To understand how to manage perfectionism, you first need to know what drives it. Usually, we wind up as a perfectionist when this behavior is modeled regularly by our parents or loved ones; when they consistently push us to be perfect.
It’s important to recognize that, in most cases, they wanted us to do well because they love us. Most likely, they had no idea that trying to shape us into flawless beings could possibly do us any harm.
How to deal with being a perfectionist
Here are some steps to take to recognize and deal with being a perfectionist:
1.) Observe this tendency in yourself.
Carefully observe your behavior. You’ll need to do this for a while in various situations to get a full picture of the extent of your perfectionism.
Check your conduct at work, at home, with your children, or in any setting where you think you might be setting too high standards.
If you pay close attention, you’ll note an inner sense that you need to keep doing something to get it right. You feel as if you can’t stop if you don’t. You might also notice that you keep driving yourself in the hopes of getting approval.
If this happens a lot, you likely have strong perfectionist tendencies. If you go for gold in only one or two areas of your life, you might have things just right. This may mean that you’re selective about when you put your time and effort. Plus, most perfectionists are already aware that they have this trait.
2.) Understand how you developed this trait.
Think back to your childhood and ask yourself some questions: Were either of my parents – or anyone else who played a major part in my upbringing – a perfectionist? What was the overall atmosphere of my childhood in reference to doing things right? Was there a competitive feeling in the family? Did the people around you value perfection over other qualities?
Here are more questions to ask yourself: What happened when I didn’t do things perfectly? Of course, perfection translates into what your parents thought was perfect or acceptable. When you didn’t do something just so, did your parents express grave disappointment or anger at you?
Were you pushed beyond your natural abilities or compared to others? Did they punish you? Were you shamed, teased, or humiliated? Did your parents withdraw love when you did anything in less than a stellar way? Were you left feeling not good enough?
3.) Evaluate your childhood experience whenever you felt bad or wrong.
Many people become perfectionists because anything less makes them feel as if they’re bad or wrong. As a child, especially if your parents were intolerant of mistakes or failure, that feeling was just about the worst thing that could happen to you (particularly if it happened regularly). Perfectionism is a learned trait that we’re conditioned to pursue for adaptive reasons.
Maybe you kept trying to hit a home run, ace geometry, play the piano, ski down the black diamond trails, or take first place in spelling contests because you didn’t want to fail. As children, it’s normal to be desperate for praise and approval. That desperation often becomes an ingrained habit that morphs into perfectionism.
Ask yourself what the opposite of achieving perfection is. People usually say failure is accompanied by shame or humiliation. In most cases, being afraid of making mistakes and letting others down is what leads to being a perfectionist.
4.) Identify your beliefs about mistakes and failure.
To manage your perfectionist mindset, make a list of stuff you believe about mistakes and failure, such as:
- I shouldn’t make mistakes.
- Mistakes can be avoided if I try hard enough.
- Failure is a terrible thing, to be avoided at all cost.
- If I’m not perfect, I’m a failure.
- I always need to try my hardest or give it my best shot.
- I must be perfect to be lovable and loved.
Would you be surprised to learn that none of the above statements are true? No one can live without making mistakes and failing occasionally. They are a normal part of life. Accepting this truth will go a long way toward reframing your attitude towards perfection.
5.) Re-frame wrong beliefs.
Here are some beliefs about mistakes and failure. Notice how you feel as you read through them:
- Everyone makes mistakes and I’m no different.
- The world won’t fall apart if I make a mistake or fail; I just need to try my hardest.
- Failure is normal and cannot be avoided.
- I can do something imperfectly without failing at it.
- Excelling at everything is not necessary; I can choose when and where if I wanted to.
- I’m lovable and deserve to be loved as a flawed human being.
Did any of these statements sound wrong to you? If so, you may have been wrongly indoctrinated on the subject of making mistakes. That’s maybe one of the reasons why you’re a perfectionist today.
6.) Forget about always doing your best.
My father brought me up according to the adage, “Good, better, best, never let it rest, ‘til the good is better and the better is the best”. I spent half a lifetime shedding that unhelpful piece of advice (though I have absolutely no doubt that my loving father meant well). My guess is that, he was raised with similar expectations. As a highly competent, successful man, he never questioned it.
