Do you feel like no matter how hard you try, it’s never good enough? If you answered yes to this question, odds are you are a grade-A perfectionist. Let me be the first to extend a warm welcome to the recovering-perfectionist club!
Perfectionism may help you succeed in some cases but expecting perfection from yourself day in and day out is a recipe for burnout. When you learn to let go of the need to be perfect 24/7, you release built-up anxiety and show yourself some much-needed self-love.
In this article, I will outline exactly how you can start to silence your inner critic and give yourself the grace to live a wonderfully imperfect life.
Why we strive for perfection
What’s so great about being perfect anyway?
When you start to really answer that question, you realize that perfectionism is generally a means of achieving some type of unmet need.
In some cases, research shows that perfectionism stems from social demands or the desire to gain recognition from others. Sometimes perfectionism is more of an internal problem driven by a lack of self-esteem that leads a person to find their worth in being the best.
I know I’m making it sound like perfectionism is a “bad” thing, but striving to do or be the best isn’t always a negative choice.
A study in 2004 found that there is a maladaptive form of perfectionism and then there is a form of perfectionism that may actually be beneficial. It’s like the right amount of earnest striving is helpful for us, but when you cross that line into obsessive perfection you tend to suffer the consequences.
As someone who swam in the sea of perfectionism as a means to try to find self-worth, I don’t recommend striving for absolute perfection unless you enjoy being disappointed repeatedly.
Effects of perfectionism
It’s true that as a perfectionist you are going to provide some top-notch results that gain the attention of others from time to time. But when you fall short or don’t gain the approval of others, it can eat at your mental and physical well-being.
A study in 2012 found that individuals who emphasized perfection in the workplace experienced significantly increased stress levels at work and were more likely to burn out.
I have tried to be a star employee and go above and beyond no matter what throughout my career as a physical therapist. And while this may drive me to learn more and be better, it often leads me to further feel inadequate when I fail and has left me in a state of exhaustion more times than not.
What’s even more astounding is how perfectionism can literally impact your physical health. Research shows that perfectionists are more likely to have high blood pressure, which may lead to cardiovascular complications.
There might be some benefits to being a perfectionist. But from my point of view, the negatives outweigh the positives.
5 ways to stop being a perfectionist
Now that you’ve officially joined the recovering perfectionist club, it’s time for you to get initiated by following these 5 steps to leave the need for perfection in the past.
1. Make sure your expectations are reasonable
Step one to ditching the title of a perfectionist is to seriously consider how reasonable your expectations are.
Let me give you an example to illustrate the point. In grad school, I put this insane pressure on myself to get 100% on all of my gross anatomy exams. I figured if I wanted to be a physical therapist I needed to know everything perfectly.
Through extreme forms of self-torture in the form of all-night study parties and abusing caffeine, I did get 100% on my first few exams. But guess what? It didn’t take long before I fell short.
I got a 95% on my third exam and I remember calling my mom and telling her how disappointed I was in myself. She told me that expecting myself to get 100% all the time was absolutely ridiculous.
If you tell your expectations to someone else and find that they react like you are insane, odds are it’s time to set more realistic expectations. And in case you were wondering, striving for perfection is not a reasonable expectation in any situation.
If you need help with this, here's an article on how to better manage your expectations.
2. Give your best and leave it at that
You have to start realizing that your best is good enough. Sometimes “your best” may not look like perfection and that’s okay.
When it comes to patient care, I used to aspire to have every single patient feel pain-free when they left. It took a lot of failing at that goal to realize that there are many factors out of my control and that human bodies are not quite that simple.
But I had a mentor tell me, “If you’re giving that person the best treatment you possibly can with the tools that you have, then you can’t be upset when the outcome doesn’t go the way you want.” That stuck with me.
I still try my hardest with each and every patient that walks through the door, but I don’t beat myself up when I don’t get a perfect outcome anymore. Do your best and understand that in life there are so many factors outside of your control that can result in you falling short of perfection.
3. Talk yourself off the ledge
Have you ever been staring a deadline in the face while having the realization that the final product is not the perfection you had hoped for? I’ve been there a time or two.
At moments like this, I am usually repeatedly saying what a failure I am and asking myself how could I fall short on something that mattered to me. But what’s silly is my perception of “failing” in these moments is so off. And my self-talk is half of the problem.
I would say 8 out of 10 times when I think I have “failed”, no one else thinks that at all. So it’s this voice inside my head that screams at me that “it’s not good enough” or “if I just did this a little better” is more of the problem than anything else.
When I was designing a program for a company I worked for, I was frustrated because the diagrams in the pictures were coming out slightly blurry on the handouts. I thought my bosses were for sure going to notice and be frustrated by my lack of focus on the visual details.
I literally stayed up the whole night before trying to fix it to no avail. Many hours of sleep were lost.
My bosses didn’t even notice and were so pleased with the final outcome that they still use it. Talk yourself off the perfectionist ledge and start talking to yourself nicely instead.
If you really want something to be done as close to perfection as is considered reasonable, then you probably ought to delegate some of the load to a team. If you don’t have a team to delegate to and the task seems too daunting, then you really need to reconsider your expectations once again.
I have tried so many times in my life to be a one-man team and it never turns out well for me in the end. I wanted a group project in college to be done to perfection, so I decided I would do all the parts because I didn’t trust my teammates.
It quickly became apparent that if I wanted to finish this project and get the outcome I desired, I needed to share the load with the team. Once I had a conversation with my group about all our expectations, it became apparent that they cared just as much as I did so my lack of trust was unwarranted.
And let me tell you, that project turned out a million times better with all of us contributing than it would have if I tried to go at it alone. Let go of the idea that your way is the best and perfect way. Instead, let a team help you out and your stress levels will go down almost immediately.
5. Practice self-forgiveness
How quick are you to forgive your best friend when they make a silly mistake? I bet you forgive them in an instant.
So why don’t you forgive yourself when you fall short? It’s a question worth reflecting on.
I know I am my own worst critic and I will ruminate on how I messed up when I don’t achieve perfection. But my life coach has helped me come to a place where when I get into this cycle she tells me to think about what I would say to a friend. She then tells me to give myself that same type of grace and tell myself those same words.
It’s a simple practice, but it has helped me immensely when it comes to healing from my perfectionistic behaviors that lead to beating myself up.
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Letting go of perfectionism is like coming up for air when you’ve been holding your breath underwater. You can find the freedom that stems from abandoning an obsessive desire to be perfect by using the steps from this article. And as a lifelong member of the recovering perfectionist club, I can assure you that opening yourself up to the beauty of imperfection is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
Are you dealing with feelings of perfectionism? What's your favorite tip to stop being a perfectionist? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below!