Perfectionism may be helpful in some cases, but for many of those who suffer from it, the negative effects far outweigh the good. Research has shown that perfectionism may be a factor in suicide (source), anorexia and anorexia recovery (source), depression and social alienation (source) and more. And even if your tendency to try to make something perfect doesn’t lead to any serious mental issues, it’ll always cost you time that could almost certainly be better spent elsewhere.
With the problems associated with perfectionism clear to see, how, then, do we overcome perfectionism? There are a few ways. In this article, we’ll be publishing responses people sent us to the following question:
For people struggling with perfectionism, what primary piece of advice can you share for overcoming it? Great if you can share a personal story, otherwise input from therapists and mental health professionals who have some expertise in this area is of course very much welcome.
Of the 62 responses we got back (I’ve published just 16 of the best one’s here), many are from people who have suffered from perfectionism for years and can share some change in mentality or exercise that helped them mostly or fully overcome it, and I’m sure there is at least 1 insight here that will help you if you’re currently a perfectionist trying to stop being so perfect. 🙂
To summarize what’s been submitted so far, have a read through these bullet points I’ve put together. For each point, I’ve linked to the full comment, so just click that to read more if any one point sounds interesting to you. Many of these include personal stories:
- Look at your perfectionism and whether you should finish now from a logical, rational perspective, asking questions like “What happens if I don’t finish this now?”
- Brainstorm the worst-case, best-case, and then the most likely scenarios that will result from a less than perfect result. Doing this will allow the imagined impending doom to have much less of an effect on you
- Become process focused by breaking down goals into small chunks, then focusing on completing the steps only
- Adopt a mindset of “I am enough”
- Perfectionism may often be caused by shame, and by clearly naming it you’ll find it’s easier to take ownership of your decisions
- Stop overthinking
- Simply make a cutoff point (i.e. have a time budget) where you stop working on something after a set period of time
- Similarly, use the Eisenhower Matrix
- Practice mindfulness (EDITORS NOTE: Mindfulness has a tremendous number of benefits beyond just helping you overcome procrastination. See our earlier piece on mindfulness benefits)
- When you’re being a perfectionist, consider whether you’d ask your best friend to do what you’re doing
- Have the mindset of “I can always improve next time”
- Try new things, embrace failure and even mess up on purpose. These things will make you fully aware you’re very far from perfect and you’ll feel less shackled by unrealistic standards
Do you have your own input or story to share on overcoming perfectionism? Make a submission here and we’ll add it to this article.
Perfectionism is often a way to defend ourselves against potential criticism. We delay releasing our work until it is 'perfect', this either causes us a great deal of stress or means we do not complete our task at the time it is needed. It's better to get something to a stage of being 'good enough' and releasing it to the outside world than to never release it through fear of negative feedback. If you are struggling to finish a project because it's not perfect, you should ask yourself:
- Have I done the best I can in the time I have?
- What's the worst that could happen if I complete this now?
- What's the best that could happen if I complete this now?
- What happens if I don't finish this now?
By working through these questions, we often find that it's better to complete something than it is to hold onto it forever. As we then begin to see positive results for completing projects instead of holding onto them, it becomes much easier to accept 'good enough' instead of perfect.
--John Roderick, The Art of Training
Brainstorm the worst-case, best-case, and then the most likely scenarios that will result from a less than perfect result.
Doing this will allow the imagined impending doom to have much less of an effect on you. If you can visualize the worst-case scenario and understand that you can power through it even if it eventually happens, you are golden.
In my opinion, perfectionism is more of a self-confidence issue, the confidence that you will survive any outcome.
The eradication of perfectionism is a constant struggle that you will probably have to face for a long time. Still, with enough practice and self-awareness, it's possible to reduce the negative consequences drastically.
--Aviram K., Woof & Beyond
Become process focused.
My story: Nearing the end of completing my masters in Clinical Mental Health, I had a life changing experience. I received an email requiring me to speak to an auditorium of educators and my first thought, as my heart was pounding out of my chest, was absolutely not, I can't do it. Fast forward 2 days later, palms sweating, heart racing, I approached the microphone and words came out of my mouth. I did it. At that very moment it became crystal clear that my perfectionistic brain had been lying to me my entire life, keeping me from action. I then became an anxiety, and even more specifically, a perfection specialist.
