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Tools to Overcome Perfectionism

Bill Claytor DDS, MAGD
NCCDP, Executive Director

Changing Perfectionistic Thinking

a) Realistic Thinking

Because adults with perfectionism are often very critical of themselves, one of the most effective ways to overcome perfectionism is to replace self-critical or perfectionistic thoughts with more realistic and helpful statements.

It is a good idea to practice these helpful statements regularly. Even if you do not believe them right away, enough repetition will turn positive realistic thoughts into a habit, and help crowd out the negative self-talk.

Some examples of positive realistic statements

“Nobody is perfect!”

“All I can do is my best!”

“Making a mistake does not mean I’m stupid or a failure. It only means that I am like everyone else – human. Everyone makes mistakes!”

“It’s okay not to be pleasant all the time. Everyone has a bad day sometime.”

“It’s okay if some people don’t like me. No one is liked by everyone!”

b) Perspective Taking

Adults with perfectionism also tend to have a hard time seeing things from another person’s point of view. That is, they tend not to think about how others might see a situation. For example, you may believe that you are lazy because you are only able to exercise 1 hour instead of 2 hours every day. Learning to view situations as other people might see them can help you to change some of these unhelpful beliefs.

Going back to the “I’m lazy” example, you can challenge this thought by asking yourself the following questions:

How might someone else (e.g., a close friend) view this situation? Most people probably would not think they are lazy if they do not exercise 2 hours every day. Kelly, my best friend, only has time to work out for 1 hour, 2 to 3 times a week, and feels pretty good about it.

Are there other ways to look at this? Maybe not being able to work out 2 hours every day is understandable given my busy schedule. Not being able to meet this standard does not mean I am lazy. Most people cannot do it.

What might I tell a close friend who was having similar thoughts? It is okay to only workout for 1 hour per day or even less. Working out regularly, say 2 to 3 times a week, is good enough!

c) Looking at the Big Picture

Adults with perfectionism tend to get bogged down in details and spend a lot of time worrying about “the little things” (e.g., what font to use in an email). One helpful strategy to worry less about details is to ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Does it really matter?
  2. What is the worst that could happen?
  3. If the worst does happen, can I survive it?
  4. Will this still matter tomorrow? How about next week? Next year?

d) Compromising

This is a particularly helpful tool for dealing with black-and-white thinking. Compromising involves lowering or being more flexible with your very high standards.

For example, if you believe that making a mistake during a presentation means that you are stupid. You might try asking yourself, “What level of imperfection am I willing to tolerate?” From there, you can try to come up with some lower and more reasonable standards that you are willing to accept. Because it is quite anxiety provoking when you first start trying to lower your standards, you can do so gradually, in steps.

Changing Perfectionistic Behaviors

Having a problem with perfectionism is a lot like having a “phobia” of making mistakes or being imperfect – you are terrified of making mistakes. Facing fears in a gradual and consistent manner is the most effective way to overcome phobias, and is called “exposure”. Similarly, overcoming your “phobia” of making mistakes or being imperfect involves doing just that–gradually and purposely making mistakes and coming across as imperfect.

More about setting realistic standards:

Are you scared of lowering your standards because you worry that you will let too many of your standards go and make mistakes all the time? Here are some helpful tips to address your worry:

Tip 1: Remember, lowering your standards DOES NOT mean having no standards. The goal is never to make you become careless in life and perform poorly all the time. Realistic standards are standards that can actually help you to do your best without costing you things that may be important to you, such as family life, physical and mental health, and leisure time.

Tip 2: It is okay to ask for help.

Overcoming Procrastination

Many adults with perfectionism often cope with their fear of making mistakes by procrastinating. When you set “perfect” standards for yourself, sometimes it might feel easier to procrastinate carrying out a task rather than spending hours trying to do it! However, procrastination is only a temporary solution, and it tends to make your anxiety worse over time. Here are some ways to help you to overcome procrastination:

Creating realistic schedules. Break down larger tasks into manageable steps. Remember, the goal is to complete the task, not to make it perfect!

Setting priorities. Perfectionists sometimes have trouble deciding on where they should devote their energy and effort. Prioritize your tasks by deciding which are the most important to accomplish, and which are less important. It is O.K. not to give 100% on every task!

Reward Yourself

It is hard work to face your fears and change old ways of doing things. So, make sure to always take the time to reward yourself for all the hard work you are doing. It is very motivating to give yourself a treat once in a while.

Some helpful resources for more information on overcoming perfectionism:

When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough: Strategies for Coping with Perfectionism by M. M. Antony & R. P. Swinson (New Harbinger Publications)

Never Good Enough: How to Use Perfectionism to Your Advantage without Letting It Ruin Your Life by M.R. Basco (Simon & Schuster)

Perfectionism: What’s Bad about Being Too Good? By M. Adderholdt-Elliott, M. Elliott, & J. Goldberg (Monarch Books)