How to Conquer Perfectionism Before It Conquers You
Perfectionism is a lifestyle, not a standard.
Posted February 9, 2019 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
Perfectionism is an illusion—we believe it makes us better but actually harms us.
I used to struggle to start writing. I fell prey to the ‘first-line-syndrome’—I fear that, if I couldn’t catch my reader’s attention immediately, they’ll click away. However, the more I tried to find the perfect line, the more I got stuck.
That’s the problem with perfectionism—we focus on what’s missing or broken and can’t make progress.
It’s one thing striving to be your best and another it’s trying to be perfect.
Perfectionism rarely generates personal satisfaction—we don’t achieve perfection, but disappointment.
Perfectionism Is Anything but Flawless
“Perfectionism is self-abuse of the highest order.”
― Anne Wilson Schaef
I’m a recovered perfectionist—I still hold my bar high, but I’ve learned to give myself a break.
Perfectionism is one of the top organizational neuroses as I explain in my Book Stretch for Change—it affects both leaders and teams alike. Based on my research and consulting, most organizations fail to innovate not for lack of ideas but because they don’t launch—overthinking paralyzes decision-making.
Clinical psychologist Linda Blair describes a perfectionist as a person “who strives for flawlessness, for a perfect creation, outcome or performance." They "find it difficult to delegate, even if that means neglecting their health, relationships, and wellbeing in pursuit of a ‘perfect’ outcome.”
Perfectionism isn’t bad if you approach it properly. Setting high personal standards and working hard toward those is a good thing. However, there’s a dark side to always aiming high—perfectionism is turning into an unhealthy habit.
Brené Brown, a professor at the University of Houston, explains the distinction, “Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfection is not about healthy achievement and growth.” Perfectionism is used by people as a shield to protect themselves against the pain of being vulnerable—they don’t want to be blamed or judged by others.
Setting the bar high can cloud our judgment—everything feels wrong according to our standards. That’s why therapists and coaches know that asking people to lower their bar is pointless—they will ignore their advice. If you want to defeat perfectionism, you must understand and address the issues behind this increasing obsession.
Perfectionism Is Increasing (and That’s Not Good)
“Perfectionism doesn’t make you feel perfect; it makes you feel inadequate.” —Maria Shriver
A study called “Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time” found that young people are more burdened than ever.
Unhealthy perfectionism has surged, leading to eating disorders, depression, high blood pressure and thoughts of suicide. This is caused by a mix of excessively high personal standards (“I have to excel at everything I do”) and intense self-criticism (“I’m a complete failure if I fall short”).
The pressure to appear flawless is driven by the fear of failure, but also our desire to be loved and admired.
Our need to please others has reached a new high too. We hold up perfectionists as models more than ever before. Social media has become a space to pursue and achieve perfection—the more likes you get, the closer you are to feeling perfect.
Increasingly, young people hold irrational standards for themselves—they create unrealistic expectations for their academic and professional achievements, looks, and possessions. They have bought into the modern myth that their lives, including themselves, should be perfect.
Perfectionism is a growing epidemic. Studies among Noth American teens show that 3 in 10 exhibit some sort of unhealthy perfectionism. It is also life-endangering—those with higher scores on perfectionism are more likely to die younger.
Perfection is an impossible goal—you only set yourself up for failure and suffering. That’s the paradox of perfectionism. The more you try to win someone else’s validation, the worse you become.
Perfectionism Is Not a Standard, but a Lifestyle
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.”
Experts have found that perfectionism is more than an attitude or excess attention to detail—it has become a way of life that creates and amplifies mental issues. It’s a clear signal that we have a problematic relationship with our sense of self.
As Paul L. Hewitt, from the University of British Columbia, explains, “It’s not a way of thinking, but a way of being in the world.”
His research shows that perfectionism isn’t about perfecting things—a project, job, or relationship—it’s about perfecting our identity. The obsession with being (perceived as) perfect is an attempt to perfect our imperfect self.
All perfectionists are not created equal.
Self-oriented perfectionists adhere to strict standards while maintaining strong motivation to achieve perfection and avoid failure—they engage in harsh self-assessment.
Other-oriented perfectionists set unrealistic standards for others like partners, friends, or co-workers—they are very rigid when it comes to evaluating how others perform.
Socially-prescribed perfectionists believe that others hold unrealistic expectations for them—they can’t live up to external pressure and (perceived) harsh criticism.
The latter is growing at twice the rate of the other two, according to the study by Thomas Curran and Andrew P. Hill. Even worse, it’s the one most associated with anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts—they let others define their lifestyle.
