Perfectionism: Finding the In-Between

Perfectionism is a “refusal to accept any standard short of perfection.” Based on this definition, if it is a refusal, we have a choice in the standards we set for ourselves.

How does it develop?

Perfectionism can stem from extremely high, often unrealistic expectations for oneself. Expectations are often instilled in us from our caregivers, leaders, friends, or society. But they can morph into nearly impossible goals we set for ourselves later on in life. With the abundant resources around us, the constant highlight reels in social media, and the competitive nature of our society, it can feel like there is no excuse to not be better than we already are.

Though the origins of our perfectionist tendencies differ for everyone, they are usually maintained by patterns of thinking that involve doing something better every time. But it is often to the detrimental extent where it never is or feels good enough.

When is it too much?

Perfectionism serves many purposes. However, like many qualities we have, if they start to have harmful effects on ourselves or others, it might be worthy of outside help. If your perfectionism is distressing or causing physical or mental harm, it might require treatment. For instance, perfectionism can impact the way we think about and talk to ourselves. This may sound like critical statements towards ourselves like “If I don’t succeed at this, I am a failure.” Or “I didn’t finish what I wanted to, I am so lazy.” Or it may look like dismissing the ten things we accomplished while instead focusing on the one thing we didn’t. Each of these thoughts can lead us down a dangerous path of low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety. But there are ways to help with this.

Strategies to aid perfectionism

Practice self-compassion. Self-compassion involves accepting yourself where you are and offering yourself the same kindness you would a friend or loved one. Write down the remarks you make to yourself when you make a mistake or don’t reach your goals. Then rewrite it kindly using positive language. Remember, this is a constant practice. Perfection isn’t what we are aiming for here. Instead, perhaps it’s self-acceptance.

Beware of the all-or-nothing thinking. All or nothing thinking is when there is rarely an in-between state. It’s either I am really good at this or I absolutely stink at this (as one example). A goal might be to find the in-between. This might sound like “I didn’t do as well as I wanted on this project. But I can see what I did well and where I fell short, so I can make some changes.” The growth and reflection are worth celebrating here perhaps more than achieving the project itself.

Notice our self-talk. When we achieve our goals, how do we speak to ourselves? Is it an automatic, “oh I can do even better next time?” Is it “ that was pretty great, I’m going to celebrate!” What about when we don’t reach our goals? Is it “wow, I really stink at this? Why even bother at this point” or “you’re such an idiot for thinking you could do this….” Although we may not have reached our goal, there is a risk of spiraling into what this means to us and about us. Catching ourselves prior to spiraling down an abyss of negativity is the first step. And to do this, we must notice how what we tell ourselves. Once we do, we can record our thoughts in order to shift them to be kinder and more realistic.

Can perfectionism be helpful?

Many perfectionists see perfectionism as their “secret sauce,” the very thing that helps them succeed. Many artists and professionals rely on it to create the incredible works that they do. Perhaps it’s not so much getting rid of this valuable characteristic, but increasing our awareness of it; letting it inform us rather than rule us.

Like many (or all) of the qualities we carry, we don’t necessarily have to let go of our perfectionism entirely. Instead, we can learn more about how much it contributes to our life in order to recognize when it can be helpful versus harmful. Every characteristic we have falls on a spectrum. So many of them have the potential to become either harmful on one extreme or barely existent on the other. Perfectionism can add a lot to our lives like aiming for accuracy and setting goals to promote growth. It can become problematic when we define ourselves by our perfectionism and become discouraged or disparaged when we fall short.

Perhaps, to continue with that analogy of the “secret sauce,” like any sauce, usually a little goes a long way, right? So finding when to apply it and when to pull back and offer ourselves grace can be the art of that delicate balance.