[Image description: The image shows a photo of Glorianne L. Vazquez, PsyD and the article title "How to Overcome Perfectionism" over a gray background.]
You’re probably reading this blog post because you realized that you’re struggling with perfectionism. During these stressful times, we’re facing more challenges and changes and it’s normal to rely on your perfectionistic tendencies. Perhaps you’re wondering what strategies you can use to let go of your perfectionism while still striving to do your best. Ultimately, you might be hoping to stop proving yourself and finally feel worthy!
Origins of perfectionism
First, it’s useful to recognize where your perfectionism comes from, which is often a combination of your genes, biological factors, life experiences, environment, and upbringing.
Life experiences and environment
It’s important to explore how your culture, religion, community, and society have contributed to your perfectionism. Social media and other forms of external messages can encourage perfectionism. You may be constantly bombarded with images of people that appear to be achieving and having more, all the while looking perfect! Everyone is influenced by culture and media, but women and girls may be more vulnerable to perfectionism because they are often socialized to be self-sacrificing.
Parents and/or primary caregivers play a main role in the development of their children's self-worth. The way that you see yourself, others, and the world may be greatly influenced by your upbringing. In her book “The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism,” Sharon Martin, MSW, LCSW, suggests four parenting styles — demanding, perfectionistic, distracted, and chronically-overwhelmed — that give rise to perfectionism.
Strategies to overcome perfectionism
Below are some approaches and practices that come from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and evidence-based research on self-compassion and positive psychology.
Recognize the fears and associated thoughts that drive your perfectionism. Is it a fear of failure or fear of making mistakes? What are you afraid might happen if you’re not perfect? As you notice those specific fears, you may recognize their associated thoughts. For example, you might be afraid of making mistakes and then think: “I should always know how to handle things.”
Track your thoughts to identify patterns that are the source of perfectionistic beliefs and behaviors. For example, you might have a pattern of all-or-nothing thinking, such as “I’m so disorganized all the time.” Journal these questions and ask yourself: “What is the evidence to support these thoughts?”; “Is it useful to think this way or am I assuming the worst?” As you examine the evidence, you can start to replace these extreme thoughts with more realistic ones.
Experiment with your behavior to identify and gradually address your fears. This requires practicing courage. If you’re afraid of making mistakes, try something simple and low risk: Send an email with a typo and see if it’s possible to tolerate the fear and the need to achieve perfection.
Practice mindfulness, which John Kabat-Zinn says is “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” Practicing mindfulness may help you shift from “doing” to “being.” You can practice mindfulness wherever you are by pausing and observing your surroundings and/or breath. Whatever method you choose, the goal is to simply take a moment to be in the here and now without judging yourself, others, or the experience.
Act based on your values by allowing your beliefs to guide your choices and behavior. You can do this by first identifying what is most important to you. Then try to live according to your values and you’ll likely achieve a sense of purpose and fulfillment. This approach allows you to face challenges and uncertainty while staying grounded in what is true to you.
Practice self-compassion, which, according to Dr. Kristen Neff’s book, “Self-Compassion” is broken up into three parts:
- Self-kindness: Talking to yourself in a kind way instead of judging or criticizing yourself.
- Common humanity: Recognizing that others go through similar struggles.
- Mindfulness: Being aware of your emotions without resistance and/or overwhelm.
Here’s an example of identifying your self-critical thoughts and practicing self-compassion — you notice that your supervisor doesn’t recognize your work but constantly praises your co-worker, and you tell yourself “I’m not good at this job even if I try.” First, notice your feelings about the situation, then tell yourself that others go through similar challenges. Lastly, speak to yourself like you would a dear friend: “It’s okay to be upset with my supervisor. Everyone gets upset sometimes.” or “This work challenge is helping me grow as a person; I can reflect on and learn something from this experience.”
Practice self-forgiveness in order to recognize that it’s common for all humans to make mistakes. Try to adopt positive affirmations such as “mistakes help me learn and grow.” Or “my mistake does not define who I am as a person.” Journal about the mistakes that bring up shame, regret, or are hard to forgive yourself for. Reflect on what you learned each time.
Practice gratitude to help shift your focus to what is positive in the moment. Identify at least three things (someone, something, an experience, etc.) that you’re grateful for daily. Then write them down or share them with a loved one.
Focus on your personal strengths by making a list. Write down three daily wins. Start noticing partial successes; those things that you achieve that may not be “perfect” but get the job done.
Set realistic expectations for yourself and others by understanding the perfectionistic thinking that underlies your expectations. When others make mistakes, it may be helpful to remind yourself that it’s human nature and that you can only control your own thoughts, behaviors, and feelings.
Assert yourself by communicating your feelings and thoughts calmly and directly. You can be assertive when asking for what you want and refusing what you don’t. “I” statements are an effective tool to practice assertiveness because they are non-blameful, neutral descriptions of the behavior, its effects on you, and your feelings. Examples of this language could include: “I felt hurt” instead of “you hurt me.”
Give feedback versus criticism. Criticizing others may feel like a way to blow off some steam, but it can actually fuel your perfectionistic thinking. When you criticize, you are assuming that you can control others’ behaviors; when you give feedback, you are acknowledging the specific issue and offering useful information that can lead to change.
Practice self-care daily to take care of your emotional, physical, and/or spiritual needs. Self-care is a necessity, not a luxury, and is going to look different each day. Make a list of your needs, the things that recharge you, and your favorite activities.
Find support along the way
While the strategies and practices discussed above can help you jumpstart your journey to overcoming your perfectionism, you don’t have to do it alone! Therapy may help you gain a deeper sense of the origins of your perfectionism so you can practice acceptance and letting go of the outcome. Plus, because change does not happen overnight, it’s helpful to have a professional help you along the way. At Amwell, you can connect with a licensed therapist from the comfort of your home. Get started today!