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How to Overcome Perfectionism

No one is perfect but everyone can improve.

Key points

  • Perfectionism can add to self-criticism, avoidance, hopelessness, and depression.
  • Perfectionists may fear “failure” so much that they won’t risk trying something new.
  • There is a difference between perfectionism and healthy high standards.
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Most of us know that we can do better and we often strive to improve ourselves by trying harder, looking for opportunities to learn, and persisting at tasks that are important to us. But some of us have perfectionistic standards. We believe that we cannot tolerate the idea that we make mistakes, we cannot accept that we don’t reach the highest levels for ourselves, and we then conclude that we failed and, as this perfectionism grabs ahold of us, we sink into more self-criticism and depression. How can we change this and give ourselves a break?

In previous posts, I have discussed how low self-esteem can lead to more depression by making you avoid people, remain passive, ruminate about your problems, and criticize yourself for being imperfect. I suggested that irrational and demanding rules for yourself lead to more self-criticism and that replacing self-criticism with self-correction, learning, and acceptance can go a long way toward helping you overcome depression. And I described how hopelessness can lead to giving up, discounting our positives, and adding to more depression—How to Overcome Hopelessness. In this post, we will examine how perfectionism adds to self-criticism, avoidance, hopelessness and more depression. Depression is often a system of negative thinking and behavioral patterns that operate as a vicious cycle. Perfectionism leads to self-criticism that leads to avoidance and isolation that leads to loss of rewards that leads to hopelessness that leads to more depression.

We need to break that cycle by changing each link in the chain. Today we will break down your perfectionism.

1. Is your perfectionism helping or hurting you?

We often think that our expectations will motivate us to work harder and that we are simply being realistic about what needs to be done. But could it be that your perfectionism adds to your stress, makes you anxious about taking on new challenges, and leads you to criticize yourself? I have seen many perfectionists who ruminate about their past “shortcomings” and seldom give themselves credit for the positives that they do. As a result, they fear “failure” so much that they won’t risk trying something new and challenging. Successful people build their success on cumulative experiences of failure that they learn from. You don’t hit a home run without striking out first.

2. Are you secretly proud of your perfectionism?

I have seen many people who secretly harbor a sense of pride that they have demanding, even unrealistic, standards for themselves. They say that they are not like other people and they don’t want to be mediocre. But is this “pride in perfectionism” simply defeating you—even when you make progress? Does it make sense to be proud of something that is making you miserable?

3. There is a difference between perfectionism and healthy high standards.

Your maladaptive perfectionism is characterized by the following: “My goals are so high I can almost never achieve them,” “I can’t stand making mistakes,” and “Nothing I do ever feels good enough.” This adds to your misery and self-criticism. But healthy high standards are different. You may think, “My goals are high but realistic,” “I get satisfaction from trying hard even if it isn’t perfect,” and “I can accept making mistakes." Having healthy high standards has the advantage of giving you something that is positive and that is within reach—trying to improve yourself—without burdening you with the impossible.

4. Everyone is imperfect. Everyone makes mistakes.

I often ask my patients who are perfectionistic to tell me about people they know well and ask them about the mistakes that they have made. Successful people are constantly making mistakes—because they are engaged in the real world. If everyone makes mistakes at times, why not you? Do you have to be uniquely perfect?

5. You don’t have to regret mistakes; you can learn from them.

We often dwell on our mistakes, going over and over in our minds how stupid we were, regretting things that we cannot change. But if mistakes are inevitable at times, why not learn from them. Ask yourself now—and be honest with yourself—which mistakes have you made in the past led you to learn something new? Perhaps you expressed some hostile feelings and you realize it was a mistake. What did you learn? How will you avoid that in the future? Try to think about mistakes as learning experiences, as potential growth, as a lesson learned. That’s a lot less depressing than thinking that a mistake proves that you are a failure.

Keep in mind that making progress not perfection holds true in all areas of your life. Depression is often characterized by the intolerance of what is real about all of us—that we are imperfect, but improvable.

More from Robert L. Leahy Ph.D.
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