“Instead of trying to make your life perfect, give yourself the freedom to make it an adventure, and go ever upward.” —Drew Houston, CEO of Dropbox
For some reason, a strange idea has circulated for decades that perfectionism is the ideal “negative” trait to have. It’s seen as a positive couched as a negative, so something you should be secretly proud of and share in every interview and on every resume. But that’s just not the case.
Merriam-Webster defines perfectionism as “a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable.” This is a huge challenge that can hold you back in life and keep you from achieving your goals and finishing what you want. Perfectionism can be responsible for draining your self-esteem and, even, killing you.
So, what can you do to overcome perfectionism? First, you have to look at where perfectionism comes from.
Where Does Perfectionism Come From?
Let’s dive into what perfectionism is and is not. There is a difference between perfectionism and high achievement. You can strive for excellence and not be a perfectionist. It’s all about what you focus on.
A perfectionist is unforgiving about any mistakes or anything that appears to be lacking; this robs them of any joy or satisfaction in doing something well. Perfectionism isn’t about having high standards; it’s about trying to impossibly and irrationally control everything.
And, unfortunately, perfectionism is growing according to a new study on the progressive generational increase of perfectionism among college-age students since 1989. Overall, people feel that they have more demands on them, are more demanding of others, and are becoming more demanding of themselves.
How does this happen? Where does perfectionism come from?
Typically, it starts in childhood. Children who feel that they had “exceedingly high” demands or expectations from parents or other adults can turn into perfectionists, according to a 2013 study. Perfectionism also comes from anxiety over making mistakes—an inner self mired in anxiety. And it’s something that can be passed down generation-to-generation as parents pass on their own traits to kids.
While the origins of perfectionism are still unknown, there’s no doubt that it’s a problem because the costs are astronomical.
Understanding the Costs of Being Perfect
The book, Too Perfect: When Being in Control Gets Out of Control explains the problem of perfectionism this way:
“As hard as the best-intentioned, most conscientious person might try, it is impossible to control every aspect of one’s existence; we are vulnerable…Their subtle but constant efforts to control everything in the world around them (and inside them) are an attempt to do the impossible: to guarantee security; to assure safe passage through the risks and uncertainties of living.”
The problem is that perfectionism can work for years and can even bring admiration in the workplace. Many companies reward this behavior as responsible, consistent, and focused on details, but it comes at a high cost. Perfectionists suffer endlessly because they have to do everything well or even the most enjoyable activity is ruined. They struggle regularly under the massive fear of their inner rulebook, sense of duty, responsibility, and fairness.
Perfectionism doesn’t just feel bad; it’s linked to a host of negative consequences.
- Perfectionism comes with a lack of self-compassion. Perfectionists believe that they can never be good enough and that every mistake is a personal flaw.
- Perfectionists suffer from eating disorders, fibromyalgia, depression, and are at a higher risk of suicide.
- Perfectionists often suffer from persistent and terrible procrastination because they’re so afraid of failure they’d rather not start.
- Perfectionism leads to chronic stress and burnout, as there is a constant drive to “do more.”
Needless to say, perfectionism is a serious problem, so what can you do to beat it?
How to Beat Perfectionism
The most successful people in any field are less likely to be perfectionistic, research confirms. They can’t afford to have anxiety about making mistakes get in the way. If you want to join their ranks and learn how to overcome perfectionism and procrastination, there are a few steps you need to take.
Step 1: Use Your Perfectionist Tendencies as a Cue for Awareness
“The most important thing to remember about perfectionism is that it is fundamentally a form of self-hatred,” says Jon Frederickson, the author of Co-Creating Change a book on treating mental health issues. “Perfectionism, in its neurotic form, is the love of the perfect and the hatred of the person.”
When you notice that you are engaging in perfectionist behavior, use that as a reminder to check in on yourself emotionally. Ask yourself, “What emotions am I feeling? How strong are they? What happened to trigger this?” Once you recognize the problem, you can work to fix it.
Step 2: Develop Coping Strategies
When you fall into the perfectionism rut, you then need to learn to shift your focus to enjoy the task. Instead of thinking about how afraid you are of failing, think about what you enjoy about what you are doing. There have to be a few things that you like.
Other coping strategies include making a decision and sticking with it. For example, perfectionists tend to procrastinate for hours thinking about all that can go wrong. To avoid this, try to make snap decisions and stick with them. “I will finish this project today, no matter what.” The key is to set a goal and move forward with it no matter what comes your way, and then use that as an opportunity to learn and improve.
As much as you can, put together a collection of go-to strategies that you can use any time perfectionism strikes.
Step 3: Practice. Practice. Practice.
You can’t overcome perfectionism overnight. It’s going to take a lot of repetition and practice to break your habits. And it’s not going to be easy. You’re going to be uncomfortable during this time, but you have to keep trying to move forward.
For example, when it comes to procrastination, some days you’re going to have to take every task and break it down into small bite-sized chunks you can handle. Then, work on each task for just 15 minutes. After an hour and four tasks, take a break and repeat. If you have to, use a stopwatch to hold yourself accountable. And don’t give up.
Step 4: Look at the Big Picture
A lot of perfectionism is getting bogged down in the tiny details that really don’t matter. If you can, try to focus on the big picture instead so you stop criticizing yourself over small situations that don’t help and don’t make a difference.
Whenever your perfectionism starts creeping up on you, ask yourself if what you’re anxious about really matters. Will it matter next week, next month, next year? How important is it in the big scheme of things? If it’s not critical, let it slide and move on.
Step 5: Check In Daily
Every day, you need to ask yourself, “Am I striving for excellence or demanding perfection?” The answer to that will determine how you move forward and will help you avoid falling into the trap of being perfect.