Wanting things to be perfect seems like a reasonably good thing to pursue. Especially in today's world, where you see the media shout about people's or organisations' flaws and failures on the front pages. Who could blame you for wanting to make your own corner of the world as perfect as possible? This is how you justify the perfectionist trap. If you strive for things to be perfect, you feel like you have better order and better control. This is simply an illusion. Perfectionism doesn't actually give you any further control of the uncertainty of this world.
Healthy perfectionism is when you strive for reasonable and realistic standards that lead to a sense of self-satisfaction and enhanced self-esteem. Neurotic perfectionism goes overboard with excessively high standards and is driven by fear of failure or of disappointing others. In a way, it's normal to want everything to be perfect in your world, but it's when you start to expect things to be perfect that things go a bit out of hand. Some of the common traits of a perfectionist include:
- You continuously tell yourself you need to be perfect.
- You get "stuck" on tasks through endless procrastination for concern over mistakes.
- You feel shame and guilt when you make a mistake or feel you didn't perform at your best.
- You focus on the flaws rather than what's gone right.
- You might even expect perfection from the people around you.
Does this sound like fun? I don't think so. Being stuck in the perfectionist trap makes you experience more distress, anxiety, and even depression. When you fail to achieve your perfect standards, you feel guilt and disappointment, which leads to low self-esteem. So isn't it time you got out of this nasty trap that does no good?
The way to get out is to retrain your brain out of your overly perfectionist thoughts and to put positive habits in place to help you focus on the good whilst accepting the imperfections. Here are three steps to help you to start retraining your brain out of the perfectionist trap.
- Become more mindful of your perfectionist thoughts. Take time to reflect when you are facing challenges or setbacks. Think about the thoughts that are going on in your head—are they helping you come out of the situation, or are they putting you down? Practising meditation is a great tool for becoming more self-aware and gaining more control of your thoughts.
- Challenge the thoughts which take you to the perfectionist trap. Are you jumping to conclusions with your judgment? Is this really as bad as it seems? Are you exaggerating the negative aspect of the situation? What other way could you look at the situation that would be more helpful?
- Replace your thoughts with more constructive ones. How could you change your thought so it's more truthful? What distortions can you take out from it? Re-create the thought in a way that motivates you rather than stresses you. If you are committed to seeing it as a failure, then 'rebrand' it as a learning experience that's helping you grow and develop.
Here's an example of how to put this exercise to work—and yes, this is my own personal experience.
- My research paper didn't get accepted by my number one choice of journal. I must have missed out on some mistakes in the paper I wrote. Or maybe the reviewers noticed an imperfection in my research that would then make it worthless. I didn't work hard enough putting it together. I'm just not the ideal researcher and I can't write scientific papers well.
- I'm probably jumping to conclusions here and exaggerating about what the rejection from the journal meant. There probably aren't mistakes in the paper because it was reviewed numerous times by different people before I submitted it. My research was done accurately hence the new findings I discovered are not worthless.
- The paper was reviewed numerous times before I submitted it so I know the quality is high. The journal very rarely accepts qualitative research studies so them rejecting my paper is not a reflection of the paper itself. I can submit the paper to a journal that accepts qualitative research studies.
There are several other activities and exercises that can reinforce the positive effects of retraining your brain, and help you let go of your neurotic perfectionism. Personally, the tactics I've outlined below are the ones that I have found most effective in maintaining my perfectionism at a healthy level.
- Set realistic goals. I admit I make stretch goals for myself, especially in the long term. But in order to make them achievable, I create mini-goals with action plans which help me progress towards the bigger goal. I also remain flexible and adaptable in case I need to adapt my goal or change my action plan based on the current circumstances. I always stay in touch with reality whilst pushing myself to progress.
- Celebrate your successes. This was a game-changer for me. Every day, I write down what I've achieved in that day. If I've had an unproductive day, it could be as simple as replying to my client's questions via email, or cooking a new dish for dinner. I have a success folder on my laptop that holds all the praise, positive feedback, and images of some of my proudest moments. If I ever feel like I'm not perfect enough, I open up that file and it always makes me smile.
- Practice gratitude. Focus on this gratitude practice to embrace yourself. Every day, think about three things you appreciate about yourself. This could be anything you felt particularly proud of in that day. For example, I feel grateful for successfully having helped my coaching client to reach their session goal with the good coaching skills I hold. I feel grateful for how I was able to put an outfit together that made me feel sexy for my date. I feel grateful for the improved posture I have since I started doing more fitness training as it immediately boosts my confidence and wellbeing.
It's time you crossed the border to a healthier type of perfectionism too. Yes, it will be an ongoing journey and you might need to work hard, especially at the beginning. But the more you practice your new thoughts and habits, the easier it will be to get out of the perfectionist trap and stay out of it. Remember, happiness isn't about being perfect but about accepting yourself just the way you are. Let go of the flaws and imperfections and accept them as something that makes you human.
"Being happy doesn't mean that everything is perfect. It means that you've decided to look beyond the imperfections." ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson