The perils of perfectionism — and what to do about it

Stuck moment: I’ve painted myself into a corner again! I missed the deadline, kept asking for extensions — which means that there’s zero wiggle room for mistakes. The pressure’s really on now but, if I can’t hit it out of the park, why bother? 

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For the perfectionists of the world, there’s an urge to wear the trait as a badge of honor. We accept no errors, brook no excuses, turn up our noses at anything less than first place — and surely, we believe, this makes us the ideal kind of person to get things done.

And yet, our perfectionist ways all too often become the sword we fall on rather than the flag we proudly hoist. Our unwavering standards of flawlessness (for others and ourselves) can come at a steep cost, taking a toll on our relationships, peace of mind, and our ability to finish what we’ve started — or, in some cases, to start at all. If we leave perfectionism unchecked, we fall into a vicious cycle of self-sabotage, setting ourselves up to fail with too-high expectations, and then beating ourselves up when we don’t meet them.

Are we talking about you? Here are 13 unhelpful tendencies that result from a perfectionist mindset. If you relate to six or more, definitely keep reading.

Perfectionist tendencies that can undermine personal progress:
• procrastinating until the ideal time or set of circumstances,
• only doing things that you know you can do well,
• trapping yourself with all-or-nothing thinking,
• pushing yourself too hard,
• fixating on mistakes instead of solutions,
• feeling that you’ve failed if you ask others for help,
• beating yourself up when you fall short of too-high expectations.

Perfectionist tendencies that can undermine your relationships:
• continually re-doing things at the expense of budget and deadline,
• pushing others too hard,
• playing mind games (i.e. trash-talking) to exert control,
• judging those who don’t meet your standards,
• secretly taking comfort when others “fail,”
• not rewarding or praising others for a job well done.

If perfectionism is your Achilles heel, whether you’ve ever thought about it that way or not, you’re not alone. We talked to four different perfectionists (in various stages of reform), who share important lessons they’ve learned in pursuit of letting go, even a little bit.

Learn from their experiences, and download our printable tip card Stop the perfectionism! 4 reformed perfectionists share their advice.

Dan Barber, 48, Orillia, ON
Profession: Pastor
Perfectionism level: Almost nonexistent

Dan knows that others can find his exacting standards impossible to meet. “Sometimes perfectionism leads to black-and-white thinking,” he says. “It’s easy for me to think that my way is the right way — what would be right about being disorganized? But, when I place those expectations on my two teenagers, I can sabotage the relationship by placing cleanliness and organization above my relationship with them.”

Dan’s #1 lesson: Balancing the “dark side of perfectionism” requires remembering that your needs and wants aren’t necessarily the center of the world. Dan says, “When you can focus on loving your family and your friends, perfectionism can take a back seat to that.”

What you can do: Before you tag someone who doesn’t meet your expectations with the label of  “inferior” or “careless,” pause for a moment to appreciate what they do contribute. Gratitude will warm you, and make you less judgmental.

Has your perfectionism got you stuck between constant conflict and doing it all yourself? The Unstuck app can help. Use the free Unstuck web app here or download the free iPad app.

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Kristin Toth Smith, 39, Seattle, WA
Profession: CEO, Code Fellows
Perfectionism level: Low

Kristin is a veteran of the messy, unpredictable start-up world, but her perfectionism used to keep her on the sidelines of risk. She didn’t want to try anything she couldn’t already do super well because looking silly wasn’t an option. But she realized, “If everything I’m doing is in my comfort zone, it’s not giving me enough satisfaction. And I’ll get impatient with others who can’t do it well, because I don’t have enough to focus on for myself.”

Kristin’s #1 lesson: After joining online deals site zulily, Kristin got a crash-course in perfection as a work in progress. When her boss asked if she could complete a project in eight weeks that ought to take eight months, she forced herself to say, “Let’s find out!” By doing this, she says, “I gave myself permission to be wrong, as long as it was getting better every day. You just have to take the first step, and see perfectionism as something to achieve down the road. And then say yes to bigger and bigger challenges.”

What you can do: Lose your fear of looking foolish with your own invigorating anthem. Pick your favorite dance tune — if it has a silly dance routine associated with it, all the better. Some ideas: Taylor Swift’s Shake it Off, D.A.N.C.E. by Justice, or the Bee Gees’ Stayin’ Alive. Turn it up in your bedroom and bust out your moves. Don’t shy away from the funky chicken or your own signature step or shimmy. Keep going until you feel truly freed of your inhibitions. Then, whenever the need to appear flawless has got you boxed in, tune into your anthem (even just in your head) to release yourself.

Is your perfectionism stopping you from chasing your dream? The Unstuck app can help. Use the free Unstuck web app here or download the free iPad app.

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Christa Harrison, 20, San Antonio, TX
Profession: Sophomore, Texas A&M University
Perfectionism level: Intermittent

Christa says that her unrealistic expectations for herself are largely based on media images and narratives of the perfect life. “Deep down, I’m looking for that perfect image for myself, my house, and my life,” she says. “It drives a lot of what I do.”

Christa’s #1 lesson: What’s most helped her shed the straitjacket of perfection is realizing that it’s mainly pride and insecurity that make her care about others’ opinions. “It’s my ego that caters to the opinions of everyone I care about, and it’s my ego that thrives on praise received for not making any mistakes,” she says. “This awareness can be liberating.”

What you can do: Let go of other people’s unhelpful ideas of what’s right. For each unrealistic expectation you place on yourself, ask:
• Whose standard is this? Society’s? My parents’?
• Does it fit with what I want, or what I believe?
• Who am I afraid of disappointing if I don’t go for it — myself or someone else?
• If I don’t meet this expectation, will I still be on track with my goals and dreams?

Has your perfectionism got you stuck operating with borrowed ideals? The Unstuck app can help. Use the free Unstuck web app here or download the free iPad app.

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Colin Reid, 31, Brooklyn, NY
Profession: Graduate student in English
Perfectionism level: Elevated

For Colin, perfectionism isn’t just about controlling the outcome, but also perfecting the process. When he feels that he’s going easy on himself, or failing to execute things in exactly the right way, he beats himself up — especially when he’s writing. “When it comes to writing a sentence, I want every sentence to be very chiseled,” he says. “I’m impatient seeing my own imperfections. I brood over them and make a torture chamber for myself.”

Colin’s #1 lesson: To push past his fear of failure, it helps Colin to remember that his heroes — whether sports figures or writers — achieved great heights while making plenty of mistakes along the way. “The ones that were perfect, we never heard of because they never got anything done,” he says. “They never wrote the poem, they never played the game.”

What you can do: Check your fear of making mistakes by learning to enjoy the process for its own sake. To get into the right mindset, choose an activity for which you usually have a habit and wing it instead. Skip your usual running trail and take a path less traveled. Cook dinner by taste and touch. Notice what’s new and different about this approach, and the fresh ideas that it stimulates.

Does a fear of making mistakes have you sabotaging your chances of success? The Unstuck app can help. Use the free Unstuck web app here or download the free iPad app.

DOWNLOAD THIS PRINTABLE TIP CARD: Stop the perfectionism! 4 reformed perfectionists share their advice

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