Letting Go of Perfectionism: 12 Strategies from a Therapist

What is Perfectionism?

Perfectionism is a personality trait or mindset characterized by striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high standards for yourself or others. People who struggle with perfectionistic traits or tendencies have an intense desire to achieve unrealistic expectations in all areas of their lives, whether it be work, academics, relationships, appearance, or personal goals. They often view mistakes or perceived imperfections as failure, leading to feelings of dissatisfaction, frustration, and anxiety.

Perfectionists typically engage in critical self-talk, and often struggle with receiving criticism or disapproval from others. This mindset can be both a source of motivation, driving individuals to excel in their pursuits, but it can also be a hindrance, as it can lead to procrastination, or avoiding challenging situations altogether.

What Are the Types of Perfectionism?

Perfectionism can manifest in various forms, and researchers have identified several types or dimensions of perfectionism. Below I dive into the two most widely recognized and studied types of perfectionism along with a third type called other-oriented perfectionism.

Self-Oriented Perfectionism:

This type of perfectionism involves setting exceedingly high standards for yourself and striving for perfection in personal performance and achievements. Self-oriented perfectionists tend to be highly self-critical and struggle with celebrating when they achieve certain goals and accomplishments. They tend to be intrinsically motivated to achieve perfection and may experience a sense of fulfillment when they meet their own high standards. However, this form of perfectionism can also lead to feelings of anxiety and distress when goals go unmet.

Self-oriented perfectionism is often considered the least problematic dimension of perfectionism. While self-oriented perfectionists may experience stress and frustration when they don’t meet their high standards, their motivation to excel can lead to positive outcomes and personal growth with limited impact on their overall mental health.

While self-oriented perfectionism is usually seen as healthy, it can become unhealthy when individuals become self-critical, neglect self-care, or prioritize perfection over wellbeing and balanced living. As with any form of perfectionism, it’s important to tune into your self-awareness, practice self-compassion, and find a balance between striving for your goals and accepting that perfection is an illusion.

Socially Prescribed Perfectionism:

Socially prescribed perfectionism involves a belief that others have very high expectations for you and you feel significant pressure to meet these external standards. You think that your self worth depends on what people think of you and fear criticism and judgment from others if you don’t live up to these perceived expectations. Socially prescribed perfectionism can lead to constant anxiety and stress as you strive to seek validation and acceptance from others.

Other-Oriented Perfectionism:

This dimension involves having excessively high expectations for others and being highly critical of their performance or achievements. People with other-oriented perfectionism may have rigid and perfectionistic views of how others should behave or perform, which can lead to strained relationships.

Adaptive Perfectionism vs Maladaptive Perfectionism

Healthy Perfectionism

Adaptive perfectionism also known as healthy perfectionism involves having high standards while remaining flexible and accepting that mistakes and imperfections are a part of life. Individuals with adaptive perfectionism use their high standards as motivation to improve and succeed without being self-critical. Unlike maladaptive perfectionism, which can negatively impact your physical and mental health, adaptive perfectionism has been associated with positive outcomes and improved wellbeing.

Adaptive perfectionists set realistic standards for themselves and recognize that perfection is not attainable. They tend to have a growth mindset and strive to do their best and improve over time. They are often highly motivated and resilient. They are receptive and open to feedback and take a balanced approach to their day to day life.

It’s important to note that this type of perfectionism is not the absence of setting high standards or having a drive for achievement. Instead, it involves a healthy and balanced perspective that allows individuals to pursue their goals while maintaining their overall sense of wellbeing.

Unhealthy Perfectionism

Maladaptive perfectionism also known as unhealthy perfectionism is characterized by a rigid pursuit of perfection, often accompanied by an intense fear of failure or making mistakes. People with maladaptive perfectionism may be overly critical of themselves and others, experience high levels of stress and anxiety, and may struggle with feelings of inadequacy or never being good enough. Unlike adaptive perfectionism, which can be motivating and positive, this form of perfectionism has been associated with negative consequences and can significantly impact your wellbeing and sense of self.

