Coping With Perfectionism

It is important to acknowledge when one is partaking in perfectionist thinking (e.g., checking and rechecking, apologizing too much for minor mistakes, spending too much time doing less important things like cleaning your house). Acknowledging one’s perfectionistic thinking is the first step in being able to change it.

In order to change perfectionistic thinking it is important to:

  • Identify if you are experiencing any of the thought patterns listed above
  • List possible alternative thoughts
  • Consider the advantages and disadvantages of the original and alternative thoughts
  • Weigh the advantages of holding on to your original perfectionistic thoughts and standards versus adopting the alternative thoughts and standards
  • Choose more realistic or helpful ways to view the situation: After you have evaluated the advantages and disadvantages of changing your beliefs and standards, you will be better prepared to choose a more realistic and helpful way of thinking about the situation.

Perfectionistic Statement:
Since I didn’t make an “A” on the English exam, I am a failure.
Alternative Statement:
It is unlikely that my grade on this exam will have an impact on what I am doing a year from now.

Perfectionistic Statement:
My haircut looks terrible and I am terrified of being seen in public.
Alternative Statement: People on the street are much less interested in my hair than I am and they probably won’t even notice. Besides, my hair will grow back eventually.

(Adapted from Antony & Swinson (1998), When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough)

Overcoming your Perfectionism

Overcoming perfectionism requires courage because it means that one must accept their imperfections and the things that make us human. However there are several strategies one can use once they recognize their perfectionistic thought patterns and behaviors to help them replace their perfectionistic habits with healthier and more satisfying behavior.

1. Make a list of the advantages and disadvantages of trying to be perfect.

When you make your own list of costs and benefits, you may find that the costs are too great. You may discover that problems with relationships, excessive workaholism, eating and substance abuse problems, and other compulsive behaviors (plus the accompanying anxiety, nervousness, feelings of inadequacy, self-criticism, and so on) actually outweigh whatever advantages perfectionism holds for you.

2. Increase your awareness of the self-critical nature of your all-or-nothing thoughts, and how they extend to other people in your life.

Learn to substitute more realistic, reasonable thoughts for your habitually critical ones. When you find yourself berating a less-than-perfect performance, whether your own or someone else’s, force yourself to look at and acknowledge the good parts of that performance.

3. Set strict time limits on each of your projects. When the time is up, move on: attend to another activity.

This technique reduces the procrastination that typically results from perfectionism. Suppose you must find references for a term paper and also study for an exam. Set time limits.

4. Learn how to deal with criticism.

Perfectionists often view criticism as a personal attack, responding to it defensively. Concentrate on being more objective about the criticism, and about yourself. If someone criticizes you for making a mistake, acknowledge the mistake and assert your right to make mistakes.

5. Be realistic about what you can do.

By setting more realistic goals, you will gradually realize that “imperfect” results do not lead to the punitive consequences you expect and fear.


Changing Perfectionistic Behaviors- Setting Healthy Goals

Are you ready to change? Goal setting is very important in helping perfectionists change their behavior. However, perfectionism is not the standard by which one should measure healthy goal setting. So what is the difference between healthy goal setting and perfectionistic goal stetting?

Healthy Goal Setting:

  • Based on wants and desires
  • Healthy goals are one step beyond present or previous achievements
  • Pleasure can be derived from the process of working towards the goal
  • Disapproval or failure can be seen as to a specific situation.

Perfectionist Goal Setting:

  • Goals are often based on expectations of others
  • Your goal is perfection or the best at all times
  • The focus is on the end result; not the process of working towards the goal
  • Disapproval or failure is generalized to self worth

When trying to overcome perfectionistic tendencies perfectionists can be their own worst enemy. Perfectionists tend to set goals that are both high and difficult to achieve; therefore causing distress when they are unable to meet their unrealistic goals. Therefore, it is important for perfectionists to learn to set realistic SMART goals:  

Following are components of an effective goal – one that describes performance standards that will “tell us what good behavior looks like.” The SMART acronym can help us remember these

  • Specific: The goal should identify a specific action or event that will take place.
  • Measurable: The goal and its benefits should be quantifiable.

  • Achievable: The goal should be attainable given available resources.

  • Realistic: The goal should require you to stretch some, but allow the likelihood of success. 
  • Timely: The goal should state the time period in which it will be accomplished.