Silencing our harshest critic: recognizing and breaking free of perfectionism
An accomplished author sits across from her computer screen staring at the blinking cursor. Perfectionism leans over her shoulder whispering believable lies: “It’s not good enough;” “You don’t know enough;” “You might as well give up now.” She attempts to write through the noise, fighting to craft sentences that are quickly erased by the exacting critic inside. The process is tortuous, but not unfamiliar. The idea of not living up to the exceptionally high standards she places on herself has inspired fear since childhood. While perfectionism and associated shame have served as motivators in the past, she now finds them to be impacting her relationships, physical health, and overall sense of well-being. Additionally, she has failed to meet deadlines at work due to the intense fear of failure resulting in procrastination and incomplete work.
If this scenario sounds familiar, consider taking some comfort in knowing that you are not alone. High achievers, creatives, and others striving for excellence are often visited by perfectionism. Defined as a multidimensional concept, perfectionism can have three main types:
Self-oriented: Unrealistically high and impossible to attain standards for self
Other-oriented: Expecting others to meet your unrealistically high standards
Socially prescribed: Believing that others have expectations of you are impossible to meet
More generally, perfectionism is associated with a preoccupation with flaws, chronic dissatisfaction with outcomes, and/or an excessive focus on organization interfering with productivity.
Shiny at first, perfectionism can seem to promise myriad benefits such as relief from criticism, admiration from others, and perhaps the creation an exceptional product. However, perfectionism usually comes with costs that appear over time. Ranging in severity, perfectionism can impact relationships, career performance, and even lead to anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and suicidality.
So how can we move forward and learn to work and live from a place of self-acceptance and compassion? While there are no easy answers, here are some strategies to try:
1. Consider your motivation for change
Every behavior, even those that are considered harmful (smoking, alcohol abuse), usually has some advantages to them; otherwise they would not continue. Perfectionism is no different. Consider the assets and costs of living with perfectionistic attitudes and behaviors. Get curious about what you may consider to be useful about perfectionism and if there are underlying sustaining beliefs. Then take time to look at the specific costs of the perfectionism to your life. Weigh the two sides of these pros/cons against each other and consider where you are in the stages of change.
2. Identifying problem areas
While some may struggle with perfectionism across several domains, others only struggle in certain areas. Common areas for perfectionism to arise include: performance at work or school, neatness and aesthetics, writing, speaking, physical appearance, health, personal cleanliness, and organization. If desired, practice keeping a diary (handwritten or electronic) recording the areas throughout your day or week in which perfectionism impacts your life. It can be useful to list thoughts, behaviors, and mood for each scenario to raise awareness of which situations may be triggering and require more attention.
3. Clarify your values
Socially prescribed perfectionism can be closely associated with people pleasing, the desire to fulfill the needs of others oftentimes at the detriment of one’s own values. Individuals struggling with this type of perfectionism may spend time excessively worrying about the approval of others such as a professor or a boss. Take a step back and reflect upon your overall values and goals. Perform a values inventory in order to look at broad categories and consider where you are putting your time versus where you would like to put your time. If you are not sure whether you are experiencing this type of perfectionism, ask yourself, “do I feel more accountable to myself or to others?” Individuals who are more focused on being more accountable to themselves tend to have lower rates of burnout than individuals who worry about how others perceive them.
4. Practice radical acceptance
Oftentimes in starting on the journey of change, shame can increase due to self-critical comments toward s oneself for not making progress fast enough. It can be worthwhile to remind yourself there is no perfect way to work through perfectionism! Consider utilizing the practice of radical acceptance, in which you embrace yourself wholeheartedly while proceeding toward change imperfectly.
There are additional strategies to target perfectionism beyond these four steps. While it may seem arduous and difficult work at first, it can be hopeful to know there are many paths towards freedom from perfectionism. If desired, it can be beneficial to access the support of a trusted other, such as a trained mental health professional, too. There are also excellent resources to check out if this is an area of personal or professional interest (see further reading below).
Most importantly, give yourself credit for taking the time to acknowledge and learn more about this common challenge.
Brach, T.(2004). Radical Acceptance. New York, New York: Bantam Dell.
Antony, M. & Swinson, R. (2009). When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough. Oakland, California: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Szymanski, J. (2011). The perfectionist’s handbook: take risks, invite criticism, and make the most of your mistakes. Hoboken, New Jersey: Harvard Health Publications.
Brooke Huminski is a therapist in Rhode Island and Massachusetts with particular specialization in eating disorders, perfectionism, caregiver stress, and geriatric and aging related issues. Brooke utilizes an integrative approach grounded in evidence-based practice, including Dialectical Behavioral Therapy.