How to Overcome Perfectionism in 4 Steps
By Wendy de Jong
Confession time: I quadruple-checked each and every single word in this blog post before declaring it finished. It’s a habit that’s difficult to break. You see, even as a recovering perfectionist, I still feel plagued by my perfectionism from time to time.
I’m not alone in my struggle with perfectionism. I know many of you face the same struggle every day. A difficult conversation with a loved one. An impending deadline for a passion project you’ve poured your heart and soul into. Receiving criticism from your boss about a report you’ve written. Cue perfectionism.
There are things you can do, though, when you’re stuck in perfectionism and feel the urge to perfect, perform, and please. I’ll share these four things in a little bit.
But first, let’s clear up a few misunderstandings and get clear about what perfectionism actually is.
The truth about perfectionism
You might think that being a perfectionist means you’re pursuing excellence, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Perfectionism is not the same as striving for excellence.
When you’re striving for excellence your focus is on personal growth and healthy achievement: 'How can I improve?' or 'What are my goals?'.
Instead, being a perfectionist means you're focused on the other and trying to win their approval: 'What will they think? Will they like me? Will they think my effort is good enough?'
Healthy striving is internally motivated and perfectionism is externally motivated.
Another common misunderstanding is that perfectionism is a collection of personality traits, like being type A, having a keen eye for detail, and being very organized. This is how perfectionism is portrayed in popular culture (Monica Geller, anyone?), but again, it couldn’t be further from the truth.
Let’s do a little thought experiment: do you suddenly turn into a perfectionist once you start focusing on details or show your type A personality? The answer is no. Those things happen as a RESPONSE to your perfectionism.
Perfectionism is a dangerous and harmful way of thinking and behaving. Perfectionism is a coping mechanism that we use when we feel scared, insecure, uncertain, and/or not good enough.
Those moments when you feel insecure or uncertain, like when you meet your in-laws for the first time, trigger a fearful thought pattern within you that goes like this:
‘If I do this perfectly or have a perfect life or look perfect, I am in control and therefore people can't hurt me or see me for who I really am.’
Sound familiar? This myth of perfectionism as a collection of personality traits is very pervasive. So many women think that to let go of perfectionism means having to let go of being type A or being organized and that causes anxiety.
The only way to overcome perfectionism is to slowly break down the coping mechanism you’ve been using for so long. And that’s difficult. It takes time, dedication, and a lot of soul searching. But it's possible. Here's how to get started.
What to do when you’re stuck in perfectionism
All of this doesn’t mean there isn’t anything you can do when you find yourself stuck in perfectionism. When you start to feel this need to perfect even the most basic email (just me?), remind yourself that you don’t have to give in. These are four simple but very effective strategies you can use in the moment when the perfectionism bug strikes.
1. Ease up
You might not realize it, but the anxious, stressed-out feeling of perfectionism affects you physically. It causes shallow breathing, a pit in your stomach, a lump in your throat, and/or tightness in your shoulders, neck, and jaw.
As soon as you recognize the physical symptoms, it’s important to make a conscious effort to loosen up. I’ve found a technique called box breathing to be really effective.
Box breathing means you breathe in for four seconds, hold your breath for four seconds, breathe out for four seconds, and sit still for four seconds before taking your next breath.
Do this four times and you’ll find yourself easing up, both mentally and physically.
2. Write a gratitude list
Think about this for a second: being stuck in perfectionism means you think that what you do, or who you are isn’t enough. The fastest way to snap out of that "not enough" mindset is to focus on enough. And that’s the definition of gratitude.
The moment you feel your perfectionism creeping up on you, write a list of three things you’re grateful for in that moment. Don’t overthink it. It’s okay if your gratitude list is made up of basic and simple things or talents you usually take for granted.
3. Write a list of achievements
If writing a gratitude list isn’t your thing, think about writing a short list of your achievements. Every perfectionist thinks that their work isn’t good enough and that they’ll never amount to anything. But when you write a list of your achievements, you’ll force yourself to see how flawed this thinking is.
Use this prompt to remind yourself that your achievements aren’t random, but the result of YOUR efforts: ‘I achieved ... because I did …’
4. Use a mantra, affirmation, quote
The last strategy you can use when the perfectionism bug strikes is to use a mantra, affirmation or quote. Repeat it to yourself or write it down on a post-it note. Pick something that resonates with you and that reminds you that you're good enough.
These are some great examples of mantras or affirmations:
- I am exactly where I am supposed to be and I am doing exactly what I am supposed to be doing.
- I am confident. I am capable. I am poised. I am strong.
- I am more than enough and exactly where I need to be right now.
- Done is better than perfect.
Or use one of these quotes:
- “She believed she could, so she did.” - R.S. Grey
- “I will hold myself to a standard of grace NOT perfection.” - Emily Ley
Let me remind you, from one recovering perfectionist to another, you are worthy and strong and beautiful and you have so many talents and qualities. Use them for good. Don't abuse them through perfectionism.
Are you ready to overcome your perfectionism? I’ve created a FREE workbook that walks you through several action steps to help you let go of your inner perfectionist. You can download it here.
Wendy de Jong is a recovering perfectionist on a mission to help fellow soul-connected creatives embrace their perfectly imperfect selves. She’s the bookworm and gratitude geek behind The Gratefulist. Her latest guilty pleasure is driving around in her bright red convertible car.