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Handling Perfectionism

Stop trying to be perfect and discover good enough!

There is nothing more depressing than feeling like a failure. And people who suffer perfectionism often feel like failures when others around them perceive them to be examples of excellent performance in their work or social or home or school lives. But perfectionism can stop you from correctly perceiving your successes while it actively interferes with flexible problem solving and decision-making, not to mention having fun or being spontaneous

People with depression have a tendency to worry. Worrying can lead you to perfectionism if you discover that you worry less when you think you have done something without error. Future attempts to perform perfectly (to make no mistakes or do what is right) diminish your worrying about being good enough. That temporary relief establishes a pattern of striving to be perfect seen in your behavior. Do you:

  • review your work repeatedly
  • double-check for errors
  • work extra hours
  • do work yourself rather than entrust it to others (even as a parent do you do work for your children rather than allow them to make mistakes?)

Depression can hit at any age, and so can perfectionism as a way to try and alleviate worrying about failing. You could see it in an 8-year-old who worries about passing speed tests for math facts and decides to do extra math problems every day even though they aren't assigned. It might be visible in an adolescent who wastes hours making a powerpoint look perfect even though it only took an hour to create good-enough content. Adults at any level of demands for perfection, from homemakers to computer programmers, may try to avoid low self-esteem by trying to do their work "perfectly."

In all these cases it is the perfectionist who decides what constitutes perfect performance! In interactions with others, the perfectionist often wants control of a situation so that "it's done right." What these perfectionists do not realize is that they are going to worry no matter how hard they work.

You may not identify yourself as a perfectionist: you are more likely to describe yourself as "careful" or "detail-oriented." If this is you, maybe you could try some assignments that will help you to honor your goals but try new behavior that is less stressful than perfectionism. Try one or more of these and observe the consequences:

  • List the negative consequences of perfectionism—are you seen as controlling? Do you take on extra work without being asked and then feel overworked? Do you feel exhausted? Does the worry about being a failure or not good enough still come back?
  • Stop using all/never language, such as "It is awful if I make a mistake." "I must always be right!" Mistakes are not intolerable and they are not proof of your unworthiness. See how you and others react when you stop that way of speaking.
  • Plan for "non-perfect" performance. Decide to not take on a specific one-time job that someone else could do, such as writing a report. The goal: to see whether the work gets done even if you don't do it. Also observe: if it doesn't get done, the world doesn't end.
  • Observe the imperfect work of others, and how people accept it with surprising frequency as "good enough."
  • Assume some responsibility, but do not do what others are supposed to be responsible for. Then watch. What do others do and how do you feel?
  • Deliberately do not finish some work, such as typing up an elaborate agenda for a meeting. These kinds of detail-oriented items typically turn out to be inconsequential and noticing that may help the perfectionist become willing to dial down their efforts.
  • Observe how little anyone cares whether you were perfect.
  • Note that when unexpected problems occur, most people usually cope.
  • Learn what makes the difference between important and inconsequential tasks, and to distinguish between what is essential and what is not. Try skipping some inconsequential aspects of a task and observe whether it matters.

Finally, ask yourself, "How important are the things I am not doing in order to spend this extra time on perfection?" Am I giving up social life, personal time to relax or exercise, or time to do other work that would needs completing?" Once you can see that your life would be less hectic, richer, healthier or calmer by doing things less perfectly and getting more done, the burden of being perfect is on its way to being lifted and you will find that being good enough is really good enough.

More from Margaret Wehrenberg Psy.D.
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