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Challenging Perfectionism

On the surface, being a perfectionist seems like a good thing. It sounds like something one would say in a job interview when they ask about “weaknesses” but you know you should still showcase your strengths. However, perfectionism can be a real burden and negatively affect your life if you let it go too far. Perfectionism is actually a defense mechanism protecting against the pain of being wrong or feeling like a failure. It can lead to being judgmental towards yourself and others, alienating friends and family, engaging in negative self-talk, and feelings of stress and anxiety.

Here are signs that you perfectionism might be getting in your way:

  1. You find yourself being judgmental of others. Are you constantly finding faults in others, even those closest to you? Perhaps you feel like you are a great friend or partner, and that others don’t measure up or reciprocate enough. Being critical of others is actually a defense mechanism that makes perfectionists feel better about themselves; if others aren’t like you, they aren’t good enough. Ironically, perfectionists are also very critical of themselves as well. Being judgmental of others can be alienating- because who wants to spend time with someone they feel criticized by all the time?
  2. You feel terrified of failure. This may lead to procrastinating until the last minute, spending hours on a project that should take a quarter of the time, or revising an email over and over again. This is a major way that perfectionism backfires. Most perfectionists got good grades in school and have tidy homes, but what others don’t see is the amount of time spent stressing over small details as a result of the worry that the finished product will not be perfect.
  3. You don’t feel good enough. As mentioned before, perfectionism is a defense against feeling shame. Many people become perfectionists as a way to fight against feelings of low self-worth.
  4. You stress, even about little things. Maybe you find yourself getting overly emotional when the slightest thing goes wrong. Your whole day could be ruined by spilling coffee in your car on the way to work. This causes a high level of anxiety almost all the time, which is not healthy.
  5. You get on the defense easily. Any slight criticism someone may have of you feels like a personal attack. Most people take criticism as just someone else’s opinion, to be considered or not. But a perfectionist takes it as further proof that they are not adequate.

There are ways to challenge your perfectionism and help yourself live a healthier, happier life. Try these tips:

  1. Open up about your feelings. The best way to overcome shame is to talk to people about it that you know will be compassionate towards you. It probably feels terrifying to admit to another person that you feel like you aren’t good enough, and that you are afraid of being rejected or unloved. However, this vulnerability endears you to others, drawing you closer to them rather than pushing them away, as perfectionism tends to do.
  2. Strive to be more in the moment. Instead of stressing about the small things, planning every moment of your day, or compulsively tweaking your to-do list, try to be in the here-and-now. Practicing mindfulness can help with this.
  3. >Don’t take things personally. Not everyone is going to like you, or approve of what you do. That is just a fact of life. So next time someone gives you negative feedback, instead of getting defensive, practice saying to yourself, “oh well, you can’t please everyone”. Sometimes it is good to consider others’ feedback for self-improvement purposes, but if you change for everyone, then what’s left of you?
  4. Be compassionate towards others. When you find yourself being harsh towards others’ mistakes, stop and think about how you would want them to treat you if you goofed up. There is a saying that the faults you find in others are your faults as well. Learning to be compassionate towards others’ imperfections will help you on the way to accepting yours too.
  5. Tell yourself you are “good enough”. There is no such thing as perfect. All anyone can do is strive to be good enough. So you missed a comma in that email to your boss. So you didn’t get the subject in your photograph accurately centered. It’s okay. Try forcing yourself to leave some mistakes the way they are. You are loveable, mistakes and all.

If you are struggling with perfectionism and would like help challenging yourself to change, Symmetry Counseling is here to help.

Author: Grace Norberg, AMFT

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