“Truly perfect is becoming friendly with your imperfections on the way to doing something remarkable”- Seth Godin
Many of us strive for perfection in our lives. In fact, perfectionism is often seen as a comfort, like having the perfect job, perfect partner, perfect children, perfect house, or finding the perfect vacation spot. So, being a perfectionist sounds like a good thing, right?
When you see others exhibiting perfectionist traits, it may be easier to spot the difficulty in their behavior. Perfectionists strive to be the best, do the best, and expect the best. But even when those expectations are seemingly achieved, the feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction are short-lived. Often this leads to anxiety and doubts about the “next time I will have to do better” or to focus on the flaws within that accomplishment. Perfection seems desirable but is impossible to attain.
The definition of a perfectionist is “someone who strives for or demands the highest standard of excellence.” Nothing wrong with that, right? Unfortunately, that same belief pattern is driving many of our children, teens, and college students to report an increased risk of anxiety, OCD, panic disorder, eating disorders, depression, and suicidal thoughts in recent years.
Perfectionism is based on extremely rigid concepts—failure is not an option. Some will often avoid tasks or procrastinate due to fear. They cannot chance making a mistake or be judged as fallible by others. Mistakes come with extreme self-criticism. Some may even avoid social interactions because of the exhaustion of keeping up with the perfectionistic self-image.
This is why the healthier counterpart to perfectionism is excellence. Excellence focuses on what’s right and working well rather than what’s not working. It helps to focus on the positive, acknowledge mistakes and errors, and learn from them—without the mental devastation of seeing mistakes as failures. Striving for excellence allows us to be more innovative and perhaps kinder to ourselves and others.
In The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism, Sharon Martin LCSW describes the difference between the two concepts. “The primary difference between excellence and perfectionism is the way making mistakes or having flaws is viewed. As perfectionists, we tend to over-generalize mistakes and shortcomings. We take one mistake, use it, and deem ourselves complete failures or inferior. This thinking error keeps perfection stuck on the negatives and cannot see the potentially positive aspects of mistakes and imperfections when there are many benefits to embracing our imperfections and learning from our missteps”.
Perfectionism is damaging to our mental health, social interactions, and relationships. Many people have difficulty dealing with perfectionistic people and are either intimidated by them or avoid close relations with them. Adopting the “excellence” perspective will still keep high standards and expectations but will do so in a more realistic manner.
How does one stop being a perfectionist?
- Accept your limitations as a non-perfect being. Easier said than done, but practice makes perf- er; wait, not the best analogy, but you get the reference! This is a form of mindfulness that takes daily practice and brief exercises.
- Understand and confront your negative thoughts that continue patterns. “I’m not good enough. I can’t do it. It’s not perfect.” Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can assist with breaking these patterns if perfectionism is causing clinical distress and dysfunction in you or a family member.
- Seek out experiences in which you are not already competent. Find opportunities to test your skills and push hard enough that you fail—sometimes. Learning cannot occur without failure. If you’re never failing, you’re probably not stretching yourself enough.
- Practice excellence. Since no fear is attached to excellence, anyone can do it, and it’s realistic. Self-help books and online information can provide guidelines.
- Help friends and family members who are pushing for perfection. Be supportive, but be mindful of expectations. Remind others that you don’t desire or expect perfection. Your healthy attitude will shift their perspective.
Working with children/teens professionally as a coach and scout leader, the phrase I’ve found most useful was our past Cub Scout Motto: “Do Your Best.”
Dr. Stu Leeds is a clinical psychologist whose practice includes individual, marital, family, and group therapy of children, adolescents, and adults. Dr. Leeds also specializes in forensic psychology – evaluating and treating juvenile and adult offenders and performing risk/threat management assessments.