When the word perfectionism is entered into Google’s search bar, one of the first items that comes up asks, “is perfectionism a mental disorder?” Although perfectionism is not technically considered a mental disorder, it is frequently said to be a common factor in many mental disorders.
According to a popular therapy website called Goodtherapy, perfectionism refers to “the need to be or appear to be perfect, or even to believe that it’s possible to achieve perfection”. In one way, perfectionism can actually be advantageous. That would be if it pushes us to practice our presentations and edit our work drafts until we feel confident in the results. But more often than not, perfectionism is unhealthy and usually damaging. It can make you feel as though no matter how much you try, your efforts will never be good enough. An extreme perfectionist usually sets unrealistic expectations for themselves and when they are undoubtedly not met, they feel like they are complete failures.
Some examples of unhealthy perfectionism include:
• Spending an hour writing and editing a simple text message to a friend
• Receiving a 97/100 on an exam and feeling deeply disappointed
• Avoiding playing a game for fear of not winning it
• Often comparing oneself to people who have “better” careers or make more money
• Focusing only on the results of something and not at all on the process
• Procrastinating in doing a chore or assignment out of paralyzing fear that it will not be accomplished perfectly
If you can relate to any one of these examples, you may be living from an unhealthy perfectionistic state of mind. But you are not alone, and you need not be stuck like this forever. If you can admit that any of the examples stated above, or others, related to you, then you have already recognized that your perfectionism may be hurting you. With that awareness, consider the following ten tips when you feel like you are ready to start tackling your perfectionistic mindset:
1. Practice talking back to your “inner critic” – respond to your perfectionist-oriented thoughts by saying something like, “this is not helping me, and I am not going to listen to it”.
2. Practice self-acceptance – examples of this might be waking up every morning and telling yourself what you like about yourself, or perhaps telling yourself how much you have grown through past adversity.
3. Recognize how important it is to have time off – some of our best moments in life do not come from work or school, but having downtime with friends and family, or taking a night to spend reading by yourself.
4. Practice self-care – for example, you might want to set boundaries between your professional and personal life, establish a healthy sleep routine, and/or make time to participate in hobbies.
5. Set more realistic goals before starting something – you can break down a major goal or objective into smaller, more attainable goals. For example, if your goal is to get into a certain college, a realistic small goal for this larger one could be to talk to your teachers about what you need to do to improve your overall grade and then fulfill whatever extra credit work that process might entail.
6. Practice being ‘bad’ at something – Draw a picture and make it dramatically terrible or write a poem that does not make any sense. When you are done, sit with your feelings and recognize how much criticism your brain is putting you through. When you are ready, tell yourself that “skills need to be built, and perfection is impossible.”
7. Ask for help – Not a single person has gotten through life without help from other people. If you are feeling stuck or overwhelmed by paralyzing perfectionism, it is okay and even healthy for you to talk about your feelings with people you trust. You can start by texting a friend, calling a family member, or even reaching out to speak with a mental health professional.
8. Celebrate the effort, not the outcome – You could put your full effort into something, and it can still produce a poor outcome. Focus on how hardworking you are, despite the unfortunate results. You deserve to celebrate the time, effort, and energy that you put into whatever it is that you were working on, because you still learned a lot and did not waiver on your standards.
9. Think about how many times your perfectionism has helped you vs. how often perfectionism has hurt you – Chances are, if you are being honest with yourself, you will find that perfectionism has been way more of a weapon than a tool. You may realize that holding yourself to unachievable standards does not help you. Hopefully, you’ll become more aware of when your perfectionism is kicking in and simply say to yourself, “this is not helping; let me be more realistic about what I can do”.
10. Think about the people you love and ask yourself, “Are they perfect?” Then ask yourself, “Do I love them anyway and think they are amazing?” – Nobody is perfect. Striving for an impossible goal can get in the way of learning to enjoy the beautiful imperfections in life. Keep reminding yourself that being loved is not a feeling that stems from being perfect.
Ultimately, it is important to remember that you did nothing ‘wrong’ to make yourself a perfectionist. There is no shame in wanting to be the best version of yourself. So being that ‘best’ version should never have to include the thought that you need to be perfect to be valuable. Focusing less on perfection from yourself or others will make life much less stressful!
For further reading:
Brown, B. (2022). Gifts of imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be And Embrace Who You Are. Timeline Publishing
Ben-Shahar, T. (2009). The pursuit of perfect: Stop chasing perfection and find your path to lasting happiness! McGraw-Hill.
Carter, D. (2019). How to stop perfectionism from ruining your art. Creative Bloq. Retrieved January 28, 2022, from https://www.creativebloq.com/advice/how-to-stop-perfectionism-from-ruining-your-art
Davies, L. (2022). Perfectionism in children. The Center for Parenting Education. Retrieved January 28, 2022, from https://centerforparentingeducation.org/library-of-articles/school-and-learning-issues/perfectionism-in-children/
Guise, S. (2015). How to be an imperfectionist: The new way to self-acceptance, fearless living, and freedom from perfectionism. Selective Entertainment.