How to Overcome Perfectionism, According to Experts
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Lying in a hospital room three days after I gave birth, all I could hear were the constant, high-pitched beeps of alarms going off and the screams of the person in the bed to my left in symphony with the moans of the one to my right. I was hooked up to so many monitors. It was freezing.
This can’t be right. I’m not supposed to be in the emergency room. I need to get home to my baby; no, I need to go back to yesterday when everything was OK. Where is my baby? He needs to be fed—he’s only three days old. Don’t they understand how badly I need to leave?
It was terrifying, and I felt so out of control, suddenly pitched into a world I didn’t recognize. From a difficult labor, to ending up in the ER just three days after giving birth, this was not how I envisioned becoming a mom. I had spent my whole life dreaming of those moments, and reality never even came close.
“What did I do wrong?” I thought. “How did I let this happen?”
Now, I realize it makes sense that I would have those thoughts: I used to have perfectionist tendencies. I’ve always had big expectations for myself and have achievements to match. Throughout my career, I’ve tended to set standards for myself that others might find unreasonable, but which I found necessary. I wanted to control every element of my environment.
But when I became a mother — starting with my traumatic birth story — I quickly realized that wasn’t possible. My house was going to be perpetually messy, my toddler wasn’t going to stop screaming at me, and my kids weren’t going to stop getting sick, throwing all carefully curated plans out the window in the process. In short, my environment wasn’t going to change — so I needed to.
Seeking perfection is an impossible goal
According to the American Psychological Association, perfectionism is the tendency to demand of others or of oneself an extremely high or even flawless level of performance, in excess of what is required by the situation.
“Perfectionism is often associated with over-responsibility and an overdeveloped need for control,” explains Dr. Dimitra Takos, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in trauma and stress-related conditions at South Coast Psychological Services. “Perfectionists often assume they have a lot more control over negative events in their life, despite multiple factors outside their control. When negative events occur, perfectionists often blame themselves and may ruminate over how they could have done things differently to prevent the negative outcome from occurring. This is not very helpful, as many things in life cannot be prevented or controlled."
Lots of women set lofty expectations for themselves. In fact, according to survey results from 1,400 individuals collected by PsychTests researchers, almost 47% of women had perfectionistic tendencies compared to only 38% of men. Sometimes these expectations include factors of life that are truly out of our control. Then, when things don’t go perfectly, we are struck by what can feel like overwhelming negative emotions and a sense of a loss of control.
Perfectionism carries health risks
We tend to put so much pressure on ourselves to maintain our version of perfection that there are physical implications for our health. Perfection may be tied to cardiovascular disease, stress, anxiety and depression, particularly among women, found a 2018 study published in Roeper Review. It’s also linked to a variety of mental health disorders, including obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety and several types of eating disorders, according to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology.
“Studies have found that genetic factors contribute to individual differences in perfectionism, including tendencies toward self-criticism, striving for flawlessness and concern over mistakes,” explains Dr. Rebecca Gold, PsyD, a licensed psychotherapist specializing in adolescent, adult and couples therapy. “Additionally, certain genetic variations may increase an individual’s susceptibility to environmental factors that contribute to the development of perfectionism, such as parental pressure or a highly critical upbringing. However, it’s important to note that genetics are only one factor in the complex interplay of nature and nurture that contribute to the development of personality traits like perfectionism.”
By contrast, individuals who tend to demonstrate mental flexibility when things don’t go their way have been shown to have increased resilience, lower blood pressure and overall lower stress levels, finds a study published in Clinical Psychology Review. Psychological flexibility is the concept of allowing for multiple possibilities in life, even if those possibilities don’t necessarily meet our image of the ideal. For example, when I imagined what motherhood would look like, it was a mostly enjoyable and controlled experience that met my idyllic expectations. In reality, it is a constant rollercoaster of ups and downs, tears and smiles, and scares and surprises.
There is help for perfectionists
When perfectionist tendencies disrupt our relationships, our performance in the workplace or our emotional and mental health, it might be time to consider treatment, Takos says. Generally, treatment for perfectionism is focused on helping them derive worth from their core values instead of their ability to achieve, perform or attain unrealistic standards. For example, thinking, “I am worthy if I achieve a perfect score” can be replaced by, “My worth is defined by what value I can offer as a friend, parent, employee, etc.” Helping individuals redefine what is important to them allows for a healthier and stable sense of self that is dependent on who they are, not what they achieve.
A type of therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy can be one effective treatment protocol for individuals who struggle with perfectionism, recommends Takos. CBT is an evidenced-based treatment that helps individuals change unhelpful thinking patterns and learn effective coping skills to positively influence their emotions and behavior. “The goal of CBT is to help individuals examine and modify perfectionistic thoughts patterns,” Takos explains. “Often, rigid expectations and unrealistic standards drive our perfectionism. Learning how to get out of the ‘I should be better’ or ‘I'm not good enough’ thinking allows us to make our standards more flexible and measurable.”
Cognitive restructuring is another tool Takos recommends, which enables individuals to modify their beliefs and maladaptive assumptions. “Individuals are taught how to identify rigid, ‘all or none’ statements and are challenged to replace their beliefs with more realistic and helpful statements in this therapeutic modality,” she explains. For example, replacing “anything less than perfect is unacceptable” with “my worth and value does not depend solely on my achievements and performance.” Perfectionists who can alter their beliefs to be more flexible will eventually develop a more realistic appraisal of themselves and acceptance of who they truly are, she adds.
It can help to think about failure differently
Redefining the definition of failure can help, too. In other words, learning to look at failure as an opportunity for growth rather than the outcome of fixed abilities, Takos explains. Instead of thinking, “I must be a bad mother because my child isn’t listening to me," someone with a growth mindset would think, “This is a parental challenge that I can learn to manage.” Adopting a growth mindset allows for failure to be a normal part of life, not an outcome that we should feel ashamed of.
Takos also recommends using mindfulness to focus one’s awareness in the present moment without judgment. That can involve looking at thought patterns as no different than any other stimuli in the environment to take the power out of perfectionist thoughts. This approach can help perfectionists increase awareness of their self-critical thinking patterns and in time, learn how to let go.
“Rather than striving for perfection in all areas of your life, it's important to set more realistic goals and accept that mistakes and imperfections are a natural part of the learning process," Gold explains. "This can involve challenging negative self-talk and re-framing your thoughts in a more positive and compassionate way." She also emphasizes the importance of self-care and prioritizing activities that bring you joy and relaxation, like exercise, creative pursuits or just getting out in nature. "Through these strategies, individuals can begin to shift their mindset and reduce the negative impact of perfectionism on their mental health and well-being.”
Remember, imperfection can be beautiful, too
Attempting to obtain perfection in all aspects of our existence is an exercise in futility. No matter how much we might “will” perfection to be the norm, it only exists in a fleeting moment. The beauty is in the mess and the strength and resilience we can build through enduring challenges that we ultimately survive. Although my entrance into motherhood wasn’t graceful, nor desirable, it formed me into a mom that can do hard things. I learned to accept the fact that while things might not happen the way I wanted them to, that doesn’t mean that they happened “wrong.”
Taking time every day for physical movement, allowing myself to be silly and laugh, walking meditations, spending quality time with close friends, journaling and not feeling guilty for enjoying myself have been pivotal tools and strategies in helping me to accept the things I cannot change. Slowly, I have learned to try and embrace the not-perfect (and there is a lot of it) in my every day, with the knowledge that I have the capacity to recover and rebuild when faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges.
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