What’s the difference? Perfectionists are hypersensitive to imperfection, weakness, and failing. They believe their acceptance and lovability is a function of never making mistakes – they deeply struggle with the thought of good enough. It is all or nothing thinking. Perfectionists set unrealistically high standards and evaluate their and others behavior by them.
Perfectionism sounds like this: “People will think less of me if I make a mistake.” “I hate being less than the best at things.” “My parents expected (or demanded) excellence from me.” “Organization is very important to me.”
Perfectionists are driven by the fear of making mistakes, disapproval, and ultimately failure.
Most of us have an inner drive to do our best and to not make mistakes. Healthy striving means setting standards that are high but within reach. There is enjoyment the process as well as the outcome and they bounce back quickly from failure or disappointment. Healthy strivers see making mistakes as opportunities for growth and learning – there is an open and positive reaction to helpful criticism.
“Many people think of perfectionism as striving to be your best, but it is not about self-improvement; it’s about earning approval and acceptance.” – Brené Brown
Perfectionism is like handcuffs on an Olympic swimmer – restricting effective propulsion through the water. Healthy striving is about enjoying life’s journey by discovering what we like to do and how we like to do it.
To see if you may struggle with perfectionism, answer the following questions or take this quiz.
- Do I have trouble meeting my own standards?
- Do I often feel frustrated, anxious, angry or depressed while trying to meet my standards?
- Have I been told that my standards are too high?
- Do my standards get in the way? Make it hard to meet deadlines, finish a task, to trust others, or do anything spontaneously?
The good news is that there is help for us perfectionists!
Here are some strategies to help overcome perfectionistic tendencies:
- Make a list of the advantages and disadvantages of trying to be perfect. When you list the cost and benefits you may find that the costs are too great. While going through this process, you may uncover challenges you are having with relationships, workaholism, or possibly compulsive behaviors. The nice thing is that you get to be the judge of what actions you want to keep, tweak, or pitch.
- Increase your awareness of the self-critical nature of your all or nothing thoughts and how they extend to other people in your life. Learn how to substitute more realistic, reasonable thoughts for the habitual critical ones. When you find yourself criticizing a less than perfect performance (yours or someone else’s), make yourself stop and think about the good parts of that performance. Then ask yourself questions: Is it really as bad as I felt it was? How do other people see it? What was good about the performance?
- Be realistic about what you can do. By setting realistic goals, you will gradually realize that “imperfect” results do not lead to the punitive consequences you expected or feared.
- Reframe your thoughts. Replace self-critical thoughts with more helpful statements. These thoughts need to be practiced so they can become a habit. Tell yourself – No one is perfect. Making a mistake doesn’t mean that I’m a failure. It’s okay to not be pleasant all the time – no one is liked by everyone.
- Set strict time limits on each of your projects. When the time is up, move onto another activity. This technique reduces the procrastination that typically results from perfectionism.
- Keep the big picture in mind. Perfectionists tend to get bogged down in the details and spend a lot of time worrying about the little things. Ask yourself the following questions when you’re stuck in the mini-details:
- Does it really matter?
- What is the worst that could happen?
- If the worst does happen, can I survive it?
- Will this still matter tomorrow? How about next week? Next year?
- Set realistic standards. Lowering your standards doesn’t mean having no standards. The goal is not to make you become careless in life and perform poorly. Realistic standards can help you to do your best without costing the things that may be important to you such as family life, physical and mental health, and leisure time. Make a list of the pros and cons of lowering your standards. What are the costs of holding onto overly high standards? Keeping these costs in mind will help you to take the steps towards changing.
- Learn how to deal with criticism. Perfectionists often view criticism as a personal attack, which leads them to respond defensively. Concentrate on being more objective about the criticism, and about yourself. Remind yourself that if you stop making mistakes, you also stop learning and growing. Remember that criticism is a natural thing from which to learn, rather than something to be avoided at all costs.
“Healthy striving is self focused and asks, ‘How can I improve?’ Perfectionism is other-focused and asks, ‘What will others think?” – Brené Brown