Tackling Perfectionism for a Calmer Life

perfectionist man holding a magnifying lens

It’s nearly New Year, a time when we feel pressured to declare a host of New Year’s resolutions and turn ourselves into perfect versions of what we ‘should’ be.

We want to take it to the next level in every area of our life, setting unrealistic expectations and impossibly high standards in pursuing perfectionism.

But it’s good to be a perfectionist, right?

Only if you’re an open heart surgeon or have a similar calling, in which case your patients will be grateful for your perfectionist tendencies. 

The underlying damage of being a perfectionist

As a perfectionist, you don’t allow yourself anything less than meeting standards that are so high they may be impossible to achieve, giving way to ever-increasing anxiety.

There is no room for error.

It’s not possible for a perfectionist to even think of making mistakes because, in their world, it spells failure and disappointment. 

They base their opinion of themselves on what they haven’t achieved and are likely to feel stressed and doubt their capabilities by failing to meet their own unshakeable standards. 

Then begins the spiral of comparing themselves to others, lowering their self-esteem and self-worth, which may be associated with mental health problems.

Only 100 percent success is acceptable to the perfectionist. But, even then, there’s a degree of dissatisfaction as they wonder why they have to work so hard to get to that point; perfection should come naturally, right?

What makes a person a perfectionist?

What are some types of compulsions

Although it’s not entirely clear, studies show that a host of reasons potentially contribute to perfectionism. These include:

  • Learned beliefs in childhood with perfectionist parents and sibling rivalry. 
  • An unstable environment of constant change or uncertainty – trying to gain a sense of control.
  • Feeling insecure and/or inadequate – wanting to prove that you’ve got what it takes at whatever cost to yourself.
  • Cultural expectations.
  • Low self-esteem and self-doubt – lead to perfectionism as a means of seeking validation from others to prove yourself worthy.
  • Symptoms of some mental health issues including OCD, anxiety, and depression.

The advantages of overcoming perfectionism

Life is not perfect, and, as human beings, we are all unique and have flaws.  

Much as we may not want to think that way, it’s a fact, and by letting go of the need to be perfect, life can become much calmer and far less stressful. You can even learn to laugh at your mistakes as you realize that practice makes progress and is not perfect, as the old saying would have us believe.

Therefore, it is worthwhile thinking about what it would mean to you to release yourself from your punishing high standards to bring peace and calm into your life.

Am I a perfectionist?  

focused woman staring a post it notes on board

Here are some typical behaviors to know whether you exhibit perfectionist tendencies.

  1. Do you procrastinate so much that you don’t even start a task because you’re so concerned about it being perfect?
  2. Has anyone ever told you your standards are impossibly high?
  3. Do you find yourself feeling stressed about meeting the standards you set yourself?
  4. Have you been told you’re difficult to please?
  5. Do you focus more on your mistakes and imperfections rather than your achievements?
  6. Do you try to avoid mistakes at all costs and constantly feel anxious about your performance at work/school/home?
  7. Do you fear not being accepted and seek other people’s approval through always trying to be ‘perfect’?
  8. How often do you use the word ‘should’ in your thoughts or conversations?

A word about the word ‘should.’

‘Should’ is one of a perfectionist’s most frequently used words.  

We ‘should’ have gone earlier and missed the traffic jam… but we didn’t, and now we’re late, and that’s not acceptable because we ‘should’ always be on time.

We ‘should’ exercise every day… but we won’t because we don’t have time. But we ‘should’ make time because everyone else does.

Each time the word ‘should’ is used it implies negative thinking, resulting in feelings of shame, guilt, and regret.

It takes time to move away from the critical ‘should’ mindset, but to get started, remind yourself you have the choice to replace the word ‘should’ with ‘could’ or ‘would like to’.

Tips for tackling perfectionism

cropped image of female counselor writing in clipboard and smiling male holding hand palms together during therapy session in office
  • The first step is to become more self-aware and notice when you’re piling on the pressure. Is it affecting your health and well-being? Be kind to yourself and know that doing your best is good enough.
  • Manage your inner critic that insists on picking faults. Choose not to listen to the annoying voice and remind yourself its opinion is of no value or interest to you. 
  • Learn to forgive yourself and understand that making mistakes is human; by doing so, we gain an opportunity to learn and grow.
  • Speak to yourself with kindness and gentle encouragement instead of being your own worst critic – focus more on the positives.
  • Set more realistic goals and avoid procrastination. Try and enjoy the journey to achieving success rather than feeling fraught with stress and anxiety.
  • Cut out or limit negative influences as much as you can, like social media, movies, and people who encourage your ‘perfectionist narrative’. 

When to seek help to restore calm to your life

If you suspect that being a perfectionist is impacting your mental health, it could be time to seek professional help to get your life back in balance and lift the unrealistic expectations that you impose on yourself.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been especially proven to help perfectionists. This talk therapy helps you to notice and change automatic thoughts established in childhood that have become dysfunctional patterns over time.

If you recognize perfectionism in yourself or someone you care about, get in touch with us today to chat about how we can help.

About Adam Nesenoff

Adam Nesenoff has been working in recovery for over ten years.

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