As Brené Brown wrote in her book The Gifts of Imperfection, “Healthy striving is self-focused: “How can I improve?” Perfectionism is other-focused: “What will they think?”
We must rethink our relationship with ourselves (especially accepting we are not flawless). It’s harder to get things done when we have zero tolerance for mistakes—people are more likely to procrastinate since they can’t screw up what they haven’t yet started.
Find Meaning, Not Perfection
“Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.” —Aristotle
Overcoming perfectionism requires reframing our relationship with life, others, and ourselves. Rather than seeking for perfection, we must find meaning.
But, what is “meaning”?
Most people misunderstand what a meaningful life truly is. That’s the argument Iddo Landau presents in his book Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World. He argues that the meaning of our lives is a matter of value or worth, not of understanding.
Landau wrote, “A meaningful life is one in which there is a sufficient number of aspects of sufficient value, and a meaningless life is one in which there is not a sufficient number of aspects of sufficient value.”
By focusing on what’s missing, we can’t appreciate what we already have.
Of all the thoughts that make our lives seem meaningless, the most common and harmful is the Perfectionist Pressuposition—the belief that a meaningful life must include perfection. It tricks us into wanting to pursue high-standards and transcend the common and mundane.
Most of us fail to attain perfection—disappointment steals our sense of meaning.
Landau recommends two strategies to increase the meaning in one’s life: “identifying” and “recognizing.”
Identifying is the process of discovering what is meaningful for us. As Landau observes, “Many dedicate more thought in one evening to deliberating which restaurant or film they should go to than they do in their entire lifetime to deliberating what would make their lives more meaningful.”
Recognizing, in turn, is emotionally appreciating the meaning in one’s life. Landau tells how a relative, whose son tragically passed away at the age of 36, expressed gratitude for the time they had together. She not only acknowledged—at an intellectual level—that their time together was meaningful but also recognized it at an emotional level.
The mistake most people make is believing that a meaningful life needs to be perfect—perfectionism doesn’t allow them to see the value in ordinary things.
We must change the lens. We tend to have aesthetic experiences in museums because we adopt an aesthetic view when we enter them. Landau notes that we can take that same attitude into the world—let’s develop our sensitivity to appreciate everyday things.
Get Perfectionism Out of Your Way
“Do your hardest to be at the top of your game, improve every joke you can until the last possible second, then let it go. Don’t overthink it. It will never be perfect. Perfection is overrated.” —Tina Fey
The energy behind perfectionism comes mainly from a desire to avoid failure. We must shift our focus away from the disastrous possibilities to what we might learn from it instead.
Play First, Edit Later
The beginning of a project is a warm-up, not the real thing. Author Daniel Pink recommends writing the opening of a piece without caring much about it. He suggests deleting the first and second paragraph afterward. The beginning is like clearing your throat—it helps prepare for your act, but it’s not the final outcome.
No business idea, design, or article will be good enough in your head—just launch it.
Don’t Judge, Go with the Flow
Once you’ve launched, don’t get stuck with details—avoid distractions and analysis/ paralysis. Daniel Pink suggests that when you feel not writing well or specific details are slowing you down, write a note and move on.
Keeping the momentum going is key to avoid overthinking. Once you are finished, you can always come back to those notes and perfect those parts. Focus on making progress. Enjoy the journey but also realize when you reach your destination.
Launch Now—You are Never Ready
Creating fictional deadlines has become very helpful to me. When you must ship a project at a specific date or time, there’s no room for another revision.
Lorne Michaels, the long-time producer of SNL, famously said, “The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready; it goes on because it’s 11:30.” That helped Tina Fey overcome her fears and perfectionism—the artist realized that perfection is overrated and unattainable. Deadlines also keep us authentic and real—perfect is boring on live television (and life).
Done is better than perfect
Perfectionists tend to postpone difficult tasks—they avoid failing by never launching a project. Procrastination is the result of ineffective emotion-management, as I wrote here. We must learn to manage our fears. Taking small, manageable steps reduces anxiety and overthinking.
Find healthier goals
In adopting excessively high standards, you set yourself up for failure. Recognize what is realistically achievable—focus on doing the best possible. Recalibrating your goals when needed doesn’t mean to lower your bar.
Shift from trying to be perfect to do the best with what you’ve got. Focus on making progress, not on achieving perfection. Be pragmatic—aim high but seek for meaning in what you do.
And if you do fail? A little bit of self-compassion will help you along the way. Eventually, you’ll get used to launch something that’s not perfect. Life goes on because it’s 11:30, not because you are ready.