You don’t need to be perfect at anything or everything. Why not start from the premise that you’re going to do some things well in your life and some things poorly? That you have strengths and weaknesses just like the rest of us. That your success or failure has absolutely nothing to do with your value as a human being.
In this regard, you won’t misinterpret what ‘doing poorly’ means. Of course, you might still wish to shine in some aspects. But doing poorly shouldn’t define your worth, or affect your self-esteem.
7.) Stop measuring yourself against perfection.
If we measure every aspect of ourselves against some perfect ideal, we’ll be pretty bummed out nearly all the time. Considering that humans are imperfect beings and that we can’t control the universe, how can we insist that whatever we’re engaged in—parenting a child, giving a speech, or taking a vacation—must be a complete success?
Whenever humans are involved, we need to toss out the concept of ‘flawless’ and get real. ‘Real’ means having flaws, faults, frailties, and defects. It means ‘good enough’ – and often, only the best we can do at any given time.
8.) Decide how well you wish to do at certain activities.
When you try to do everything well, you’re setting yourself up for stress and exhaustion. We’ll soon run out of steam if we try to do our best at everything. But who says that we need to?
Mental and physical energy is not infinite. They can get depleted when we try too hard. When that happens, we look for quick fixes in food or alcohol. We may become irritable with others. Or in frustration, we could chuck whatever we’re trying to do and give up.
Consider this: What if you didn’t try to do everything perfectly? The advantage of this mindset, to which I wholly subscribe, is that you would then have enough energy to do the important things with excellence.
Try this: divide tasks into categories of Excellent, Good, Fair, or Poor. When I work with perfectionist clients on reducing their all-or-nothing mindset, I suggest they imagine baskets with these labels on them. After which, they should determine which tasks go in which basket.
For example, my ‘Excellent’ basket contains doing my best as a wife, friend, and being a good therapist to my clients. I want to do a ‘Good’ job as a writer, and with being politically active in my community. I’m content to be a ‘Fair’ housekeeper, cook, and bookkeeper for my private practice. Lastly, I’m okay with being a ‘Poor’ gardener.
The point is that I don’t strive to be my best at everything I do. I don’t care if guests enter my house and compliment me on my spotless domain, or leave my house raving about my cooking.
I’ve settled with the fact that I’m merely adequate at bookkeeping. There are much better writers than I am, but I’m satisfied with being a ‘good’ rather than a ‘great’ one.
To be honest, I’m a big fan of being ‘good enough’ at most things, period. I’d rather put time and effort into doing what I enjoy and excel in – not so much what I don’t value, or simply don’t have the smarts, talent, or inclination for.
9.) Recognize when perfection is important.
There are times when you will wish for, and seek, perfection. If you’re a surgeon, for example, you’ll want to do a perfect job. It’s vital for you and your patients. Ditto, if you’re a nurse dispensing medication, or a lawyer arguing a death penalty case.
In fact, if you work in any profession where safety is a focus, you’ll want NO mistakes. Shooting for perfect also makes sense when you’re applying for a job, trying to make the team, or are going for Olympic gold. There are just situations where striving for perfection is de rigueur.
Think of saving perfection for things that truly matter. That does not include making the world’s juiciest, most tender Thanksgiving turkey, folding towels, or shoveling snow.
10.) Learn to enjoy your imperfection.
Practice laughing at your mistakes. Share your bloopers with friends. Own up to your own failures before someone else points them out. Allow yourself to be average at some things. Give up trying to make things work out right all the time. Instead, ride the tide and try going with the flow. Go for broke on being flawed.
I once wrote a newspaper article on “The Art of Mediocrity”, which extolled the benefits of striving to be an ordinary skier because I doubted I’d have enough fun if I forced myself to focus strictly on perfect form. I feel the same way as a lifelong tap dancer who’s also an advanced beginner. In fact, I challenge anyone to say they have a better time in tap class than I do.
Being a perfectionist is a kind of slavery; whereas imperfection can feel like glorious freedom. Throw off the shackles of having to do your best in every endeavor. Start deciding exactly where you want to put 100 percent of your effort.
When you do, you’ll find that you have oodles of energy for things you really wish to do well in. Suddenly, life becomes more satisfying and enjoyable. As a bonus, people will probably find you more relaxed, and a good deal more pleasant to be around.
‘Good enough’ might actually feel perfect, after all.