How can we let go of perfectionism?
Updated: Aug 29
Do you identify as a perfectionist? Or perhaps that's how you describe others? If you identify as one, when you say it to yourself, what feelings tend to come up? Do you experience pride or perhaps pressure?
If you look up the word perfectionist, you find a variety of descriptions all suggesting that a person who identifies as a perfectionist generally refuses to accept any standard or result that is considered less than perfect.
In psychology, perfectionism is described as: A personality trait characterized by a person’s striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high performance standards, accompanied by overly critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others’ evaluations. (thanks Wikipedia)
Perfectionism can generate an unrelenting feeling of pursuit, with the goal being such a focus that the process of growing or striving or experiencing could be completely overlooked or not enjoyed.
Identifying with or striving for perfectionism can be a recipe for you to feel constantly dissatisfied and never quite good enough, whether it's based on career, parenting, physical appearance - any area of life where we consider perfection as the goal could see us experiencing less joy and more anxiety in our lives.
Whenever we think, say or write statements starting with ‘I am ………….’, we are making a very powerful declaration about our identity and beliefs about ourselves. 'I am a perfectionist' cements that identity in your own mind and in the minds of others, confirming that you are someone who will see anything less than complete perfection as potential failure.
Imagine you are due to deliver a presentation tomorrow morning, and because you identify as a perfectionist, you just can't seem to get to a stage where you're happy with your it, and you are just not feeling prepared enough. So, you might keep working on it, tweaking and re-tweaking, until the wee hours of the morning. After you eventually get to sleep you wake up with a killer headache, and you're due to speak in an hour. Now your anxiety spikes.
Berkeley University’s Christine Carter calls Perfectionism ‘a disease’, one that creates a steady state of discontent fueled by fear, frustration and disappointment, and which causes depression, anxiety and increased risk of suicide. Fear of failure is the driving force, and that fear diverts energy from learning and creativity.
For some it's a recipe to never feel happy or never be finished. Whether it’s a painting or a project, or planning a party, you will not be able to move forward because you’ll stay stuck in the details of what you are doing and lose sight of the bigger picture.
So how do we begin to win the battle, or begin to let go of perfectionism, while still maintaining high standards?
Here are 5 tips that might help you let go of perfectionism, feel happier and more fulfilled in life while still striving for your best efforts.
1. Remove the word from your vocabulary. Many say that perfection actually doesn’t exist, except in nature. From this day forward, try giving yourself the gift of never mentioning the word again. Think about how you refer to the term and next time try re-framing it. Instead of 'I'm such a perfectionist', try, ‘I have high standards’, or 'I like to do my best' or whatever phrase or sentence works for you. We can retrain our brains through language so as you train yourself to replace the words, you will replace the idea for yourself, and eventually you can change your belief and feel the freedom.
2. Remove yourself from overly competitive situations. Most people who describe themselves as a perfectionist are extremely competitive. You want to be the best, at everything. Think about the social or professional groups and associations you have or are involved in, and if you are experiencing stress as a result of participating, re-think your participation.
3. Show your Weakness. For most who have striven for perfection, showing their vulnerabilities seems counter-intuitive. Try it anyway. As author and expert Brene Brown says, vulnerability is strength. You will connect with people more authentically and they will see that you are real, as we all are. Dare to be yourself, the raw you, sometimes.
4. Accept your mistakes. Mistakes teach us valuable lessons and remind us that we are human and that is how we learn. Owning your mistakes, and verbalising them to yourself and others is such a freeing experience and gives others permission to do the same. We are human beings, flawed and real. Eventually you might even consider celebrating your mistakes or imperfections.
5. Add some colour. Often referred to as 'colour blind' by psychologists, perfectionists generally see things as black or white. Either I'm the best teacher in the whole world or I should throw in the towel. Often called ‘all or nothing’ thinking, things seem to be on the scale of either being ‘the best ever in the history of the world’ or ‘the biggest epic failure ever to be recorded on the planet’. Building tolerance for others in relationships, at work, and accepting the ‘messiness’ of life adds colour.
When you give up the notion of 'perfect', you will be able to recognise the quality of your efforts. Focus on what you want to do, apply yourself, check your work, then finish it! Enjoy the wonderful feeling of satisfaction of completing a task, then do something else you really enjoy, and be present in that moment. ‘Perfection is a twenty tonne shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from taking flight.’ – Brene Brown Until next time,
The PLS Team
For a blog exploring kids and perfectionism, check out this one from our friends at the Positive Thinking Clinic https://www.positivethinkingclinic.com.au/blog/kids-and-perfectionism/