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How to Combat Perfectionism

I used to be very proud of being a perfectionist. An employer would ask what my biggest weakness was in a job interview and I'd proudly respond, "I'm a perfectionist," as though this was secretly highlighting a positive attribute of mine.

I slowly learned, however, that this truly was one of my biggest weaknesses. Perfectionism meant investing disproportionate amounts of energy into menial tasks, re-doing things if they didn't meet a specific standard, and putting a degree of pressure on myself that simply wasn't sustainable. Like a weed in a garden, the perfectionism spread into multiple areas of my life; it wasn't just about being the hardest-working employee, but being the "best" partner, having the "perfect" body, being the "nicest" person, etc. When every area of my life became about achieving perfection, it was impossible to avoid inevitably feeling like a failure.

So, what are we to do when we find ourselves working towards such unrelenting standards? Read on for my tips based on professional and personal experience.

  1. Recognize that perfectionism is a problem.

I remember being journalist many years ago and having a colleague tell me he wanted a task done on 'Kristina Time,' alluding to the fact that I could get things done very efficiently. Perfectionism became an addictive habit that took on a life of its own, bringing out a sense of competitiveness that had me continually raising the bar.

And yet, therein lies the problem: the mess of perfectionism is that you will never achieve your goals given that the bar will always be raised. You'll set a goal of becoming a manager at your company, for example, only to find The Perfectionism telling you it's time to become the CEO.

The first step is acknowledging that perfectionism is not something to be applauded; rather, it represents a growth opportunity—a chance to learn how to live a more balanced and compassionate life.

2. Increase your awareness about common perfectionistic thinking traps.

Cognitive distortions are habitual ways of thinking that are often inaccurate and/or negatively biased. Here are the main 'frequent flyers' when it comes to cognitive distortions in perfectionists:

  • All-or-nothing thinking: when you think in complete extremes rather than appreciating the shades of grey in a situation (i.e. you're either completely perfect or a total failure).

  • Catastrophic thinking: when you over-estimate how awful the outcome of something will be (i.e. "Not knowing the answer to a question during a work presentation means people will think I'm a total idiot").

  • Should-ing: when you say a number of "should" statements towards yourself, which trigger feelings of shame (i.e. "I should have the answers to every question someone has in a meeting").

3. Externalize the perfectionism and don't respond every time it calls your name.

The core of externalization is: you are not the problem, the problem is the problem. Externalizing something is like envisioning that it exists outside of you rather than being an innate quality that you have. Saying, "I'm a perfectionist" sounds (and feels) very different than saying, "Sometimes The Perfectionism gets the best of me." Even just calling it 'The Perfectionism' helps it feel like this other entity—one that you have the power to indulge in or not indulge in. Here are some examples of externalizing the perfectionism:

  • What does The Perfectionism do to mess with you? What thoughts will it throw your way?

  • What habits does The Perfectionism want you to engage in?

  • What goals does The Perfectionism have? What do you think about those goals?

Externalizing the problem also allows you to differentiate between behaviours that you are choosing to do versus behaviours that The Perfectionism is choosing to do. When this occurs, you're able to create more choice for yourself and choose to engage in behaviours that are more aligned with your values versus habit.

4. Change your behaviours accordingly.