People who struggle with this form of perfectionism often have unrealistic expectations of themselves and others. They attach their sense of self-worth to what they accomplish or achieve and an unrelenting quest for perfection. Often their perfectionist traits involve procrastination since the need to do things perfectly can feel overwhelming and this inhibits their ability to start things. Sometimes their perfectionist tendencies even find their way into their relationships. Their unrealistic expectations of themselves and others can lead to feelings of inferiority and not enoughness with their partner.

Black and white thinking is also extremely common in this form of perfectionism. They tend to see outcomes as either perfect or complete failures, with little room for nuance or acceptance of imperfections. It can also lead to decreased satisfaction despite achieving high levels of success, as people who struggle with unhealthy perfectionism often have difficulty celebrating themselves when they do reach their goals.

Recognizing perfectionism and its impact is crucial for individuals experiencing its negative effects. It can be a debilitating mindset that leads to low self-esteem, mental health issues, and a variety of other negative outcomes. Addressing unhealthy perfectionism involves challenging and modifying perfectionistic beliefs, practicing self-compassion, and seeking support from mental health professionals if needed.

What are the signs of perfectionism?

  • setting unrealistic expectations of yourself and others
  • fear of failure
  • overly self-critical/ engage in negative self-talk
  • black and white thinking
  • procrastination
  • difficulty letting go of control and delegating tasks
  • feeling dissatisfied despite achievements
  • intense focus on details
  • feeling chronically stressed and anxious
  • comparing yourself to others
  • avoiding challenges or difficult situations
  • avoiding things you aren’t good at

What are the effects of perfectionism?

positive effects: high achievement, motivation, disciplined, organized, attentive to detail and commitment to excellence.

Negative effects: stress, anxiety, depression, procrastination, burnout, impaired relationships, low self-esteem, reduced creativity, negative beliefs about self, decreased life satisfaction, and other mental health issues.

12 Ways to Overcome Perfectionism?

Overcoming perfectionism is a gradual process that involves hard work, self-awareness, self-compassion, and adopting healthier perspectives and behaviors. Below I discuss some of my favorite strategies to help support you on your journey to becoming a recovering perfectionist.

Recognize perfectionistic tendencies:

The first step with anything that you’re hoping to change about yourself is to become aware of your perfectionistic thoughts and behaviors. Some helpful ways to do this are to check in with your thoughts and feelings on a regular basis. If you notice that you’re experiencing any negative emotions Notice when you’re having unrealistically high expectations of your self and others. set unrealistic standards for yourself, excessively criticize your mistakes, or feel anxious about not being perfect.

Challenge perfectionistic thoughts:

Question the beliefs that feed your perfectionism. Ask yourself if your expectations are reasonable and if it’s necessary to be perfect in every situation. Consider the impact of your perfectionism on your well-being and relationships. As discussed above, perfectionism isn’t always based on our own expectations, sometimes our desire to be perfect comes from elsewhere. Check in with yourself, ask yourself who do these thoughts belong to? Are they mine? Did I hear them from someone growing up? Is this a thought or belief that I still want to hold?

Get clear on your values:

Living in alignment with your values is one of the best things you can do for better mental health. There’s an amazing free values sort, that I often use with my clients if you’re interested in figuring out what your values are. Once you’re clear on your values, when perfectionism starts to show up, you can check in and ask yourself if the thing you think you need to do perfect is even aligned with your values.

Set realistic goals:

Many perfectionists struggle with setting unrealistic goals. Inevitably when you don’t reach said unrealistic goal, you’re left experiencing self-doubt and a whole list of other uncomfortable emotions. Instead of continuing this cycle that sets you up for failure from the start, can you take some time to set realistic goals? In order to do this, focus on starting super small. Smaller than you think, once you’ve accomplished that, then you can add on from there.

