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How to stop perfectionism from making you miserable

We'd all love to be perfect. Beyond criticism, universally approved of, every decision the right one. Sounds great! Whilst many of us gave up on achieving this impossible dream long ago, perfectionists are true believers, endlessly striving for the ultimate moment when everything is just right - all tasks completed, all relationships running smoothly, self-improved till there's no more improving to do. But given it's not possible to be perfect, perfectionists' only option is to constantly fall short and endure a perpetual feeling of not being good enough.

Are you a perfectionist?

Perfectionism - as the name suggests - basically means a striving towards perfection. Many of us like to set high standards and set goals for ourselves. It only becomes a problem when our perfectionism, rather than being a useful skill we can selectively bring to bear on a situation, becomes instead a prison from which we cannot escape. Standards tend to be unrealistically high and falling short can lead to feelings of failure. Perfectionists are focused on outcomes. There is little enjoyment or satisfaction in the process, only in the end result, which remains (and always will remain) in the distant future.

Check with yourself:

Do you hold yourself and others to standards that are unrealistically high?

Are you indecisive because you know there is a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ option but you don’t know which is which?

Do you tend to notice what’s not working, what’s unfinished or undone rather than what is working and what you have accomplished?

Do you rarely feel good about yourself because you need to be perfect to feel okay?

Do you beat yourself up about mistakes?

If these apply, then yes indeed, you are likely to be a perfectionist. Research tells us that there are different types of perfectionism, referred to as ‘personal standards perfectionism’ and ‘evaluative concerns perfectionism.’[1] Personal standards perfectionism is about the expectations we have of ourselves. There are upsides and downsides so this type of perfectionism. On the one hand it can promote conscientiousness and diligence. On the other hand, it can leave us prone to ruminating, being neurotic and feeling depressed [2]. This version of perfectionism can be the enemy of pleasure and relaxation. It may even be a feature in our down time in that when we relax and enjoy ourselves we have to do it ‘right.’ Everyone has to have a good time! Demanding, controlling, critical - doesn’t sound very perfect!

By contrast, evaluative concerns perfectionism is all about how we are perceived by others. If this is our issue then we are likely to imagine others expect perfection of us and feel the need to live up to these socially prescribed standards, feeling bad about ourselves when we fall short of what we believe is expected of us [3]. How do we know if perfectionism is a problem? It’s really down to whether it causes distress and leads to negative feelings about ourselves. Having high standards – achievable ones – is generally a positive thing. Overcoming perfectionism isn’t about having no standards, but it is about setting realistic expectations and not beating yourself up when things don’t always work out.

Why are we perfectionists?

Often it’s because we were rewarded for being that way when we were little, and maybe still are in some contexts. We may have parents who valued getting it right, or our parents may have seen us as an extension of themselves and wanted us to be perfect to reflect well on them. We can be left with the belief that our value is contingent on being perfect and if we don’t get it right we will be disapproved of or rejected. There can be cultural elements, too, so if we are digging around in our family history for the origins of this stuff, we may also want to pay attention to our culture which also gives out some pretty strong messages about how we need to be and how our lives need to look in order to be okay.

Perfectionism - as with many of our problems – started out as a solution. As in: Everything will be okay if I can just be perfect! Of course, in the end, the solution of being more perfect becomes the problem; even more so if our solution was effective! If trying very hard and being as perfect as possible did indeed lead to approval then our behaviour is supported. In our mind we conclude that we have earned approval through our efforts, we are only being loved or valued because we are trying so hard. The faulty belief that we have to be perfect to be approved of is reinforced. Even when we realise our perfectionism has become a problem we can’t let go because we may deeply believe that if we’re not perfect all those things we feared, like being rejected or abandoned, will come true.

To get an insight into what is behind your perfectionism, ask yourself: What problem am I trying to solve by being perfect?

How to let go of perfectionism

Although it may be deeply ingrained, there are some simple steps you can take to loosen the grip of perfectionism.

1. Accept it’s a problem

If you are a perfectionist, to move forward you first need to understand that uncontrolled perfectionism is a problem not a solution. This means committing to the idea of no longer striving to be perfect/the best. It means giving up on the illusion that perfect is possible.

2. Accept your flaws

As hard as it may seem to accept your imperfections and flaws, therein lies great power! When we accept ourselves as we are, we no longer need to live in fear of someone noticing our flaws. After all, we’re not trying to hide them! We’re easier on ourselves and others. We don’t have to worry about not being perfect because we already accept that we’re not.

3. Focus on the process not the outcome

Perfectionists are focused on outcomes. To feel relaxed and settled, you need everything to be done, sorted, completed, achieved. BUT! Imagine if instead you reach the view that being in the mess is the point, that living with it is the point, that being in the learning phase rather than having the right answer is the point, then your perspective shifts. If you MUST retain your perfectionism then redirect it, towards being perfectly accepting of yourself as you are, of life's up and downs, of the flaws in all of us including ourselves.

4. Lower your standards

Not to be confused with having no standards, we are instead talking about having realistic, achievable standards. This is particularly important for those who indulge in lots of self-criticism when standards are not met. Get realistic standards and you’re halfway towards solving the problem (not being self-critical taking care of the rest of it). Decide that good enough really is good enough. Every time you find yourself feeling tense and stressed because some task is not completed or things are not quite as you want them to be, practise saying to yourself: It’s good enough.

That said, research also tells us that some people are able to hold very high standards whilst being tolerant of falling short. For such people, having high standards does not cause difficulties. If this is you, then by all means keep your standards!

5. Pipe down your inner critic

It may come naturally for you to be highly critical of yourself (and others), but there is another way. It’s not compulsory to give yourself a hard time. You may instead want to adopt a more compassionate approach. Talk to yourself as you would to a friend. Encourage, support, forgive.

6. Let go of right and wrong thinking

Perfectionists get stuck in the idea that there is a right answer and a wrong one. Perhaps we give our diligence credit for all the things that have gone ‘right’ in our lives and feel pleased with ourselves that we weighed up the options so carefully. But the fact is, we don’t and can’t know what would have happened if we’d made other choices, whether things would have turned out better or worse. Or whether (most likely) things would have turned out a different version of right. All we can know is that it would have been different. And that goes for our future choices as well. They are not neatly divided into ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and we have to figure out which category they fall into. They are simply different. We can accept that any decision we make is limited by our inability to see into the future. We can only do the best we can with the information we have.

7. Address the problem perfectionism was designed to solve in your life

If you answered the earlier question you’ll realise that you are a perfectionist for a reason. Maybe you feel that only by being perfect can someone love you or only by being perfect will you be approved of. These kinds of beliefs probably originated when you were young and likely seemed logical at the time. Online psychotherapy can help you understand more about the underlying causes of your perfectionism and what you need to do to get past it.

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