It’s not your fault if you learned at a young age to measure your value by how perfectly you did something — or how perfect you looked. More than a few of us did.
As you’ve no doubt experienced, anxiety and perfectionism go hand in hand.
And letting go of anxiety is no easy thing when you’ve gone your whole life feeling as though everyone sees the worst in you.
Maybe others can feel sanguine about being “perfectly imperfect,” but that’s just not you.
If you’re ready for some real help in learning how to cope with perfectionism, read on.
- Are perfectionists insecure?
- 9 Top Tricks for Letting Go of Perfectionism
- 1. Define your terms: What is perfection, and what is failure?
- 2. Face the fear behind your perfectionism.
- 3. Change the words you use.
- 4. Recognize and correct negative self-dialogue.
- 5. Focus on your progress and on what you’ve learned from your mistakes.
- 6. Focus on the practice — not on “getting to perfect.”
- 7. Forgive yourself and practice self-compassion.
- 8. Take daily action to build your self-confidence.
- 9. Make peace with your “now” and live in the present moment.
- Is perfectionism a mental disorder?
Are perfectionists insecure?
In a word, yes. Perfectionism seizes upon every instance of perceived failure and uses it to attack your sense of self-worth.
It’s this perfectionism (not laziness) that’s at the root of chronic procrastination.
If you’re convinced that you can’t do something perfectly — and that lack of perfection makes you a failure — naturally you’ll want to protect yourself from feeling like one.
Here’s how perfectionism makes you insecure:
Procrastinating gives you a temporary stay of execution. As for the abusive internal dialogue that also goes with perfectionism, it’s harder to escape that. But it’s possible to catch yourself in the middle of it and change the words.
9 Top Tricks for Letting Go of Perfectionism
The following nine tips are essential to helping someone with perfectionism, whether that’s you or someone else.
1. Define your terms: What is perfection, and what is failure?
One of the keys to addressing the cognitive distortions behind perfectionism is defining your terms.
Failure relates to one specific thing or accomplishment; the word was never meant to describe a person, let alone define one. It describes an action or object that doesn’t meet minimum standards.
If you do something poorly, you might see it as a “failure to do it perfectly,” but it doesn’t mean you are therefore a failure.
Perfection also relates to one specific thing or accomplishment — not your whole being. You can do something “perfectly,” but it doesn’t mean you are therefore perfect.
As long as you’re showing up and doing the work, and the word “failure” comes up in relation to something you did, see it as proof you’re taking action and learning from it.
Failure is not weakness. And it should never be something to fear.
2. Face the fear behind your perfectionism.
It’s normal and healthy to have aspirations. But when you measure your worth by what you’ve accomplished, by how you look, or by what others say about you, you’ll always feel that you fall short. No matter how much you improve, it will never feel like enough.
That’s the fear behind perfectionism: that you’re not enough and never will be.
You also need to ask yourself how perfectionism in others might have influenced your childhood and what fears came of that influence.
3. Change the words you use.
Stop describing yourself or others as “perfect” or “imperfect.”
It’s good to accept that you’re not perfect. But you don’t have to constantly remind yourself of that. Some will even interpret your “I’m not perfect” as an excuse for not trying harder or doing better.
Instead, try “I’m a work in progress” or “I’m doing the best I can.” You can also say, “I’m human. And I’m learning as I go.”
While you’re at it, find new words to replace “perfect” — like “excellent,” “fantastic,” or “amazing.” Since you don’t have to be perfect, why even use the word to describe anything about you or anyone else?
Using the word “perfect” to describe someone’s appearance or something they’ve done will only remind you of how you fall short of that.
4. Recognize and correct negative self-dialogue.
What you say out loud isn’t the only thing that matters. Perfectionists don’t always realize the power of their own internal dialogue — what they say to themselves when they fall short of perfection.
Eventually, those words come out, often in ways that do harm to yourself or others.
Spend some time alone, so you can pay attention to what you’re thinking about yourself, about your accomplishments, about the job you did recently, etc. Only when you’re aware of your own thoughts can you correct the ones that do you harm.
