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Recovering from Perfectionism

Recovering from Perfectionism

By Terri Flint, PhD, LCSW

Nov 21, 2018

Updated Jul 13, 2023

5 min read

Recovering from Perfectionism

What is perfectionism?

While perfection is a noble aim, the daily experience of being a perfectionist thinker can be miserable. Perfectionism is the strong belief that anything short of perfection is negative, and that even minor mistakes are unacceptable. It involves a tendency to set standards that are so high they cannot be met or are only met with great difficulty.

The price of perfectionism is a constant feeling of self-judgement and anxiety about failing or not being good enough. The result is often not being willing to try a new behavior if it can’t be done perfectly.

For example, a person may want to exercise, but because they don’t have time to do 150 minutes of exercise in the week, they don’t do anything. However, they feel guilty when they are reminded of the importance of physical activity, and feel shameful when they compare themselves to others who they think “must” be perfect in this behavior.

Ultimately, perfectionist thinking can be toxic to one’s health and mental health.

A more realistic view of perfectionism

Success oriented people strive for perfection, but they simultaneously practice self-compassion with a realistic view of the improvement process. They understand that the journey towards perfection is filled with trials and errors and lots and lots of practice. Rather than feeling ashamed or embarrassed by mistakes, they value the learning that comes from failing. They demonstrate courage as they persist and persevere in doing hard things.

What contributes to perfectionism?

Role models
Growing up around perfectionists can influence the belief that perfection is the only means by which you are loved or accepted. Maybe you heard messages such as, “That isn’t good enough.” “Why did you make that mistake?” “Go big or go home.”

Comparing yourself to others who “seem” perfect can confirm your belief that you’re not good enough. Social media has made this practice easier and more dangerous.

Using labels that convey all-or-nothing thinking or permanent conditions are evidence of a perfectionist. “I’m a good cook.” “I’m a bad cook.” What do these labels mean? Is every meal good? Is every meal bad? Try being more specific with a statement like, “I made a fabulous meatloaf.” Or “I love trying new recipes regardless of how they turn out.”

You’re trying to be more perfect or better than the person next to you.

There are many idealistic messages about perfection around us, e.g. be ye therefore perfect, zero fatalities, zero debt. These goals set the direction we want to go. Yet the means to get there is messy and imperfect.

While you may never achieve perfection (realistically), your success is the progress you make and the courage you demonstrate in not giving up. Success is also having fun and learning other things along the way.

When did we change our view of falling down?

What happens when a baby learns to walk? The baby takes a small step, stumbles, and falls. We clap and cheer at their small step and help them stand up with positive voices of encouragement and joy. This process is repeated until the baby masters the skill of walking.

As observers, we’re patient and loving and we’re confident that the baby will master this skill through trial and error, as long as they don’t give up.

If we were to apply perfectionism to this same situation, it would sound like this: “You only took one step – what’s wrong with you? You need to take at least 7,000 steps every day. Only losers fall down. Don’t you know people are watching YOU. You’re just embarrassing yourself and your parents. If you can’t do this right, maybe you should just quit.

Sobering, eh?

Self-compassion is the antidote to perfectionism

The antidote to toxic perfectionism is practicing self-compassion. Through self-compassion, we give ourselves permission to be human along our journey toward perfection. Here are 7 suggestions and examples to help adjust perfectionistic thinking to be more realistic and kind.

  1. Accept and love yourself for who you are right now. Consider what you would hear if a speaker played your self-talk aloud. Would it be kind, patient, and encouraging? You’re more likely to succeed with self-compassion than self-criticism.
    I really have been hard on myself about not getting enough physical activity. I think I’m comparing myself to when I was younger and could easily find time to exercise 30 minutes to an hour every day. I need to accept that my life is different now and be more realistic with myself.
  2. Experiment with small steps and you will discover they are the only way to achieve big goals. When you look back at past successes, you’ll discover that it was always by a series of small steps.
    Realistically, I can start by walking around my building one time during my lunch break. I have some anxiety about making this step so small, but it’s a start, right?
  3. Celebrate the small step. Give yourself credit for trying and not giving up.
    Hey, I wasn’t perfect last week, but I did do the walk 3 times, and it felt good. By setting my goal to do just one time around the building, I was able to relax and enjoy the time away from my desk.
  4. Try for consistency with the small step before you take a larger step. Be patient as you become proficient with the small step before taking a bigger one.
    My perfectionistic voice wants to beat myself up for not walking every day. It tells me I should walk for 30 minutes because 5 minutes won’t do any good. Yet, my experience was positive with 5 minutes. I’ll stick with a 5 minute walk because it’s better to do something small than nothing at all. Hey, that phrase could be helpful to remember.
  5. Reverse your thinking about failure. Falling or failing is the means by which we learn new things. It’s never the reason to stop trying.
    I wasn’t perfect with walking 5 days a week. Yet, I learned new things from my experiment. I discovered that I don’t have a lunchtime every day. Sometimes I’m in a meeting, or driving to a meeting. I need a backup plan on those days. Meanwhile, I’ll be sure to walk when I’m available.
  6. Compare yourself only with yourself.
    I see other people taking longer walks than I take. Some even run during their lunchtime. It would be easy for me to feel discouraged and quit because they exercise more than I am. On the other hand, I’m off to a great start. I feel good about my progress. I just need to keep up my good work.
  7. Ask for help from others who can help you improve. You never have to do it by yourself.
    I’m making progress being more kind to myself and giving myself credit for what I do. Yet, I could use some help when it comes to confronting a family member who is very critical of me. I think I’ll talk to my friends for some ideas on how to respond to them.

In Japan, when a piece of valued pottery breaks, instead of tossing the pieces in the trash, craftsmen practice the 500-year-old art of kintsugi, or “golden joinery.” This method restores broken pottery with a lacquer that is mixed with gold, silver, or platinum, resulting in a new imperfect piece that is highly valued. This practice is interwoven with the philosophy of wabi-sabi, which means, “to find beauty in imperfection.”

Recovering from perfectionistic thinking is not easy, but can be eased with we find peace and beauty with our own imperfections. This acceptance frees to move forward by taking risks, learning and growing from our mistakes, and letting go of the shame and blame of being imperfect.