Healthy ways to recognize and manage your perfectionism.
To understand how to manage perfectionism, you first need to know what drives it. Usually, we wind up as perfectionists when this behavior is modeled regularly by our parents or caretakers and 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 loved us and, most likely, had no idea that trying to shape us into flawless beings could possibly do us any harm.
Here are some steps to take to recognize and manage perfectionism:
• Observe this tendency in yourself
If you tend to go above and beyond more often than not, 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 out your behavior at work, at play, at home, with your children and in any setting in which you think you might be putting in too much effort.
If you pay close attention, you’ll note an inner sense that you need to keep doing something to get it right and feel as if you can’t stop if you don’t. You might also notice that you keep driving yourself forward in the hopes of getting approval.
Should this happen a great deal, you are likely to have strong perfectionist tendencies. If you go for the gold in only one or two areas of your life, you might have things just right.
This may mean that you’re selective about where you put your time and effort. Alternately, most across-the-board perfectionists are all too aware of the fact that they have this trait.
• Understand how you developed this trait
Think back to your childhood and ask yourself some questions: Were either of my parents perfectionists or was anyone else who played a major part in my upbringing?
What was the emotional tenor of my childhood apropos doing things right—or wrong? Was there a competitive feeling in the family? Was success or excelling more highly regarded than other qualities?
Here are more questions to ask yourself: What happened when I didn’t do things perfectly? Of course, perfectionism translates into what your parents thought was perfect, right or acceptable. When you didn’t do something just so, did your parents express grave disappointment in or anger at you?
Were you pushed beyond your natural abilities or compared to others and found lacking? Were you punished, shamed, teased, or humiliated? Did your parents withdraw love when you did anything in less than a stellar way? Did you feel chronically not good enough?
• Evaluate your experience of feeling bad or wrong in childhood
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 failures, feeling bad or wrong 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 or bake a cake, 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 and 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 of letting others down is what leads to the need to be perfect. If you associate failure with having less-than views of yourself, you’ll naturally want to be perfect to avoid them.
• Identify your beliefs about mistakes and failure
To manage perfectionism, make a list of what 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 costs.
- If I’m not perfect, I’m a failure.
- I always need to try my hardest or give an endeavor 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 both a natural, normal part of life. Accepting this truth will go a long way toward reframing your attitude toward perfection.
• Reframe your beliefs about mistakes and failure
Here are some healthy beliefs about mistakes and failure. Notice how you feel as you read through them, especially if you have a reaction that I must be wrong and that these beliefs couldn’t possibly be healthy.
If you have such a response, know that you’ve been wrongly indoctrinated on the subject of mistakes and failure and that this is why you’re such a dyed in the wool perfectionist.
- Everyone makes mistakes and I’m no different.
- The world won’t fall apart if I make a mistake or fail, even when I try my hardest.
- Failure is normal and natural and cannot be avoided.
- I can do something imperfectly without failing at it.
- I don’t need to excel at everything and I can choose where I wish to and where I don’t.
- I’m lovable and expect to be loved as a flawed human being.
• Forget about always doing your best
The truth is you don’t need to be perfect at anything or everything. 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” and I spent half a lifetime shedding that unhelpful piece of advice, though I have absolutely no doubt that my loving father meant well by encouraging me to live by it. My guess is that he was raised with the same expectation and that, as a highly competent, successful man, he never questioned it.
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, and that your success or failure in an activity has absolutely nothing to do with your value as a human being.
Working off this assumption, you then won’t misinterpret what doing poorly means. Of course, you might still wish to shine in, say, math, but doing poorly won’t define you’re worth or affect your self-esteem.
• 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—playing tennis, 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. And real means flaws, faults, frailties and defects. Real means good enough, close-but-no-cigar and, often, only the best we can do at any given time.
• Decide how well you wish to do at certain activities
When you try to do everything well, you’re setting yourself up for stress, distress and exhaustion. We soon run out of steam if we try to do our best at everything. And, who says that we need to?
Mental and physical energy are not infinite resources and human beings often get depleted from trying too hard. When that happens we look for quick fixes in food or alcohol, may become irritable with others and, in frustration, often want to chuck whatever we’re trying to do and give up.
Consider this. What if you didn’t try to do everything perfectly and give every endeavor your best shot? The advantage of this mindset, to which I wholly subscribe, is that you would then have enough energy to do the things that are important to do well with excellence.
Try this: Think of endeavors as falling into the categories of excellent, good, fair or poor. When I work with clients on reducing their all-or-nothing mindset of perfectionism versus failure, I suggest that they imagine baskets with these labels on them, then determine which tasks or efforts go in which baskets.
For example, my excellent basket contains wishing to do my best as a wife, friend, and in doing therapy with clients. My aim is to do a good job as a writer, staying abreast of the news, and being politically active in my community, while I’m content to be a good-to-fair housekeeper, cook and bookkeeper for my private practice.
And, 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 do a decent job at bookkeeping, but find it difficult and have settled for being merely adequate at it. 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 well at what I enjoy and excel in and not so much into what I don’t value or simply don’t have the smarts, talent or inclination for.
For example, when I was attending Simmons College School of Social Work, most of my classmates were driving themselves crazy trying to get top grades, while I was thrilled that I’d chosen to go the pass/fail route to reduce the pressure and increase the pleasure of graduate school. Good enough is generally good enough for me.
• Recognize when perfectionism or near perfection is important
There are jobs and times when you will wish for and seek perfectionism. If you’re a surgeon, you’ll want to do a perfect job. It’s a necessity for you and for 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, including public safety, is your focus, you’ll want to aim for no mistakes. Shooting for perfect also makes sense when you’re applying for a job, trying to make a team, or are an Olympic competitor.
There are other jobs and endeavors where striving for perfection is de rigueur. Think of saving perfection for things that really, really, really matter. That does not include making the world’s juiciest, most tender Thanksgiving turkey, folding towels, or shoveling snow.
• Learn to enjoy your imperfection
Practice laughing at your mistakes, sharing your bloopers with your friends, owning up to your own failures before someone else points them out, allowing yourself to be fair to midland at things, giving up trying to make things work out right all the time and, instead, riding with the tide and going with the flow.
Go for broke on being flawed. I once wrote a newspaper article on “The Art of Mediocrity” which extolled the merits and benefits of striving to be a mediocre 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 (though on-and-off) tap dancer who’s still an advanced beginner. In fact, I challenge anyone to say they have a better time in tap class than I do. Perfectionism 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 and start deciding exactly where you want to put your effort. When you do, you’ll find that you have oodles of energy for the things you really wish to do well and that life becomes more satisfying and enjoyable.
As an extra bonus, people will probably find your more relaxed attitude, a good deal more pleasant to be around. Good enough might actually feel just perfect.
What steps are you taking to manage your perfectionism? I’d love to hear all about it in the comment section below. Also, don’t forget to share with your friends and followers.