5 Reasons to Ditch Perfectionism

  • Copy by: Sarah Seung-McFarland, Ph.D.

Are you a perfectionist? If so, you may be conscientious about following rules, and doing what is right and “proper.” Perhaps you take pride in being orderly, dependable, and detail-oriented. You may even wear your perfectionistic tendencies like a badge of honor, jokingly letting others know you’re a little “OCD” (that’s Obsessive Compulsive Disorder).

On the flip side, you may be fearful of making mistakes, and attempt to compensate for shortcomings by being super controlling and rigid about what you expect from yourself (and others). If you made a mistake during your PowerPoint presentation, it doesn’t matter that you did a great job overall. You’ve spent hours and even days rehashing the mistake wishing you prepared harder. If your supervisor provided you with constructive criticism and areas for improvement on your yearly evaluation, it doesn’t matter that you reached all your identified goals for the year. You just can’t seem to shake the nagging feeling that your performance wasn’t good enough. And if your co-worker scored better on those areas than you did, you’ve been secretly resentful, and find it hard to be happy for your co-worker because you’re equally as unhappy with yourself.

Sound like you? If so, you might be a perfectionist. This is not to be confused with a desire to be your best, or even the pursuit of perfection, both of which can help us reach our highest potential. Rather, perfectionism is a trait associated with fear, and is seen in individuals with avoidant, dependent, and obsessive-compulsive personality disorders, all of which are driven by anxiety and worry. Perfectionism increases our anxiety, and ironically drives us away from our most perfect selves. While no one strives towards imperfection, there is a difference between those who use imperfections to make themselves better and those who use it to validate deeper-seated insecurities. Here are five reasons to ditch perfectionism.

1.    We gain a sense of freedom.

If freedom was a superhero, perfectionism would be its arch enemy. Our perfectionistic tendencies hold us hostage and can be so relentless, we may find ourselves remembering every mishap we’ve ever made. This is counterproductive, and prevents us from focusing on our successes. While no one likes to make mistakes, we must learn to accept them, and know that it does not change our value or self-worth. Once we can do this, we have freedom— the freedom to do well, the freedom to mess up, and the freedom to learn from it, all without allowing mistakes to define us.

2.    It promotes growth.

When we are perfectionistic, there is only success and failure, nothing in between. Therefore, there is no room to learn and grow because doing so brings the possibility of failure. Consequently,we function purely within our comfort zone and develop no new skills. On the other hand, if we are not driven by fear of failure, we do not limit ourselves to what we know we can do well, and are more likely to take risks that promote learning and growth.

 

3.    We learn to appreciate the process.

In all fairness, most of us would prefer not to go through the struggles and challenges life brings. In fact, we develop perfectionistic tendencies to shield us from these negative experiences. That is, if we’re “perfect” we can avoid the emotional injury that accompanies these experiences. The problem is, in order to be our best selves, we must experience struggles because it authenticates us. It is our ability to overcome inevitable challenges that help to shape us and make us emotionally stronger than we would have been had we not been challenged.

4.    We can shine.

If in fact we were perfect, what would that mean? That we’d never make a mistake? That we never did anything different from the status quo? I’m not sure what that would look like, and quite frankly, it sounds a little scary (think Stepford Wives). When we harbor perfectionistic tendencies, our anxiety makes us cautious, and this can be reinforcing if we succeed in avoiding mistakes. But at the same time, we also suppress unique aspects of ourselves, those qualities that cause us to shine or stand out. Let’s say we both desire to own similar business. If we are true to ourselves, your business and mine would certainly be different. Otherwise, we’d be offering the same exact services in the same exact way, and that would be most uninteresting. Our idiosyncrasies and faults are what distinguish us from others.

 

5.    It reduces the risk for developing anxiety or anxiety-related disorders.

We may be predisposed to certain disorders based upon our genetic make-up, our psychological functioning, and our environment. While the desire to be perfect may not be a disorder per se, it can develop into an anxiety disorder if it isn’t addressed. The constant barrage of needing to be perfect, being fearful of failure, and feeling too anxious to try new things is taxing, and saps our emotional energy. We must be kind to ourselves with healthy and accurate thoughts even when it feels counter intuitive to do so because this is what brings peace of mind.

If you are dealing with perfectionistic tendencies that have been impairing your ability to function at work, maintain healthy relationships, or progress in other major areas of your life, you may want to consider meeting with a therapist who specializes in treating anxiety.

These resources may also be helpful:

  1. Life Without Limits: Clarify what you Want, Redefine Your Dreams, Become the  Person You Want to Be, by Lucinda Bassett. 
  2. Never Good Enough: How to Use Pefectionism to You’re your Advantage Without Letting it Ruin Your Life, by Monica Ramirez Basco, PhD.
  3. When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough: Strategies for Coping with Perfectionism, by Martin Antony, PhD.

 

  • All I can say is thank you so much for sharing these tips! As a perfectionist/over-achiever, it’s SO hard for me to let go of the little things. I love what you said about appreciating the process. I’m starting to learn that the key to success and happiness is really focusing on the process instead of dwelling on the end result. Thank you again for sharing!

  • This is totally on point. Perfectionism for me is 100% related to protecting myself from the emotional injury associated with criticism, judgement or being told I’ve failed by someone else. It’s so hard to be susceptible to that!

    xx Jill

    Latest Post – In the Red Zone – From Weddings to Cocktail Hour

  • I love this especially because perfectionism is glorified everywhere we look. Perfectionism can be hugely detrimental to nurturing the most unique and special parts of ourselves, yet we have been programmed to see the world as perfect vs. flawed. I love your tips and thoughts. They are so valid and important to remember.
    Thank you!
    xx Sydney

  • I’m so glad you wrote this. I used to really have a problem with perfectionism, but I’ve since let loose, and I feel so much freer! It took kind of forever, but it was worth the effort. A lot of it had to do with letting go of what other people think about me. Great post!
    Happy Summer!
    xx Lane

  • These tips are generally good, but there’s more to perfectionism than what many (and articles like this) identify as a bad habit. Perfectionism is often a personality trait of introverts, and it isn’t necessarily something people need to fix or get over. The “why” of this is explained well in Susan Cain’s book, “Quiet,” which I’d recommend to everyone, perfectionists, introverts, and extroverts alike.

  • Wow, this was such a great post! Dealing with perfectionism is so tough. It can be such a hindrance in ways I never realized until recently. You pointed out some things I’ve never thought about, like how the behavior is reinforced when we successfully avoid mistakes/failure/etc. This definitely makes me take pause and want to delve back into the topic. Thanks for posting!

  • Great tips. It can be difficult to take a deep breath and let someone else do something their way. At the same time it can be empowering to not feel so controlling.

    The fastest way to break the cycle of perfectionism and become a fearless mother is to give up the idea of doing it perfectly – indeed to embrace uncertainty and imperfection. – Arianna Huffington

    Keep up the great information!
    Megan
    Life’s Baggage. Everyone has it, it’s how we carry it that defines us.
    http://www.LifesBaggage.com

  • ‘When we are perfectionistic, there is only success and failure, nothing in between.’ – Like these words from your article..so true. Great piece!

  • great tips!! thanks for this