Like most psychological issues, the causes are often difficult to pin down.
Almost always, though, it’s a pattern of learned behavior as a result of external factors. And it is often rooted in childhood.
Counter to what you’d expect, parents and teachers who insist upon children striving for perfection – and in the worst cases punish those who fall below these exacting standards – are, in fact, contributing to unhealthy thought and behavior patterns.
Perfectionist tendencies are often intensified by the pressure-cooker environment of academic settings.
The need to excel is drummed into students and the threat of the consequences of failure on their future life is repeated often.
But it’s not just in school and college – young people are frequently pushed to over-achieve in sports, too.
The influence of those pushy parents and ambitious coaches who are unduly focused on success can, somewhat ironically, ultimately interfere with the young person’s ability to achieve it.
Is This You?
It may be that you’re not sure if your perfectionism is a problem or even realize that the way you operate bears the hallmarks of this behavior pattern.
To help you identify behaviors which signpost perfectionism, here are a few of the symptoms:
As we’ve seen, the all-or-nothing approach of the perfectionist not only has the potential to limit actual achievement, but it’s also stressful and exhausting.
These negative consequences hardly add up to perfection, do they?
If you’re tired of all this extra effort and needless stress and feel that you’re putting unfair pressure on those around you, you may like to consider ways to readjust your exacting expectations and overcome your perfectionism.
Here are a few suggestions of ways you might reprogram your behavior to move beyond your constant striving for perfection…
Experiment With 80%
You may be fearful of the consequences of achieving less than perfection.
You can try experimenting with imperfection – perhaps aiming for 80% instead of 100% – and assessing the ultimate outcome.
You’ll probably find that those around you won’t even notice the difference and yet you’ll have given yourself a rest from your quest for the best.
Reflect On Past Mistakes
Take the time to note down some memorable mistakes you’ve made in the past. Inevitably, the perfectionist’s automatic response to these mistakes will be regret.
However, if you consider these events carefully, you should be able to identify some positive outcomes.
Perhaps you learned something or the mistake meant that you were able to take another opportunity which presented itself in the wake of your error.
The process of focusing on the positive effect of mistakes may help you to accept them and give yourself a break from punishing yourself when they inevitably happen.
Be Kinder To Yourself
Chances are that your head is full of negative self-talk, delivered by an internal critic who judges your performance harshly.
Try balancing that harshness with a more sympathetic voice.
Tell yourself it’s okay to be ‘good enough’ and try to treat yourself more kindly when you make mistakes.
Listening to the negative inner voice and beating yourself up about mistakes will only intensify their effect in your mind.
Look At What Others Are Doing
It’s rare that we advise people to compare themselves to others here on A Conscious Rethink, but in this special circumstance it makes sense…
…when done in the right way.
Look around you at all the people who aren’t striving for perfection. Those people who are settling for ‘good enough.’
How do they appear to you? Are they all miserable and unfulfilled because they aren’t always the best at something?
In fact, they are probably happier than you are. Their more relaxed attitude allows them to accept when things may not be perfect.
They have realistic standards, they adapt to whatever outcome they achieve, they move forward, and they don’t beat themselves up.
Now ask yourself: what does this teach me about my perfectionism? Is perfect all it’s cracked up to be?
Choose One Thing To Excel At
Perfectionism typically pervades every corner of a person’s life. Yet no one can be a high achiever in everything they do.
So, instead, pick one thing that you value highly in your life. Then focus your attention and energy into that so that you might excel at it.
This doesn’t mean taking your eye off the ball in other areas of your life; you should still keep things ticking over in the ‘good enough’ zone.
But this approach will give you an outlet for your perfectionist tendencies – even if you only strive for continued improvement and not a faultless standard.
So you may achieve a black belt in a chosen martial art, but don’t imagine for one second that you’re going to be the best in the world, let alone your class.
Or you may go all out to master playing the piano to a concert level, but don’t worry about the single note out of place during a performance.
Fake A Mistake
This relates back to aiming for 80% instead of 100% and is a form of exposure therapy.
If you really want to see that the world still turns despite your being imperfect, make conscious mistakes that you could have actually avoided.
…but make them small for now.
So compose an email and include a typo. Over-bake that brownie you’re making. Leave one corner of your bedroom in a mess for a whole week!
The sky will not fall. Life will continue. Take note and learn from this.
Acknowledge that it’s only human to make mistakes.
Recognize that most mistakes actually help with learning and growth.
Remain realistic about possible outcomes by confronting fear of failure.
The Bottom Line
Since, as we’ve discussed, this pattern of behavior has been a long time in the making, it won’t be a quick fix.
Hopefully, by adopting some of the suggestions above, you’ll soon be able to move away from the all-or-nothing approach to life.
You’ll need to remind yourself regularly that it’s OK not to be perfect and to give yourself permission to lower your gaze from the pinnacle of perfection you previously saw as the only worthwhile goal.
Author Harriet B. Braiker neatly summarized the negative effect of perfectionism:
Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralizing.
Working as a freelance copywriter, Juliana is following a path well-trodden by her family, who seem to have 'wordsmithing' in their DNA. She'll turn her quill to anything from lifestyle and wellness articles to blog posts and SEO articles. All this is underpinned by a lifetime of travel, cultural exchange and her love of the richly expressive medium of the English language.