In psychology circles, perfectionism is typically characterized by striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high standards, accompanied by overly critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others’ evaluations.
Perfectionism has an entirely different feel than the more pure mindset of striving to do our best. Perfectionists are motivated by a fear of failure, a deficit orientation—“What will they think?” Those with a healthy desire to do well are fueled by a more positive orientation—“How can I improve?” Healthy strivers take pleasure in the process of pursuing the task at hand whereas perfectionists are obsessed with the end result.
When perfectionists experience disapproval or failure, they usually see it as an affront to their entire self-worth. For perfectionists life feels like an endless report card. What makes this lifestyle so toxic is the “A’s” don’t provide as much of an emotional lift over time—“A’s” are expected—and yet a single “B” amidst a string of “A’s” can be devastating. Perfectionists will obsess over the one “failure” while giving themselves little if any room to celebrate their successes. This is why perfectionism is often accompanied by depression.
Perfectionism appears to have a temporary upside in that it can drive people to great accomplishments and provide the internal motivation to persevere through tough obstacles. But this kind of relentless pursuit of perfection left unchecked can have dire consequences in the form of increased stress, damaged relationships, poor health, and psychological conditions including eating disorders and OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder).
Fortunately there are some effective tools and techniques that can help mitigate perfectionistic tendencies. Here are five that I have found particularly helpful:
1) Become more task-oriented rather than just result-oriented. Focus on the process of doing an activity not just on the end result. Evaluate your success not only in terms of what you accomplished but also in terms of how much you enjoyed the process and what you learned along the way.
2) Confront the fears that are behind your perfectionism by asking yourself, “What am I afraid of? What is the worst thing that could happen if it does not work out perfectly…or if I fail entirely? If I am successful, what is the upside?” As you consider both sides of the ledger, you will often realize that the worst case scenario is not that bad, and the best case scenario is not that big of a deal either. This realization can help take unnecessary weight off your shoulders.
3) Set realistic, reachable goals based on your own capabilities and what you have accomplished in the past. Break the goal down into smaller bite-size tasks. How do you eat an elephant? We take one bite at a time. Remember to celebrate the progress you make along the way. Noticing and celebrating your milestones will help motivate you to reach the goal while at the same time lead to a greater sense of self-esteem.
4) Avoid “all-or-nothing” thinking. Remember, one mistake does not mean you are a total failure.
5) Embrace mistakes by recognizing that many positive things can only be learned by making mistakes. Mistakes often teach us precious, rare lessons that can’t be acquired by success. When you make a mistake ask, “What can I learn from this experience?”
These five practices will help you avoid the pitfalls of perfectionism…and make life more enjoyable!
John's passion is in helping people get unstuck so they can experience their true potential. Before starting his own practice he spent 16 years coaching, consulting, and presenting to Fortune 500 companies, teams, and individuals on how to breakthrough their barriers and magnify their talents.