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.
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.
Perfectionism shows up in our behaviours. Do you force yourself to redo things over and over until you've met a certain standard? Do you feel incredibly uncomfortable or frustrated when things aren't "just right"?
Once you figure out how your perfectionism shows up, it's important to practice slowly doing the opposite. Instead of rehearsing a presentation 15 times, for example, you'd actually practice not rehearsing the presentation and "winging it" instead. What you're doing here is a form of exposure therapy, which is when you intentionally do the opposite of what The Perfectionism wants you to do as a way of (a) learning that its predictions are often overly negative and inaccurate, and (b) acclimatizing yourself to the uncomfortable emotions that surface when you don't feel like you're being perfect.
Here are some other ways you could distance yourself from perfectionistic behaviours:
Ask for help and/or admit when you're having a hard time rather than telling everyone "you're fine" all the time.
Say "I don't know" rather than feeling like you have to have the answer.
Intentionally include a typo in an email and sitting with the discomfort that might bring up.
Leave a part of your house a bit messier than usual.
Allow there to be a few awkward silences in a conversation rather than feeling like you have to be "the best conversationalist" and fill every gap.
Know that these things will 100% make you uncomfortable, which is understandable given that you're rewiring your brain! If a common circuit in your brain exists that says [imperfection = intolerable = 'I have to go into fix-it mode'], then anything you do that feels different from this will trigger anxiety. Set this expectation from the get-go and know that you're changing these habits for the long-term benefits, not the short-term relief The Perfectionism provides.
5. Learn about self-compassion.
Self-compassion is about being kind and understanding towards yourself during moments of hardship. However, it's a concept that many perfectionists don't practice due to the fear that this will make them "lazy."
It's important to note that self-compassion is not the same as "letting yourself go." Holding yourself accountable is still a component of self-compassion, it's just about how you go about doing this that matters: perfectionists hold themselves accountable by being mean to themselves and always demanding more, while a more compassionate approach would involve having standards for yourself, but ones that are realistic and actually achievable. Further, being compassionate with yourself would involve maintaining perspective in difficult moments and being kind towards yourself. This can be done in a number of ways:
Speaking to yourself in the same way that you'd speak to a friend in moments of hardship.
Thinking of the big picture. (I like to ask myself, 'Will this matter in 5 seconds, 5 days, 5 months, or 5 years?')
Thinking of what 10 different people might say about the same situation as a way of getting out of your own head and assumptions.
6 . Reward yourself when you do something different.
Many perfectionists only reward themselves for certain achievements like getting a promotion or completing an exceptionally demanding task. However, it's important that we re-define what an "achievement" is now. Make your new "achievements" doing something that is more balanced and kind to yourself. Reward yourself for moments when you don't act like a perfectionist—when you did a "good enough" job rather than a spectacular, sensational, mind-blowingly wonderful job. Give yourself a mental "gold star" whenever you do something that breaks the mold of perfectionism.
The Bottom Line
If there's one thing I want to accomplish in today's blog, it's to burst the bubble of perfectionism: it is simply not an achievable goal. If you are always trying to be perfect, you will never be satisfied. The bar will be raised over and over, sucking the enthusiasm out of you until you just want to give up. Don't fall into this trap–and know that it's a trap to begin with.
Recognize the moments when you're thinking in perfectionistic ways via all-or-nothing or catastrophic thinking. Take a minute to recognize what behaviours of yours are perfectionistic and actively make changes accordingly, even if you start with the smallest of small steps. Revisit your definition of "achievements" and strive to live a life that's based on balance and kindness towards yourself. And finally, don't be perfectionistic with self-improvement either. Don't leave this blog saying "you have to be the best at not being perfect," just be good enough at whatever you're trying to accomplish. You might be pleasantly surprised at how good "imperfect" feels.