Challenges of Perfectionism

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Dealing with Perfectionism

We live in a very competitive world. Comparisons are an inherent part of competition.  We compare ourselves to people we know. We compare ourselves to people we don’t know. We compare our current selves to previous versions of our selves. We compare ourselves to the ideal person we strive to be.  As our society has become increasingly competitive over the last few decades, so has our tendency to strive for perfectionism. For some, perfectionism has become akin to success, where someone believes that the more “perfect” they are, the more success they will experience.

What Is Perfectionism?

Perfectionism is an intense need or drive to avoid failure or criticism.  Perfectionism can be isolated to just one or two areas of someone’s life (such as appearance, grades, or completing select tasks), or it can spread across many areas. Perfectionism takes the concept of healthy striving to an extreme, where there is no room for error.   

Perfectionism is not the same as healthy striving. With healthy striving, you aim to do your best and recognize growth as part of the process. With perfectionism, there is no room for error and no room for growth.  Perfection indicates finality – a finished product; however, as humans, we are constantly growing and changing.

Where Does Perfectionism Come From?

Everyone is unique so there is no one answer to this question. While there may be a tendency to attribute the rise in perfectionism to social media, the rise in perfectionism in society has deeper roots and has been instilled at a young age for the last three decades. Sometimes it grows out of a parent’s own perfectionism and their expectations for their child. Other times, parents inadvertently instill a message of perfectionism when trying to give their child skills and advantages to prepare them to survive in an increasingly competitive world.

Is It Okay To Be A Perfectionist?

When perfectionism is limited to a single task or a activity, it can be motivating. For example, someone may try to draw a perfectly straight line, want to buy the “perfect” gift for someone they love, or strive to get a task “just right.” However, when taken to the extreme, and spanning across multiple situations, perfectionism can actually serve as a barrier toward achieving goals and have detrimental effects on mental health and functioning. Someone with perfectionistic tendencies can have self-defeating thoughts and behaviors that get in the way of achieving goals, while someone who consistently tries their best can appreciate their achievements while recognizing that there is room for growth.  Perfectionism can lead to a range of mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, and eating disorders.

With perfectionistic tendencies, someone has little tolerance for settling for anything less and often live in fear of failure. Staying in this state for an extended period can lead to anxiety. Perfectionism can also be tied to self-worth as well as a tendency to focus on anything that fails to meet certain standards.  Chronically focusing on falling short of standards can lead to diminished self-worth and depression.  Eating disorders are another potential risk of perfectionism, particularly when perfectionism is projected onto one’s physical appearance.  Perfectionism can also affect work and relationships. It can be difficult to complete tasks or even make decisions when someone is focused on everything being just right.

Signs of Perfectionism

Here are some signs chronic perfectionism:

  •   Not seeing tasks as completed until they meet your standards. 
  •  Focusing solely on the outcome of an activity or task, rather than the process of learning, making or doing something.
  •  Procrastinating in doing a task because you don’t want to start until you know you can complete it perfectly.
  • Taking longer to complete tasks because you are so focused on making every detail perfect. 
  • Not feeling a sense of pride in things you accomplish.

How to Stop Being a Perfectionist

If you struggle with perfectionism, here are some ways to break the pattern:

  • Break tasks down into small parts. Give yourself time limits to complete small tasks and stick to them.
  • Challenge your thinking.  If your self-talk includes words such as “should”, take it a step further and ask yourself “why.”
  • Think about the impact and potential consequences of not completing certain tasks perfectly. Identify ones where the stakes are low and think through (or experiment with) what would happen if the end result was “good enough” rather than perfect.
  • Focus on the process and the positives and learning that came out of the process.
  • Learn how to receive criticism.
  • Remember that perfectionism is not the same as striving to do your best.  
  • Consider therapy if perfectionistic tendencies are significantly interfering with your work, relationships, happiness, or wellbeing.