Perfectionists are laser focused on achieving perfect results. Since we can not achieve perfect results, we are most often disappointed with ourselves, which leads to self-criticism, lower self-esteem and procrastination. Instead, set high goals (not unattainable ones) and reverse engineer the small bite-sized steps to reach these goals. Then let go of the ultimate goal and focus only on just completing the steps. You will procrastinate less, achieve more, and be happier with yourself.
--Kathryn Ely, MA, ALC, NCC, Empower Counseling & Coaching
I started suffering from anxiety at the age of nine due to war trauma but I made my anxiety worse over the next twenty years as a result of my addiction to perfectionism.
I obsessed over being the best academically in school and at university, and I would spend ALL my time studying, reading, and learning while neglecting everything else that also matters in life.
For example, I ate unhealthily and, on the go, didn’t exercise, lived a sedentary lifestyle, and gave no priority to having fun and socializing. My only goal in life was to perfect my grades, projects, and homework, and I unnecessarily worked extra hours, checking, editing, re-editing, and rewriting after things were already done to a good standard.
My addiction to perfectionism continued with even greater intensity in my professional career. This became a major strain on my health and anxiety, as I was trying to be perfect in investment banking in London, which is one of the most competitive environments in the world.
Eventually, I came to a breaking point, my anxiety became unbearable, and I could no longer go to work. I can say with the utmost certainty that perfectionism was my biggest anxiety trigger that nearly cost me my health.
But luckily I was able to get out of that black hole and overcome my chronic anxiety and perfectionism, by putting in a lot of effort to change my lifestyle, mindset, and habits that were not serving me well in life.
In my experience, the number one tip for overcoming perfectionism is to start to love yourself. If you do that and begin to accept who you are and your abilities, strengths, and weaknesses as part of a whole, you can transform your current beliefs about perfectionism to “I am enough”.
When you believe “I am enough” perfectionism simply fades away.
Here are a few practical tips to help you do that:
1. Affirm daily “I love myself, I am enough”.
2. When you feel yourself striving for perfectionism, affirm, “I let go, I am enough”
3. Set yourself realistic deadlines and once you are done, check only once and move on. Your goal must be “completion within deadline” rather than “perfection”.
4. Strive for a B-, rather than A+.
--Sandra Glavan, Amosuir
My own perfectionism is a constant battle. My office isn’t clean and super organized but the self-retribution language I use whenever I make a mistake would make any preacher blush. This is how I first realized how bad the problem really was. When I would make the simplest of mistakes, I would speak to myself in a way I wouldn’t allow anyone to speak to one of my children – for example – with a foul and aggressive mouth not fit for print or publication.
The main tip for overcoming perfectionism is understanding the driving force behind it. It’s one thing to keep telling yourself to “quit” being a perfectionist but if you don’t get at the root, the weed is likely to keep coming back.
The underlying root to this weed is shame. Shame is a protective mechanism inside each of our emotional cores whose job it is to “protect” us from looking bad to other people. Shame’s main goal is to prevent us from being exposed for the “fraud” we subconsciously are afraid we are..
Therefore, like a hidden marionette, shame drives us to perfectionism as a means of not getting “caught” in our inadequacies by not just projecting an air of perfection, but by actually attempting perfection.
The “tip” is to name this hidden driver as the first step toward wellness – not unlike an alcoholic needs to verbally speak their reality before healing can begin. Once the driver (shame) is named and exposed, its power begins to fade. That’s the power of naming something instead of continually and blindly struggling against it.
Once named, you can take ownership of your own decisions – you can stop letting your psychology make your decisions for you. You can literally have a conversation with your inner self when it comes to your “rescue” that, while you appreciate its suggestions, you’re a big boy (or girl) and don’t need to live in fear any longer. You can remind your inner voice that imperfect is simply how God created us in order to need God and need each other and it is good.
