Written by Philippa Walsh
The psychological fallout of perfectionism
Striving to be the best version of ourselves is not an inherently bad trait. It ensures that we have high standards and motivates us to do well in all areas of our lives. On the other hand, being unwilling to accept ourselves when we are unable to meet these high standards all of the time can quickly lead to disillusionment, self-criticism and feelings of failure.
Perfectionism in the true sense of the term means a tendency for those with this trait to think in all or nothing terms. This makes perfectionists extremely vulnerable to stress and often manifests with an inability to make decisions unless being certain of the outcome, and procrastination due to a fear of making mistakes.
Focusing solely on mistakes usually leads to feelings of inadequacy and worry about negative appraisals from others. So rather than perfectionism leading to an increased sense of self-worth through high-achieving, it leads to anxiety, unhappiness and low self-esteem.
How to overcome perfectionism
So what can be done about this if you recognize that perfectionism is impacting on you in these ways?
Remember that there is nothing wrong with having high standards - but they must be achievable. It also helps to remember that it's okay to make mistakes occasionally! Self-flagellation is rarely effective as a motivation tool; it is better to forgive yourself, learn from the experience and resolve to do better next time. Nobody can be perfect 100 percent of the time and to expect yourself to be is a recipe for mental distress.
Be realistic: This is essential for changing perfectionist thinking. Start to challenge some of your all or nothing thinking by looking at your situation as someone else would. How would a close friend view this? Also learning to look at the bigger picture can help. You may be focusing on one task that you believe you under-performed in, but what about all the others you did well in?
Learn to tolerate imperfection: It might help to ask yourself what would be good enough if perfection cannot be achieved. Rather than spending 3 hours on a task that should really only take half an hour, could you learn to accept that the outcome might be just as positive by reducing the amount of time you spend on it?
Change your behaviour: If you notice that you have a tendency to check your work for errors excessively, do this less and purposely make a typo in an email to see if the outcome is as terrible as you might imagine. The reality is that the recipient will either be too busy to notice or even if they do, it is doubtful that they would think any less of you because of it. Such errors are minor and forgivable - the world will not end if you spend less time checking and more time doing meaningful tasks!
Ask for help: Know that it's okay to ask for support sometimes. Asking for help from those around you is not a sign of incompetency, it means that you are able to acknowledge where the input of others can benefit your performance. No man is an island and struggling alone unnecessarily will do nothing but increase your stress levels.
Prioritise tasks: Learn to delegate where possible and prioritise the critical tasks from those that are less important. Some tasks require 100% focus, others less. It is important to evaluate how best to utilise your time so that the non-critical tasks don't start taking up all of your time unnecessarily. It's okay to let the non-critical tasks go until you have got through the more important ones.
Reward yourself by being a little kinder to yourself. Remember that criticizing yourself and pulling your performance to pieces will only serve to increase your anxiety and chip away at your self-esteem.