Here are some examples:
5. Focus on your progress and on what you’ve learned from your mistakes.
Repeat to yourself: Mistakes are part of learning; they do not make you a failure.
Everyone makes mistakes; the important thing is whether and what you learn from them. But if you’re a perfectionist, every mistake is proof you’re not what you “should be.”
After all the hard work you’ve done, you’re still “not good enough.”
With every mistake, you tell yourself, “This is further proof that I’m a failure” or “What is wrong with me that I keep making these stupid mistakes?” And the stress induced by these thoughts causes you to make more mistakes.
Instead, think of the progress you’ve made. You deserve to celebrate that.
When you’re learning new skills at school or work, no one expects you to do it perfectly the first time. This is why we invented “practice,” which leads us to the next tip.
6. Focus on the practice — not on “getting to perfect.”
Focus on enjoying the process or on learning how to do something — or, as some call it, the “journey.”
You’re allowed to simply enjoy learning something new without expecting yourself to do it like a pro. If you approach it as a newbie who always has more to learn, it’s a lot more fun.
Your goal should be a steady improvement in something that brings you joy.
Don’t compare yourself and your performance to that of a seasoned expert or anyone else. Experts have already made their mistakes on the way to learning how to do it better. And even they don’t do it perfectly every time.
Practice doesn’t have to “make perfect” (and it usually doesn’t, anyway). Practice makes for improvement. And mindful practice can reorient you to what’s really important.
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7. Forgive yourself and practice self-compassion.
Start by examining your goals and expectations and being honest about their attainability. It’s one thing to want to score in the top ten on an important exam. It’s another to always want to be #1 — and to punish yourself (and others) when you’re not.
Next, you need to forgive yourself:
It’s not enough to only do this once, either. Make a list of everything you can think of for which you haven’t yet forgiven yourself.
Healing begins with self-forgiveness. Let go of the need to punish yourself for not being the person you “should have been.”
8. Take daily action to build your self-confidence.
You know how it feels when you’ve done something you’re proud of. But perfectionism is constantly sabotaging your pride and self-confidence by reminding you to compare your accomplishments to others.
Just as perfectionist thoughts are with you every day, it’s important to take daily action to counter them with thoughts that build your self-confidence.
Tell yourself — with words and actions — that you are enough as you are now. Remind yourself what you’re capable of and what you’ve learned. All of it matters.
9. Make peace with your “now” and live in the present moment.
Rather than celebrate your imperfection, celebrate what brings you joy. Celebrate what you have now that you didn’t have before.
Celebrate what you’ve learned up to this point and what you’ve accomplished.
Accept and love the person you are now. You’ve come a long way, and you deserve to be grateful for that.
You’re allowed to acknowledge the work you still have to do. But do the best you can with what you have, and be grateful for where you are now.
You can’t do this unless you’re living in the present — not in the past with your mistakes and not in the future, where an imaginary self is finally permitted to celebrate.
All you have is today. And the only person you need to be is the one who shows up.
Is perfectionism a mental disorder?
Perfectionism may not be listed in the DSM-V as a mental disorder, but it’s a key risk factor in many significant and life-threatening disorders.
- Self-oriented perfectionism (what you expect of yourself)
- Socially-prescribed perfectionism (what you think society expects of you)
- Other-oriented perfectionism (what you expect of others)
It’s the increase in #2 — socially-prescribed perfectionism — that is largely responsible for the increase in serious mental illness in younger generations.
And the more society — or a significant part of it — sends the message that mental illness is tantamount to weakness or to being a “snowflake,” the more harm it does to younger generations dealing with the impossible standards passed on by older ones.
Are you ready to let go of perfectionism?
Younger generations aren’t the only ones suffering from the long-term negative effects of perfectionism. The words “snowball effect” come to mind.
Plus, it’s far more accurate and fair than dismissing younger sufferers as “snowflakes.”
If you see more and more people recognizing the toxicity of perfectionism, working through the pain it has caused them and taking steps to not only heal themselves but help others, that’s reason for celebration and deep gratitude.
You don’t have to torture yourself with the mistakes you’ve made as a result of perfectionism, any more than you should punish yourself for not being perfect.
Do what you can to leave a saner and more loving legacy to the next generation.