To feel happy and be worthwhile I must achieve, succeed at what ever I do, and make no mistakes.
To be human is to be imperfect. Yet many people try to be more than human. Some strive for the ultimate in everything they do - no matter what the cost. Others go to all lengths to avoid ever making a mistake, even to the point of restricting their lives.
What is wrong with seeking perfection?
Perfectionistic people often find it hard to admit to their perfectionism. To them it seems normal. But perfectionism is not as good as it sounds:
Why do we do it?
If it is so harmful, why do people engage in perfectionistic behaviour? The cause seems to be a combination of biological makeup coupled with learning.
Catch yourself trying to be perfect
Watch for signs like the following:
For a week or so, keep a diary of the times you find yourself overdoing something. Record where you were and what was happening, your perfectionistic feelings and behaviours, and the thoughts involved. This 'ABC' diary will help clue you in to the extent you do it, and the typical triggers involved.
Look for your perfectionistic thinking
Several distortions of reality may be involved with your perfectionism. Black and white thinking (also called 'all-or-nothing thinking') is common. You view things in extremes: total success v. total failure, superb v. lousy, right v. wrong, perfect v. useless. Over-generalising can lead you to think that because high standards are possible, 'perfection' is too; or that one or a few mistakes means you are 'always making mistakes.'
The real problem, though, is demanding - jumping from the belief that because perfection is possible, therefore you should or must achieve it - coupled with the idea that if you do not, this reflects on your self-worth (self-rating) or will lead to dire consequences and unbearable discomfort (awfulising and discomfort-intolerance).
Look for any variations of the following:
Also involved may be thoughts about your life becoming disorganised and chaotic - the results of which would be disaster, discomfort and misery:
From perfectionism to excellence
How can you break out of the perfection trap? Start by getting the idea itself into perspective. To aim for high standards is not a bad thing. It is satisfying to do well. It also helps ensure some degree of quality to human endeavours. High standards only become a problem when you turn them into demands - in other words, when you believe that you always have to achieve to a high level. The solution is 'realistic excellence'. Realistic excellence means going for the best you can - but taking into account some realities:
The idea is to spread your resources round the various things you want to do so that each gets the time and energy you think it deserves. You may elect to put only a little time and energy into one activity, in order to reserve it for another. Let us say, for instance, you would like to mow your lawns once a week. You may decide to settle for every fortnight, because you want to spend more time on a hobby.
You will be freer to make rational choices when you get rid of the irrational thinking that creates perfectionism.
Start by giving up the idea that perfection is possible. Perfection exists only as an idea in the mind. No matter how desirable it may already be, there is nothing that cannot be improved on. Personal attractiveness, architecture, music - everything has some potential to be just that little bit better. This even applies to nature - beautiful gardens usually have weeds. So give up the idea that it is possible for anything to ever reach a point of finalised perfection.
Check this out for a day or so. Keep asking yourself: 'Is this chair entirely comfortable, entirely uncomfortable - or is it really something between? Is that person completely attractive, completely repulsive, or again, something between?' You will soon discover that it is too black and white to see anything as totally good or totally bad.
The same applies to people. Making mistakes is what humans do. You are a human being - so, surely, you would expect to make mistakes? Why, then, do you think you should never get anything wrong? This is like elevating yourself to the status of a supernatural being.
Mistakes are necessary for growth and development. When you stop making them, you stop learning. Remember, too, that one mistake is no reason for totally giving up on something. If you ate an item on your diet's forbidden list, you do not have to abandon the whole diet. Learn what you can from the mistake, then carry on.
Remember, too, that you can accept yourself no matter what your performance. Question the myth that to be 'worthy' you have to match up to some universal standard. What standard are you using? Who set it? Anyway, why do you have to be 'worthy' - as opposed to just accepting yourself regardless of your performance or achievements?
I am not suggesting you reject any idea of improving yourself. Far from it. But you can set out to improve on specific aspects - for example, your appearance, parenting skills, or whatever - while still accepting the total you.
Also, self-acceptance does not depend on how others see you. Most people will not think badly of you for making mistakes. But even if they did, you are still the same person as you were before. Their views do not magically change you into something else.
As we saw earlier, people with perfectionistic tendencies often fear that if they let up they will become mediocre or their lives disorganised and chaotic. But this is just an illusion. For such a person to become disorganised, they would have to deliberately try. If you unbend a little, the most that is likely to happen is you approach things somewhat more realistically.
Note that perfectionism, anyway, leads to inefficiency. There is a time management principle known as the 80/20 rule which illustrates this. You achieve 80% of the value of a task in the first 20% of the time spent on it. The other 20% of value takes up the other 80% of the time. If you were smart, you would settle for doing five tasks to an 80% level (a total gain of 400%) instead of only one task to a 100% level. This illustrates the common paradox of demanding - thinking that you should or must achieve perfection will often reduce your performance!
To summarise, here is a list of questions to ask when disputing perfectionistic beliefs:
Perfectionism is a way of thinking
Here is a list of the most common beliefs that create perfectionism, along with rational alternatives:
Action approaches to realistic living
Undercut your perfectionistic habits by combining rethinking with action. Here are some strategies to get you moving.
Reduce the performance level you expect of yourself. Right now, plan to do some things to a lesser standard than before. Then do them. Observe the results - does it lead to disaster? You probably felt uncomfortable - but you stood it. Remember: to increase your success rate, reduce your expectations.
Deliberately check things once only. Force yourself to do one adequate check of locks, switches and tasks you have completed - then walk away. Practise tolerating the anxiety you will feel.
Set yourself time limits. Stop forever polishing up tasks. Set time limits and stick to them. When the period is up, leave that task - even though you know you can improve it.
Admit to your slips and shortcomings. Why not own up - at least to those people you regard as important? Most people will feel better about you for showing that you are human and each time you make such an admission, you undercut your perfectionistic tendencies a little more and reduce the fear of disapproval.
Make sure you see the positives. Paradoxically, people who strive for the ultimate often get little pleasure from their achievements - they tend to focus instead on the ways in which they still fall short. So, for a couple of weeks note in a diary the things you do to an acceptable (not perfect) level. You just might surprise yourself.
Enjoy the doing, rather than worry about the outcome. Finally, note that giving up perfectionism will increase the enjoyment you get out of life. Recreation will be more relaxing when you are less concerned with high performance and tasks more satisfying when you set achievable standards.
Other helpful resources
Links within this programme
From perfectionism to realistic living
Perfectionism is a way of thinking. Here is a rational alternative to the demand for perfection:
I will always seek to achieve as much as I can, but unfailing success and competence is unrealistic. Better I learn to accept myself as a person, separate from my performance.