Embrace mistakes and failures:

Understand that making mistakes and experiencing failures are essential parts of the human experience. Instead of viewing mistakes as setbacks, and signs of personal inadequacy, see them as opportunities for growth and improvement. And maybe even celebrate them…

Practice self-compassion:

Practicing self-compassion is an important component of letting go of perfectionism. Self-compassion is a way of being kind and understanding to yourself, just as you would be to a friend. It’s about recognizing your common humanity, understanding that everyone makes mistakes and faces challenges. By integrating self-compassion into your life, you can let go of the need to be perfect and embrace a more balanced and fulfilling life.

Focus on what you did do, not what you didn’t do:

Have you ever noticed that you tend to focus on all the things you didn’t accomplish? If so, you aren’t alone. It can be easy to ignore all the small things that we do in any given day. However, when we struggle with unhealthy perfectionism this can really negatively impact your self-esteem and self-worth.

Have you ever heard of confirmation bias? Essentially it’s this idea that we seek out information that aligns with our preexisting beliefs about ourself. If you believe that you’re a failure, or not doing enough, or whatever other perfectionist bs, negative thoughts you’ve got running around in your brain, you’re only going to seek out information that confirms it. Your brain will filter out any other information that might highlight other aspects or things you do well and keep you focusing only on the negatives. When you take time to slow down and focus on what you did or accomplished that day, you start to create a more accurate picture of yourself rooted in reality without perfectionistic undertones. It also allows you to acknowledge that your value isn’t solely defined by your achievements and that you are inherently worthy.

Embrace imperfection:

This one is easier said than done when you struggle with perfectionism. However, when you shift your mindset to a place of understanding and acceptance that perfection is an unattainable ideal and that everyone has flaws and makes mistakes, magic happens. A great way to shift your mindset is by practicing reframes. Reframing the way you view mistakes can have a massive impact on your sense of self and overall wellbeing. I have a free worksheet on reframing negative thoughts, if you want to give it a try.

Prioritize self-care and relaxation:

Many of the perfectionists I work with have incredibly busy schedules and feel they are only doing well when they are being “productive.” This doesn’t usually leave a ton of time for self care and relaxation which ultimately leads to burn-out. A great way to combat perfectionistic tendencies, is to focus on creating time for yourself to slow down and do things that spark joy.

Another bonus, when we carve out time for self-care and relaxation, we tend to feel less stressed and anxious. Have you ever noticed that when you feel particularly anxious, your perfectionistic tendencies really ramp up? That’s not a coincidence. When we struggle with unhealthy perfectionism, these two work together to keep you feeling overwhelmed and stressed.

Give perfectionism a name:

This is one of my favorite strategies for challenging perfectionistic behavior. It’s rooted in a therapy technique called externalizing. Giving a name to the perfectionism you experience allows you to see that the problem is not who you are but rather something you are experiencing. Get creative with your name for it. Anytime you notice perfectionistic behavior or thoughts popping up, say to yourself oh “here goes Penelope again”. or “Penelope is really loud right now, I wonder why that is?”

Celebrate progress:

Recognizing and celebrating the small things you do everyday are a great way to let go of striving for perfection. Taking the time to celebrate each and every victory, accomplishment, or even setback allows your brain to focus on the good things you are doing and allows you to have a more complete and accurate picture of yourself.

Seek support:

If you notice that perfectionism is negatively impacting your life and you want to make a change, consider talking to a therapist or mental health professional. As a licensed therapist, I have worked with so many people who struggle with perfectionism. If you live in California and are interested in working with me, you can learn more about me here.

Remember, overcoming perfectionism is a journey, and it’s okay to have setbacks along the way. Be gentle with yourself and keep working towards a healthier and more balanced mindset. I hope this was helpful for you, thanks for taking the time to read it!

Remember: this post is for informational purposes only and may not be the best fit for you and your personal situation. It shall not be construed as legal, financial, or medical advice. The information and education provided here is not intended or implied to supplement or replace professional advice of your own attorney, accountant, physician, or financial advisor. Always check with your own physician, attorney, financial advisor, accountant, or other business or medical professional before trying or implementing any information read here.

That's So Well Therapist Arielle

It's me, Arielle!

Holistic Therapist, Nutritional Therapy Practitioner and Yoga Instructor in Elk Grove, California.

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