The final “tip” is more of a “reminder”. The reminder is the battle will take time. The perfectionist in you will want to achieve full compliance from shame immediately and that simply isn’t how it works. I am today at the point that the voice still attempts to self-castigate, but now I am aware enough to at least intervene. As was taught to me in corporate American – strive for progress not perfection as progress is achievable but perfection never is.
--Rick Patterson, rickpattersonconnects.com
Perfectionism is an affliction that affects many high achieving and successful people, which is part of what makes them who they are. However, too much perfectionism can be counterproductive and actually get in the way of your progress. Learning to overcome perfectionism takes time and practice and my best advice is to embrace the advice of Gabor Mate MD and live in the present moment.
That is, don't overthink and just action your creative thoughts and ideas with confidence. By being more present, you can become more productive and accomplish more with your time. The key is to remember that nothing is or ever will be perfect, but instead, try to aim as close as possible to perfection and you will get close enough through time and dedication.
--Dmitrij Zatuchin, DO OK
I struggled with perfectionism as a musician. I used to sit in my home recording studio and tinker with my recordings for hours on end. Finally, I decided to set a cutoff point and force myself to walk away from my work after a specified time, regardless of whether my perfectionist mind believed I was finished or not. This helped me break free of perfectionism and stop worrying about minor details as much.
--Holden Harris, PeachTown
Ultimately, perfectionism is caused by an inability to accept one’s mistakes. Thankfully, there is one technique we can use to increase our ability to accept yourselves: Mindfulness. Indeed, the very definition of mindfulness is about acceptance. Mindfulness essentially means to focus on the the moment with a non-judgmental attitude of acceptance.
Trait mindfulness (the general quality of being mindful, as compared to State mindfulness, a specific meditation) can help us to accept ourselves and our mistakes. I recommend being mindful and focusing on the moment rather than being lost in thoughts of perfectionism and feelings of inadequacy when we fail to be perfect.
Another great way to over perfectionism is to recognise the fact that mistakes are often necessary on the path to success, and indeed, many times we would not be successful were it not for lessons learned from mistakes. Close your eyes and meditate to calm your mind, then bring to mind the mistakes you have made in your life, and consider how you learned from those mistakes and how they helped you to grow as a person.
With a combination of mindful self-acceptance and awareness of the value of mistakes, we can start to overcome perfectionism.
--Paul Harrison, meditation teacher, thedailymeditation.com
What has helped me (and my students and clients) is the best friend question. When perfectionism flairs up, and the standards in question are outrageous, it’s time to ask: Would you ask or expect your best friend to do this? Most of the time realizing that we’d never ask or expect someone else to do the impossible is enough to start the change to a more realistic view of the task or situation at hand.
Does this strategy make my perfectionism go away? No. Perfectionism doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and while there’s a lot happening in the mind of the perfectionist, the outside world does contribute to the condition. Coworkers, friends, and even family sometimes benefit from having a perfectionist around. We work hard to make sure deadlines are met, mistakes are avoided, and that events flow smoothly, and most of the time our perfectionist tendencies get results for everyone…and hurt us the most. The well-documented theory that perfectionists feel they won’t be loved and accepted if they aren’t perfect did not bloom isolated in the desert. In fact there ARE bosses, friends, parents, and lovers who base their treatment of others on unfair or cruel standards. Mix this with the different brain setup of the typical perfectionist, and you get some painful results.
Like most brain/personality differences awareness is a key first step. Knowing you have perfectionist tendencies and then asking if you’d place them on others you care about can help break the cycle.
--Karen Southall Watts, karensouthallwatts.com
My trick is to create a time budget. When I write my to-do list I assign a certain amount of time for each task, after which I have to move on from it, even if I don’t think its ‘100% perfect’. I have learned how much time to assign for each task after many years of monitoring and timing my work with tools like Rescuetime. This way I know how much ‘time budget’ to give per task to keep me on track & moving on to other to-do’s quickly while still producing good outputs that I’m proud of (even though - had I spend more time on it - it could have been slightly better). Without time budgeting I could spend and endless amount of time on the same task, finding ways to make it better and better, with the increased effort not being justified by significantly increased results.
--Julia Lemberskiy, JJ Studio
What helped me to finally get rid of perfectionism and start embracing the imperfect action-taking was repeating this mantra: “I can always improve next time”.
