Perfectionism is usually described as an irrational desire to be flawless accompanied by self-criticism and a concern about how other people will evaluate you if you fail. Brené Brown, author of The Gifts of Imperfection, suggests that it’s a trait we adopt to protect against the pain of blame, judgement or shame.
The main focus of a perfectionist is avoiding failure at all costs.
Some people wear the label of ‘perfectionist’ with pride because they believe it speaks of a desire for excellence. But aiming for ‘perfect’ isn’t the same as aiming for ‘excellent’ because excellence allows for mistakes.
Maybe the biggest problem for perfectionists is that they find it very difficult to enjoy everyday living. Their focus is taken up with often obsessive worry about getting things wrong or being fixated on their shortcomings.
Most of us have perfectionist tendencies in some areas of our lives. We’ve all …
Felt overly let down by people who’ve failed to meet our expectations (other-oriented perfectionism).
Felt weighed down by an inability to meet the standards others have set for us (socially-prescribed perfectionism).
Beaten ourselves up for not doing something at the highest possible standard (self-oriented perfectionism).
The above feelings are quite natural in the moment, but they become perfectionistic when we allow them to persist over time and when they trigger frustration, anxiety or depression.
How do you reduce the impact of any perfectionistic tendencies you might have?
Each different type of perfectionism requires a slightly different approach:
When others fail to live up to the standards you’ve set for them, and the frustration you feel is disrupting your ability to be calm, you need to remember that if someone isn’t aware of the expectations you have, they can’t meet them. The simple act of clearly stating what you need from someone might be all that’s needed for them to deliver.
Consider also whether the expectations you have of others might be unreasonable. While it’s natural to hold people to the standards you expect from yourself, it’s also important to understand that those people are both wired differently to you and have different priorities and demands on their time and energy.
There are few things more anxiety-provoking than feeling unable to meet the expectations others have of us. If this feeling persists, it’s worth clarifying whether an expectation is perceived or real. Before tying yourself up in knots trying to achieve a task you’re not sure you’re capable of, get a clear understanding of what actually needs to be done, and by when.
You might find it’s something you can achieve, but if not, have an honest conversation or try resetting your boundaries.
Just because someone has an expectation of you doesn’t mean you’re obliged to meet it. Find out if you can adjust their expectations to something you can deliver on. And if their expectations are totally unreasonable, you may find there’s an opportunity to opt out instead.
This can be the hardest form of perfectionism to tackle. Untamed, it can spiral into anger, frustration, depression or anxiety. It usually affects behaviour too. Perfectionism is often one of the main reasons for chronic procrastination: it can lead to excessive checking or overworking, and it can literally make you feel frozen when it comes to creating change in your life.
Setting high standards is necessary for growing and improving ourselves as humans, but there’s a fine line between healthy and unhealthy striving.
If you find yourself unwilling to contemplate failure, three potent weapons are awareness, self-compassion and desensitisation. It’s important to be able to recognise when feelings of stress and anxiety have been triggered by attempts to meet unrealistic self-imposed standards.
Once you have awareness, speak to yourself as you would a close friend. What would you tell your friend to do? What steps would you advise them to take to remove some of the pressure they’re feeling? Self-compassion is really just extending the same kindness to yourself that you offer others.
Next, try changing perfectionistic behaviours by gradually exposing yourself to small amounts of discomfort. For example, if you repeatedly check written documents for errors, check once only. You could even send an email with one or two typos to get more comfortable with imperfection.
Remember, lowering your standards doesn’t mean not having any standards at all. Aiming for excellence isn’t a problem in itself, but expecting that you’ll never make a mistake is unrealistic and exhausting.