed job”. I just couldn’t do it.
Ironically, as I was trying to implement more control, things felt increasingly out of control…
Since it served me well in my academic life, I naturally went forward applying this way of thinking to every outside situation imaginable. I was trying to be considered perfect in many different contexts. Socially, I felt I could make others happier by agreeing and being easy-going. I avoided conflict, at all costs. I was trying to be the perfect student, son, friend and overall, human being.
For me, perfectionism led to feelings of shame whenever I didn’t succeed in any effort. I dealt with overwhelming feelings of failure and guilt upon receiving any grade, less than “perfect”. I would beat myself up and think “I should have done more”. It permeated into my relationships with others, my ability to set achievable goals, and limited how much I enjoyed the present moment and previous accomplishments.
I would constantly feel like I let people down socially, by not being the perfect listener and/or friend. I rarely felt successful and would be stuck ruminating about the times “I failed myself”. I often avoided social opportunities and events, irrationally fearing that others would see “my flaws” and think less of me.
After many years of suffering and much hesitation, I have begun to tackle my perfectionistic desires. In doing so, I had to come to make some acceptances and examine how my individualized need for perfection was impacting my quality of life. While being a perfectionist seemed like a fool-proof plan, it ended up being detrimental and is now something I monitor daily. Perhaps even more shockingly, I have become aware that everyone knew I wasn’t perfect all along, yikes!! ☺
Tips on Tackling Perfectionism
Here are some general tips to begin coping with perfectionism in a manner that promotes realistic workability and self-compassion.
1. Make the Acknowledgment
Say, “I have a tendency to aim for absolute perfection” Or “I like to be perfect and I never make mistakes”
We all know rationally, nobody is perfect. Therefore, making this statement out loud and repeatedly, can be helpful in acknowledging and identifying any non-realistic and problematic patterns of thinking. While it seems odd at first, I encourage it to be said with a kind attitude and in a factual sense. Perfectionism does NOT define you and is NOT a bad thing, but it is a difficult way of live. In order for an individual to work on issues related to perfectionism, they must initially begin to perceive and acknowledge that they may benefit from making changes2.
By increasing my self-awareness through acknowledgment with compassion, I became aware of many well-established ambitious personal goals and self-expectations. By setting these usually non-realistic goals, I put myself in a cycle of shame and low-worth. As a result, I felt much personal failure and failed to recognize the goals I had achieved.
2. Express & Normalize those Perfectionistic Thoughts
If I could do it over again, I would have disclosed my perfectionistic struggles to friends and loved ones long ago. By doing so, I may have been introduced earlier to the notion that we all struggle and that many of us can relate to having perfectionistic goals or tendencies. Our minds have evolved to become problem-solvers; as such, we are always driven by the need to improve ourselves and typically experience different unpleasant emotions (anger, guilt, shame, frustration, etc.), when we do not meet personal standards.
Understanding that these emotions are normal and part of the human experience, makes them more tolerable. We cannot control our emotions, but we can control our behaviours/reactions around them. Unfortunately, these types of thoughts do not magically go away. As far as your mind goes, it knows there is an area to improve in and as such, one will experience related thoughts and emotions. It is what we actually do with these inevitable thoughts and emotions that is important.
3. Avoid Becoming Fixed on Thoughts and Instead, Accept
The inevitable thoughts related to perfectionism will pop into one’s mind. There were many times that I would try to distract myself from such thoughts, to no avail. Instead of engaging in avoiding and possibly harmful escape methods, one can actually gain a great deal of personal strength from accepting these thoughts3. Begin to experience thoughts as nothing more than that, a thought. It is the power we attach to these thoughts that matter! When these thoughts creep us, greet them factually with “oh yes there is my thought about having to be perfect”. This will help reinforce this thought as a common occurrence but also just background noise, that does NOT have to be listened to.
4. Is Perfectionism Helping you Achieve your Goals?
Has your perfectionistic mindset served you well? Ask yourself;
Is it creating obstacles?
Is it allowing you to behave in accordance with your values?
Is it influencing your actions and behaviour towards yourself/others?
5. Set Realistic Daily Goals and Create a Schedule
Many whom live with perfectionistic tendencies and compulsions often find themselves “stuck” and unable to be productive. In order to avoid becoming debilitated, I suggest designing a schedule that encourages flexibility. Since a “perfectionist” can spend a great deal of time on one task, they will likely benefit from having a schedule that doesn’t allow for this. In fact, the unpredictable and sometimes chaotic nature of life suggests we would ALL benefit from being able to multi-task and avoid rumination.
It is best we learn how to adapt and practice resiliency. The goals we set are ideally flexible, realistic, and include much self-compassion! If a goal is not achieved, it’s important we understand why this was the case, rather than write ourselves off as being a failure and unable to set/follow steps towards achieving goals.
I personally have found it helpful to set SMART goals, as they take the focus away from the overall goal and instead make the process of achieving a challenging goal doable and perhaps even fun!!
(S= Specific goals, M= Measurable goals, A= Attainable goals (based in realism), R= Relevant goals, T = Time-based goals)
The moral of the story is to continue to persevere and work hard with the understanding that things will never be or seem perfect. It is not supposed to be and while that can be a difficult concept to accept, it is a universal truth of the human experience. All of us can think of something in our lives that could be improved or modified to better our quality of life.
Everyone has their own issues and struggles with perfectionism and will find different approaches of treatment helpful. Regardless, everyone should monitor for the presence of perfectionistic tendencies to examine if they are interfering with personal, occupational and social goals.
Was this first blog perfect? Nope and that’s okay ☺
Curran, T., & Hill, A.P. (2019) Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time: A Meta-Analysis of Birth Cohort Differences From 1989 to 2016. American Psychological Association. Psychological Bulletin. Vol. 145 (4). Pp. 410-429.
Newendorp, T. (2018). The Perfectionism Workbook: Proven Strategies to End Procrastination Accept Yourself and Achieve Your Goals. Althea Press. USA.
Harris, R. (2019). ACT Made Simple: Second Edition. Harbinger Publications. USA.