Not happy with my livestream? OK, let’s leave it for now - I can always improve next time.
Not ready for this sales call? OK, let’s see how it goes - I can always improve next time.
Not sure about my offer? OK, let’s see what they say - I can always improve based on their feedback.
Even for clients’ work, this mantra helped me get to the finish line and removed the obligation to make things absolutely perfect before I send them for review and approval.
The mantra puts me into “learner’s mode” so I can stay curious and take action as if I’m experimenting. I can observe the results of what I do -- and apply the lesson learned next time. Using it releases the burden of getting things right from the start and helps to focus on the process of improving things with each go. So I’m not lowering my high internal standards - I’m just seeing the process of getting there with each iteration.
That’s how I started regularly running online challenges to find clients in my business - because with each run I’m improving and tweaking. I don't need to make it perfect anymore (Or at least, not yet!) Plus, I’m not beating myself up anymore for downfalls. Which greatly applies to my personal life, especially in parenting… I can always improve next time :).
--Gosia Potoczna, gosiapotoczna.com
Perfectionism always was one of my big weaknesses and up to this point still is to a certain degree.
The most primary piece of advice that helped me tremendously as well as others with whom I shared this advice is: Use the Eisenhower Matrix for every task you work on.
The Eisenhower Matrix is the process of planning and exercising conscious control of time spent on specific activities. It categorizes tasks into important, not important, urgent, not urgent.
As a perfectionist, I often found myself working and perfecting tasks that were actually not important and not urgent.
For example, perfectly styling and formatting a spreadsheet for 30 minutes that I just set-up to do some quick calculations. On the other hand, when you evaluate your tasks with the Eisenhower Matrix you realize that it's not worth it to perfectionize tasks that are not important and not urgent.
The chances of not even starting to work on something that you would otherwise only would because you're a perfectionist or perfecting something you're already working on, suddenly shrink to a minimum.
Especially at work, it helps to physically print the Eisenhower Matrix and put it on your desks.
That's why this time management method helps you to become more conscious of your perfectionism and pushes you to work on what's relevant.
--Axel Kuehnle, Mindmonia
Consistently try new things that you're likely to fail or underperform doing. Sign up for a new class. Start learning a new language. Ask someone out that seems out of your league. In other words, expose yourself to rejection and failure. Embrace becoming comfortable when you're not on top. It's an inevitable part of life, and it doesn't need to be this colossal disaster. The more you can familiarize yourself with being less-than-perfect (and even become comfortable with it), the less you'll feel shackled by your own unrealistic standards.
--Nicole Arzt, licensed marriage and family therapist, Well Beings Counselling
Perfectionists tend to self-handicap, meaning they avoid challenging or effortful tasks due to fear of failure. Ironically this makes them less successful. I see this happen all the time in my work—really smart, driven people struggle to meet deadlines, make decisions, or be creative because they get hung up on tiny details or are afraid of what might happen.
So start getting over perfectionism by embracing failure! Every day, try something you know is likely to fail. Start small—perhaps try making a challenging new dinner recipe or chatting with a grumpy colleague. Over time see if you can build up to bigger risks—perhaps learning a challenging new skill or applying for a competitive job position. Sometimes you will succeed and other times you will fail – but either way you will be learning to live a happier and more successful life by overcoming perfectionism.
--Dr. Elizabeth Gilbert, PsychologyCompass
#1 tip to perfectionists - mess up on purpose! Here's an example:
A young professional with no known psychiatric history presented to treatment for complaints of poor time management skills. She endorsed perfectionistic behaviors in the workplace that interfered with her ability to complete all of her assigned work. A particularly time consuming task was writing emails. She reported spending over an hour writing even brief two-line emails, reading and re-reading over and over again before sending. To challenge this behavior, we utilized exposure techniques, in which she was prompted to mess up on purpose and resist the urge to correct her errors. She deliberately included errors in her personal emails to friends and family. Over time, she became increasingly comfortable with this challenging behavior and eventually, she reported less fear over sending emails with errors. She was able to effectively spend less time drafting emails in the workplace.
--Amanda S. Brown, MSN, PMHNP-BC, Columbia University Medical Center