Perfectionism: When Nothing Is Ever Good Enough

We tend to think of perfectionism as a good thing. “Perfectionists,” in the usual sense of the word, are people who set high standards for themselves and work hard to achieve success. And yet, for many people with perfectionistic tendencies, the reality of having perfectionism is far from positive. In what psychologists call maladaptive perfectionism, some individuals struggle with an unrealistic need to be literally “perfect” in various areas of life. Work, school, even handwriting and grooming; all of it can be accompanied by a strong urge to get things absolutely “perfect.” And when something is not “perfect,” it can trigger frustration, anxiety, and even depression. Simple tasks can take hours. And tasks that are difficult or have a learning curve are often avoided because they will require one to face being imperfect and, consequently, feel the overwhelming negative emotions that will involve. If you have perfectionistic tendencies and find yourself feeling more frustrated, anxious and depressed than productive and successful, you may be struggling with this maladaptive form of perfectionism. Here are some additional signs to keep an eye out for:

  • Black or White Thinking: You see the world as having two options: perfection and failure. Anything short of perfect gets lumped into the failure category.
  • You feel bad about yourself a lot of the time: Any little task during the day can trigger your fears that you’re not good enough. You try to act like you’ve got it together, but underneath you are usually feeling pretty bad about yourself.
  • You worry about small, inconsequential details: You can’t stop thinking about that “m” on your homework that didn’t look perfect, or that one joke you made that missed the mark, or the one hair on your head that won’t go where it’s supposed to go.
  • You can’t enjoy the journey: Everything in life is about results. You are only knitting that scarf, or making that sketch, or learning that piano piece to achieve that feeling of getting something perfect. The journey, meanwhile, is just frustrating and upsetting.
  • You are a master procrastinator: Since being imperfect feels so bad, you have learned to avoid difficult tasks that would require you to face imperfection. New tasks that have a learning curve, homework assignments with open-ended questions that don’t have a “perfect,” right answer, tasks that take a long time to complete; you avoid them all like the plague.
  • You are often defensive: You don’t like conversations that you might perceive as critical. Whenever someone brings up one of your flaws or mistakes, you tend to become angry and argumentative. Others may have learned not to bring things up with you.
  • You are a people pleaser: You are hyper aware of how others react to you, and are constantly seeking high levels of approval from others.
  • Everything takes longer than it should: You have to repeat activities until they are perfect. Putting on your makeup can take hours. You have to write and rewrite that job application until all the letters look “perfect.”
  • You are scared of getting help: Talking to a therapist would involve acknowledging “a problem.” And having a problem is definitely not being perfect, so you avoid seeking help even as life becomes more and more difficult.

If you are experiencing significant distress and impairment in school, work and/or relationships due to the above symptoms, you may be struggling with perfectionism. If so, here are a few tips to begin to steer your life away from this maladaptive outlook, towards a more healthy approach:

1. Realize that your perfectionism is not your friend. Take a look at the facts. I bet you’ll find that your perfectionism is not helping you and is, in fact, hurting you. Are you falling behind at work or school? Are people tiptoeing around you because they are afraid to mention anything that could be deemed as critical? Are you avoiding difficult tasks? Are small tasks taking way too long to complete? It may be time to realize that your perfectionism is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and not something you need in your life anymore.

2. Keep in mind that letting go of your perfectionism will not lead to you losing your drive and motivation. Beneath your unhealthy perfectionism is a person who is motivated and driven to achieve. And if you can learn to tolerate “imperfection,” you are going to become more efficient, more productive, and more successful.

3. Do some thinking about this idea of “perfect.” How frequently do you actually achieve it? Is there really even such a thing as perfect?

4. Take some time to identify your values. These are your compass to finding the things you actually enjoy doing, rather than the things you are doing just to achieve that “perfect” feeling.

5. Increase your tolerance for outcomes that are neither perfect nor a failure, results that are just kind of in the middle. This is where learning happens. And this is where life happens. Try making some mistakes on purpose, don’t clean up that mess on the dining room table right now, leave that one eyelash pointing in the wrong direction, make a stray mark on your art project. These experiments will no doubt make you feel uncomfortable, but you’re going to have to feel uncomfortable in order to overcome your perfectionism.

6. Set some goals for yourself, but don’t fall into the trap of setting perfectionistic goals. Make sure your goals are 1) focused on progress and improvement, not perfection, 2) based on your values and not on perfectionistic standards, 3) are flexible to the inevitable curveballs life will throw at you.

7. Learn to enjoy the ride. Play. Life is not always about results. Find some activities that you enjoy in the moment. Things that can ground you in the world around you, and provide you with some inner peace.

8. Lastly, make sure to forgive yourself for not being perfect. For some, this will be the hardest item on the list, but also the most important. In those times where you’re not “perfect,” don’t lose sight of your strengths and all of your positive qualities that are true no matter how “perfect” you’ve gotten things on any given day. Remember. To be imperfect is to be human.