Do you consider yourself a perfectionist? Some of us desire perfection in an endless quest. At its peak, this can feel noble, especially as you see strides in your pursuits. But at its lowest, you may feel profoundly inadequate, leading to feelings of anxiety and poor self-esteem.
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So how do you balance a desire for achievement fueled by perfectionism with a need for self-care and kindness?
“The first step is to know yourself,” says psychologist Scott Bea, PsyD. “Recognize whether your self-talk is positive or negative. Also, understand what perfectionism is and how it may be operating in your life.”
What is perfectionism?
Perfectionism is the pursuit of flawlessness. “It means having very high performance standards, often coupled with severe self-criticism and fear of criticism from others,” Dr. Bea says.
For many people, perfectionism starts in childhood.
“It can be instilled by parents, teachers, clergy or other authority figures,” he says. “Anyone who shames us, or anyone who makes us feel like our self-worth is dependent on our accomplishments.”
Perfectionism and higher pursuits
Having high standards has its benefits. It can help people improve their skills, even though (dare we say it?) no one actually becomes perfect.
“Musicians, athletes and doctors, for example, might not achieve success if they weren’t constantly trying to improve,” Dr. Bea says.
Perfectionism and procrastination
Of course, the pursuit of perfection can have a definite dark side.
“Procrastination is the most common consequence of perfectionism,” Dr. Bea says. “If you’re afraid that your results won’t be perfect, it creates a lot of anxiety. Backing away from that anxiety — by, say, watching TV instead of working on a presentation you have to give — releases the tension you feel.”
This leads to a cycle of avoiding tasks that make you anxious, which, in turn, makes your anxiety even worse.
Mental health challenges
For some, the consequences of perfectionism are even more dire.
“I see perfectionistic traits in people with obsessive-compulsive disorder, body dysmorphic disorder and eating disorders,” Dr. Bea says. “It’s a risk factor for suicide. It contributes to social anxiety. It can be very debilitating.”
5 tips for perfectionists: How to find balance
Need to ease up on yourself? Dr. Bea has some suggestions. If you are achievement-oriented, it’s a matter of finding that sweet spot where you are driven (and productive) but not self-tortured.
- Embrace humility. “As best you can, appreciate your humanness,” he says. Accept that perfection is an impossible goal, and that sometimes you will make mistakes, fall short or embarrass yourself — just like everyone else. This can feel intensely liberating.
- Develop a capacity to laugh at yourself. “Take your obligations seriously, but don’t take yourself so seriously,” he says.
- Note your ability to survive mistakes. Chances are, you can think of some pretty serious blunders you’ve made. These situations may have been distressing at the time, but you made it through. In fact, you may have even learned something.
- Weigh the costs of striving for perfection against the benefits. You may find that the costs are higher than you realized: constant self-blame, inability to relax, reluctance to try new things and poor self-esteem, for example. It’s incredibly freeing to accept yourself as someone who is sometimes messy and imperfect.
- Experiment with intentionally making things less than perfect. “Mess up the magazines on your coffee table,” says Dr. Bea. “Knock a picture frame askew.” Practice tolerating these relatively minor imperfections.
Some people can also benefit from a professional’s help. If a perfectionistic tendency is significantly impacting your life, a therapist can help you feel accepted for who you are, while tuning in to any negative messages you’re telling yourself. In the end, you can learn to be kinder to yourself.