How do you handle setbacks? Do you say to yourself that you should have worked harder or known better? Do you treat yourself harshly with unkind words and critical self-talk? Do you feel intense guilt or shame when you make a mistake? Do you ruminate on the setback for days, weeks? Do you try to hide your mistakes?
Why do so many of us put pressure on ourselves to meet high standards? Some people assume perfectionism is a good thing. Healthy striving can be useful if it helps you to achieve a goal or outcome. However, it all depends on how you use this mindset.
There is a big difference between the healthy pursuit of excellence and the unhealthy striving for perfection. It mostly comes down to negative and critical self-talk when the goal is not achieved. Research indicates that this kind of thinking lends itself to increased distress and negative mood states which can impact on our emotional wellbeing.
Putting Perfectionism into Perspective
Consider where you drive for perfectionism comes from
It can be helpful to identify the underlying beliefs that drive your perfectionist behaviour. For example, it is common for many perfectionists to have an underlying belief that they are not “good enough.” As a result, they may adhere to certain rules *e.g. ‘I must be perfect or else I am a total failure’, or ‘I must be perfect or else they will think I am stupid’) Bringing an initial awareness to your own personal beliefs is the first step in tackling perfectionist thinking.
Be mindful of unrealistic expectations
Perfectionists are often their own worst critic. Take some time to honestly evaluate your expectations. You are bound to mistakes at some point in time. It’s not realistic to expect that you will never fail because you are human, and nobody can be perfect.
Is the strive for perfectionism worth it?
Often there is a cost with perfectionist thinking which can lead to a sense of loss. As you spend your time preparing for projects and work deadlines, you lose out on quality time spent with others or the enjoyment of more meaningful activities. Reflecting on what perfectionism has cost you can help you realize that the costs outweigh the benefits.
One of the most helpful ways to combat your inner critic is to practice self-compassion regularly. Self-Compassion is the practice of offering unconditional love, empathy and warmth to yourself. While perfectionists can be compassionate towards others, they may have difficulty being supportive of themselves. When you’re feeling critical towards yourself, ask yourself:
What would I say to a friend in this situation, and how can I apply that to myself?
What would a friend say to me if they knew my struggles right now?
What are some ways I show others compassion that I can apply to myself?
This is hard for me right now – what can I do to support and care for myself?
Is there anything that I can learn from this mistake and grow from it?
Validate your feelings
Acknowledge how we are feeling without blaming ourselves or others. This gives you unconditional permission to feel that way. For example, you might say, “I am feeling really upset. I have been through a lot this week, so it is understandable that I feel this way”. This is another form of self-compassion and encourages your inner critic to become kinder.
Engage in meaningful activities
If perfectionism prevents you from trying new things out of fear of failure, then engage in activities that make you feel good about yourself. Consider relaxation activities such as mediation and mindfulness. Such skills will encourage you to become more present in the moment. Likewise, be mindful of social media use if it encourages comparisons and amplifies feelings of ‘I am not good enough or not as good as other people’.
Reach out for support from others
It’s human to want to want approval from others, however perfectionism thrives in isolation. Often perfectionists are surprised to find many others struggle with similar issues. Start by identifying one person in your life that you trust and share with them about some of your struggles. The more you practice being vulnerable with people, the less isolated you will feel. The less isolated you are, the easier it will be to look at mistakes and setbacks as growth opportunities rather than scary things to be avoided at all costs.
Brown, B. (2008). I thought it was just me (but it isn’t): Telling the truth about perfectionism, inadequacy, and power. New York: Gotham Books.
Centre for Clinical Interventions. (12th April 2021). Looking after Yourself: Perfectionism in Perspective Workbook. https://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/Resources/Looking-After-Yourself/Perfectionism
Neff, K. & Germer, C. (2018). The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook: A Proven Way to Accept Yourself, Build Inner Strength, and Thrive. New York: The Guilford Press.