“Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement, and shame. It’s a shield. It’s a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from taking flight.”
― Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
You’ve likely known people who wear their perfectionism as a badge of honor, but the reality is it can be deeply painful to live the life of a perfectionist. As Sanvello mental health coaches, we work closely with people who are struggling with perfectionism, helping them to better understand and replace their limiting beliefs with a more realistic perspective.
So, what exactly does it mean to be a perfectionist? It goes deeper than just being a person that looks and acts “perfect” all of the time. Perfectionism can serve as a protective strategy used to avoid any situation that may cause us to feel defective, inadequate, or unworthy of love.
It’s helpful to note that there are three main kinds of perfectionism: self-oriented perfectionism (“I must be perfect”), socially-prescribed perfectionism (“others expect me to be perfect”), and other-oriented perfectionism (“I expect others to be perfect”).
When we aren’t able to accept the parts of us (or others) that are flawed or just simply human, it can lead to self-defeating thoughts or behaviors that make it harder to try new things, find creative joy, or achieve our goals. It can also take a toll on our mental health, causing stress, anxiety, or depression. If you think you might have perfectionist tendencies and are looking to make some changes, read on for a healthy dose of gentle guidance.
Common signs of perfectionism
- You cannot relax even after you finish what needs to be done
- Your house must be spotless to have guests over
- You don’t try things you know you won’t succeed at
- Planning is a must to avoid failure
- You try to think before you speak to avoid looking like you don’t know what you are talking about, or you simply don’t speak at all
- You procrastinate on things that you feel you aren’t 100% good at
- Being on time is a must
- You plan out every single detail of your vacations instead of going with the flow
- Before entering into a new environment, you think about all of the possible scenarios and mistakes that could happen
- You feel fear, shame, and guilt because of your own unrealistic expectations
- You’re constantly redoing completed tasks because you feel they’re not good enough
Perfectionism vs Excellence
There’s a huge difference between perfectionism and striving for excellence. There is nothing wrong with having a healthy dose of ambition and holding yourself to a high standard. Excellence is all about confidence, inspiration, self-motivation, and a growth mindset. However, perfectionism is about the fear of failure, focusing on mistakes, self-criticism, and a fixed-mindset.
It can be helpful to start by thinking about opportunities where you lean towards perfectionism and make a plan of how you can challenge yourself to strive for excellence instead. Here are some common examples of the difference between looking for perfectionism versus striving for excellence:
Starting a new hobby
- Perfectionist: Your main focus is on being worried about what others think about you and you may avoid new situations where you fear you’ll fail.
- Excellence: You approach it as an opportunity to enjoy socializing and learning from others. You strive to seek out experiences in which you are not already competent.
- Perfectionist: You criticize yourself for not being a perfect parent, and spiral into unhelpful thought patterns/guilt such as “I’m a bad mom/dad.”
- Excellence: You assess the situation, being okay with making mistakes, acknowledging you’re human, and make helpful changes.
- Perfectionist: You have little to no tolerance for mistakes or experiencing unexpected issues, constantly worry about what other people may think, revising notes and/or slides over and over again, or experiencing sleepless nights.
- Excellence: You’re excited about educating the audience, having a checklist, and preparing and practicing without overdoing it. If something unexpected happens, like tech issues, it’s okay. You’re flexible and move on.
- Perfectionist: Review the project excessively before finishing, critiquing and focusing on the perfect language or outcome.
- Excellence: You’re authentic in your work, give yourself permission to have confidence that your work is adequate, and are open to feedback and collaboration.
Letting go of perfectionism allows space for being vulnerable, unlocking who we truly are and being authentically ourselves. In that place we have the potential to strive for excellence, discover joy, honor our needs and desires, and feel much more free in our day to day lives.
Working through perfectionism takes time and dedication, but it’s absolutely possible. Below are a few steps you can take right now to tend to your feelings of perfectionism. And remember, a mental health professional can be a wonderful source of support too.
- Journal to gain perspective: At the end of the day, try reflecting on everything you experienced over the past 24 hours. Focus on challenges you faced, things you accomplished, and how you felt. Ask what did go well today? Which talents within myself did I utilize today? How can I learn from the things that didn’t go so well? Notice the progress you made, celebrate small wins, and offer yourself acceptance if things were messy or imperfect.
- Challenge “all or nothing” thinking. When you make one mistake, remind yourself that a slip-up does not ruin the progress you’ve already made and are still making towards your goal. Remind yourself that everyone has flaws and makes mistakes. One example of all or nothing thinking is, “I can’t believe I made a mistake in that email. I’m never going to get a promotion… I’ll probably eventually get fired because I blew it.” Maybe you try shifting this to, “You know what, I made a mistake because I’m human. I see people at work make mistakes every day, so maybe I don’t need to be so hard on myself.”
- Establish a personal mantra: When the inner self-critic starts getting loud, try meeting it with a loving affirmation. Personal mantras can be one sentence or one word statements that you return to throughout the day to quiet mental chatter. Mantras like “I am enough exactly as I am” or “I am open to new opportunities” will serve as your personal reminder of exactly who you are and what you’re capable of.
- Try a new hobby. Diving into something new often means starting at a beginner level, so the likelihood of making mistakes is often high in any learning process. When the imposter syndrome creeps in, remind yourself to focus on enjoying the new activity at your current skill level and try to pay attention to the learning process rather than the end goal.
- Take a social media break. You know that pit in your stomach when you scroll through perfectly filtered vacation photos and smiling faces touting their latest achievements? Yeah, it just sucks… especially for those of us who struggle with perfectionism. Comparing yourself to the perfectly curated highlight reels of other peoples’ lives will typically lead to feelings of inferiority, so why not take a break? Maybe you unfollow accounts that give you that pit in your stomach, delete the app from your phone, or just take a break for a day or two and notice how you feel.
There is such a thing as a “better than perfect life” and it consists of experiencing everything you desire, and think perfection will bring you, all the while being your flawed, imperfect, beautiful self. We know it’s not easy, but try to simply notice moments of perfectionism as they come up and see how you can offer yourself a mix of self-compassion and perspective along the way.
By Pamela Biasca Losada, Sanvello Mental Health Coach
Coaching has been essential in Pamela’s personal life, and she became so passionate about it that she decided to make it her career in 2011. Pamela believes that we all have the resources to make significant long-lasting changes within ourselves, and she provides a safe space and guidance to helping clients on their journey to bring them to light. She came a long way when it comes to making self-care a priority and tuning in with her emotions to enjoy life more and to feel more fulfilled. When she’s not coaching, Pamela loves spending time with her family and her two cats, walking in nature, dancing, traveling, yoga, and reading books from cover to cover in a few days.
By Kara Seanor, Sanvello Mental Health Coach
Kara believes in emphasizing each client’s unique life experiences, goals and timing. As a coach, she hopes to create a safe and supportive space for each person to honor their needs, own their power and move toward change. When she’s not seeing clients, Kara enjoys traveling and exploring new places and local foods with her husband and son. On her down time, you can catch her at local parks in and around Southwest Florida or searching the beaches for shells.