The Counselling Centre

Perfectionism

What is it?

Perfectionism can be described as the belief that making mistakes is unacceptable, that whatever is done must be done error-free. People who are perfectionistic often believe that making mistakes makes them less successful, less likeable, and even less worthy people. Perfectionistic people often feel compelled to work harder and harder to reach perfection.

Negative consequences of perfectionism Frustration: You can never achieve what you think you ought to achieve, so you are never satisfied with yourself or your performance.

Procrastination: If you fear you cannot do a task perfectly, you may avoid the task altogether. For a perfectionist, it is often easier and less painful to avoid a task than to admit that the perfectionistic expectations are impossible to achieve.

Low Self-Esteem: Perfectionistic people are their own worst critics and often wouldn’t dream of treating a friend as they do themselves. Perfectionistic people frequently tell themselves that they are not trying hard enough, not doing well enough and even that they are not good enough as people.

Anxiety or Depression: Severe perfectionism can leave a person feeling anxious or depressed since there is rarely a sense of accomplishment, satisfaction, and reward for hard work. Underlying the hard-driving style of some perfectionistic people is uncertainty or fear about the future since they do not believe they will ever be good enough or be able to maintain high performance long enough.

Perfectionism VS Success-Oriented

Perfectionists tend to be less successful than non-perfectionists because they spend too much time worrying about being perfectionistic and not enough time making mistakes and finding out what works and what does not. Even when they fail at something, non-perfectionists often achieve more, because they recover from failure more quickly and can produce more without having to worry about getting everything exactly right.

It is possible to be success-oriented without being perfectionistic.

A Perfectionistic Person A Success-Oriented Person
Sets goals that are very difficult to impossible to achieve. Sets goals that are realistic and achievable.
Gives self little or no personal recognition of accomplishment when goals are achieved. Celebrates the personal accomplishment when goals are achieved.
Sets an even higher, less achievable goal when a smaller goal is achieved. Sets another realistic, achievable goal when a smaller goal is achieved.
Takes failure at a goal as personal failure: "I am a failure because I failed this goal." Takes failure at a goal as a goal failure, not as a personal failure: "I am angry at this failure, but I am still a good person."
Has beliefs that "I must be perfect or things will go wrong; I won't get what I need; or people won't approve of me." Has belief that "I can and will make mistakes because I am human, and I can still be very successful."

How can I let go of Perfectionism?

Change the way you think and feel about yourself:

  • Be honest with yourself about the consequences of your perfectionism. Are the consequences hurting you enough to want to change?
  • Face your fears about not being perfect. Write down a list of "the worst things that will happen if I stop being a perfectionist". Go over each item on the list and ask yourself how realistic it is. Chances are that it is not very realistic. Then write down a more realistic view of what you fear.
  • Catch yourself in the act of saying perfectionistic things to yourself and change your self-talk to be more gentle and self-accepting.
  • Stop basing your self-esteem on external accomplishments and others’ perceptions of you. Instead make a list of positive characteristics you value about yourself that are there regardless of your performance on a specific task.
  • Replace unproductive thoughts with more positive, realistic thoughts.
  • Let go of old messages and beliefs taught by family or friends about needing to be perfect or to accomplish many things in order to be loved.

Change the way you act:

  • Set realistic goals that you can accomplish in the amount of time you have. Pat yourself on the back for even small steps toward a goal.
  • Estimate how much positive feelings you anticipate getting from approaching something perfectionistically, and compare it to how positive you actually feel after the activity. You may find that you anticipate far more positive feeling than you actually get.
  • Make small changes in behaviour that help shift you to a more success-oriented focus.
  • Intentionally make small mistakes like wearing unmatching socks or dialing a phone number incorrectly to relieve the pressure of having to be perfect.
  • Put time in your schedule for "non-productive" free time, just to relax and get away from the pressure to always be producing.

Change the way you relate to others:

  • Share your thoughts and feelings with non-perfectionistic friends and ask them to give you feedback on whether you are being perfectionistic.
  • Practice accepting imperfection in others, and let them know you care about them a lot even though they are not perfect.
  • Let go of feeling responsible for other people's actions and feelings, and for the outcome of events you have no control over.

Overcoming perfectionism requires time, effort, and considerable practice at applying the above suggestions. It is not an easy process, nor is it a perfect one. But many people have succeeded at doing so and report being rewarded with less stress, more enjoyment of life, higher self-esteem, and equal or greater success.

Adapted from "An Imperfect Look at Overcoming Perfectionism" by Dr. Glenn Hirsch, Learning & Academic Skills Center, University of Minnesota.

The Counselling Centre offers individual and couples counselling to help with these issues. For more information, call The Counselling Centre at 902-420-5615 or drop by our office on the 4th floor of the Student Centre.