Perfection is impossible by sheer definition. Yet we strive for it and berate ourselves when we fall short. It’s okay to have high standards and want success; it’s when perfection starts to affect your relationships or becomes a phobia of making mistakes that it becomes a problem. The way you react to your mistakes and failings can often differentiate healthy ambition from unhealthy perfectionism.
Researchers have said that extreme perfectionism can become a habit similar to compulsive behaviors like smoking, drinking and gambling. “The unrelenting standards that drive the perfectionist may create a temporary ‘high,’ but ultimately leave him feeling flat,” explains Laura Alper, a clinical social worker in practice for over 30 years. It has also been associated with depression, anxiety, sleep and digestive problems, eating disorders and even suicidal thoughts.
Like addiction, perfectionism can have negative effects on your relationships, says Ann W. Smith, a licensed family counselor and author of “Overcoming Perfectionism: Finding the Key to Balance & Self-Acceptance.” Perfectionists often have trouble working with others and delegating to people who they believe will be unable to meet their exacting (and potentially unrealistic) standards. They easily get defensive against constructive criticism and find it hard to ask for help. At home, they struggle with intimacy for fear of vulnerability, are often dissatisfied with their significant others and can put undue pressure on their children to be perfect, too.
The good news is you can identify your perfectionist tendencies and take action. First, you must assess the extent of your perfectionism and how it is affecting your life. Are your incredibly high standards interfering with your connection with other people? Do you think that if you make the slightest mistake it makes you a failure? Do you procrastinate doing certain things out of the fear of appearing flawed? Do people tell you you’re impossible to please?
If those questions resonate with you, it may be time to address your perfectionist behavior. Here are some tips for overcoming perfectionism.
Set realistic goals. Perfectionists tend to set their standards and goals so high that they are often unattainable. Having impossible goals, engaging with all-or-nothing thinking, and focusing only on the finish line is setting yourself up for disappointment, failure and possibly even depression. Alper recommends that you aim for good enough. If you set ultimate goals that are achievable, as well as smaller attainable goals along the way, you will feel good about yourself and experience an ongoing feeling of accomplishment.
Challenge your negative self-talk. Smith suggests turning the volume down rather than trying to shut out all critical thoughts. Acknowledge that the negative thoughts are there, and if you can’t let them go altogether, minimize them to a point where they will not interfere with the functioning of your life. Try to highlight the positives of what you are doing or how you look instead of self-perceived imperfections. Research shows that what you see as a glaring flaw, others barely notice—or don’t notice at all.
Be more mindful. Focus your whole attention and awareness on the present moment. Don’t think about issues from the past or potential problems in the future. Just be where you are, doing what you are doing, one thing at a time. Not obsessing, just being. Eat when you’re eating. Work when you’re working. Play when you’re playing. If you find yourself obsessing, try taking a mindful walk. Focus on the way you are walking, the sights and smells around you, the weather, anything that brings you from your head into your physical environment and the present moment. Alper says you can use mindfulness meditation to “keep the internal engine from driving you toward that elusive ideal.”
Put other people first. Instead of focusing on yourself and being perfect, refocus your energies on connecting with loved ones. Accept them for who they are, without judging them for their limitations. Embrace their quirks and imperfections—and embrace yours, too. In order to truly connect, you have to put the real you out there, even if it feels messy or scary.
Using these tools, you can start to let go, have more realistic expectations and goals, and accept yourself. All of you. Your imperfections are what make you unique. Try to embrace that and rejoice in your individuality. You don’t have to be perfect, you just have to be you.