If you’re constantly striving toward perfection, then it may lead to an array of mental health problems. But there are steps you can take to help you learn to improve your overall well-being.
Striving for excellence is often seen as a strength of character or having a good work ethic. But, if you tend to set the bar so high that you find it hard to achieve your goal or can’t achieve it all, then you may be a perfectionist.
Whether your perfectionism stems from believing your self-worth is determined by your achievements or a mental health condition, like anxiety, it can rob you of your self-esteem and make life feel a little less enjoyable.
If the idea of doing a task anything less than perfect makes you not want to complete the task at all, then know that there are ways to help ease some of the stress and anxiety of trying so hard to be perfect.
What is perfectionism?
Perfectionism is the drive to be perfect. If you’re a perfectionist, you may have a personal high standard that you set for yourself where you think nothing is ever good enough. You may also judge your self-worth based on your ability to achieve this standard.
How to cope with perfectionism
Several helpful tips can help you manage or break the cycle of perfectionism. Here are a few steps to consider following.
1. Gain awareness of your thoughts and tendencies
In order to overcome or manage perfectionism, you need to become aware of your thoughts and behaviors around your perfectionism, says Jason Drake, a licensed clinical social worker in Katy, Texas.
Journaling, suggests Drake, can help you identify these thoughts and behaviors.
Pick a time when you’ve grappled with perfectionism and write down any thought that comes to mind around that task that you felt you needed to do perfectly, whether it feels rational or not.
As you write down your thoughts, what themes start to show? “Once you identify the thoughts, themes, and behaviors, then you can start to change them,” explains Drake.
2. Challenge your thoughts with concrete facts
It’s not uncommon for some of your thoughts around perfectionism to include a feeling of not being good enough, says Drake. When these thoughts arise, challenge them with concrete facts.
Where is the evidence that you’re not good enough or you don’t measure up?
Try making a list with two columns and write down as many concrete facts and evidence that you can think of under each column. Consider using this next time you need to challenge your perfectionist thoughts.
3. Allow yourself to make mistakes
When you allow yourself to make mistakes, it teaches your brain that it’s not the end of the world if you fail, says Dr. Holly Schiff, a licensed clinical psychologist from Greenwich, Connecticut. “A mistake is a perfect opportunity to learn, grow and do better,” explains Schiff.
Try something you’ve never tried before, and instead of trying to be perfect at it, try to focus on enjoying it or learning how to get better at it. This will help you learn that mistakes are necessary to get to where you want to be.
4. Alter your negative self-talk
If you’re constantly thinking that you’re not good enough, then it can be hard to overcome perfectionism. This negative self-talk that may go on in your mind can actually be detrimental to your self-esteem, suggests a 2012 study.
By altering your self-talk, you can have a more positive effect on your self-esteem which can lead to a healthy outlook on life.
5. Practice acceptance in “good enough”
“Perfectionism is an unrealistic expectation,” says Drake. While logically, you may understand this concept, perfectionism may come from an emotional place deep inside of you. Your mind may create thoughts that your work is not good enough yet.
Try to acknowledge and understand that you have perfectionistic tendencies. If you’ve completed a task and you know you’ve done a good job, Drake says, practice acceptance that while it may not be perfect, it is good enough.
6. Set reasonable goals
“Perfectionists usually set goals that are unrealistic because of impossible standards,” says Schiff. She suggests setting more achievable goals, such as SMART goals, meaning:
time-based or timely
7. Consider breaking down tasks
If you have perfectionist tendencies and an all-or-nothing mindset, then you may find that thinking in such extremes can create a vicious cycle that only makes you feel worse.
To help combat this type of thinking, try breaking down your tasks into smaller, more manageable ones. When you check off one task at a time, it can lead to more feelings of accomplishment and fewer feelings of failure or overwhelm.
What is the cause of perfectionism?
According to Drake, several different causes can create perfectionism in a person.
The influence of your parents: If your parents were perfectionists themselves, they can pass this trait on to you, says Drake. For example, you may have received the message that you weren’t good enough if things weren’t done perfectly.
Anxiety: If you have anxiety, you may use perfectionism as a coping mechanism. For example, if you’re anxious about something turning out bad, you may try and control the outcome by spending a lot of time perfecting it to ensure it turns out good.
Low self-esteem: If you have low self-esteem, you may develop perfectionism so you can receive the praise that goes along with doing well.
Mental health conditions associated with perfectionism
According to a 2016 meta-analysis, perfectionism is linked to an array of mental issues, such as:
obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
Striving to be perfect is associated with low self-esteem and can also lead to chronic stress and fatigue. It may also lead you to experience headaches or insomnia.