Recognizing and Overcoming the Need for Perfection

I’d never considered myself a perfectionist. Sure, I preferred the dishwasher be loaded in a certain way. I couldn’t see why anyone wouldn’t squeeze the toothpaste tube from the bottom and of course toilet paper should hang from the top of the roll (unless your cat is an “unroller” — then hang it backwards). I may have had preferences, but a perfectionist? Nah!

I was close to fifty years old when I realized that most of my life had been impacted by a symptom of perfectionism. I had always wanted to be a writer. I was was going to write “someday,” but when? I told myself I was waiting until I was ready, but it seemed like I was always waiting for the perfect idea, the perfect amount of free time, the perfect office, the perfect stars to align under the perfect sky…..Maybe I was a perfectionist!

This got me to wondering how often does perfectionism show up in our lives disguised as something else? Can we be perfectionists in some areas but not in others?

Recognizing the Symptoms

Psychology Today published an article some years ago that helps parents and students identify potential signs of perfectionism by listening for particular types of phrases. Some included:

“If someone does a task at work or school better than me, then I feel like I failed the whole task.”

“Other people seem to accept lower standards from themselves than I do.”

“My parents want me to be the best at everything.”

“I tend to get behind in my work because I repeat things over and over.”

“Neatness is very important to me.”

It seems it would be very easy to hear these types of comments, and not consider the student anything but very diligent. Possibly taken individually, this might be true, but when looked at in combination with other characteristics, the person might well be suffering from perfectionism.

Yes, I said suffering. The Oxford English Dictionary defines perfectionism as the “refusal to accept any standard short of perfection.” Living by such unattainable standards means living with a constant sense of failure. While perfectionism itself is not a disease it can have a relationship with anxiety and depression.

It seems important that we are able to recognize symptoms of perfectionism so that we can be aware of when they are impacting our life and take action to overcome the challenges. We often casually speak about someone being a perfectionist when they are a micromanager or always want things done their way, or maybe they are a high achiever and work long hours to finish a project so it is just right. Those are easy things to identify in others, and perhaps even in ourselves but what about the less obvious traits?

Walden University identifies 7 signs that according to mental health professionals could mean you are a perfectionist. Some of these include:

  • Being an “all or nothing” person.
  • Feedback makes you defensive.
  • You are highly critical of others.
  • You are a big procrastinator.

AHA! I had often considered that my habit of putting off writing until “someday” was a sign of procrastination (and it was), but it seems procrastination and perfectionism go hand-in-hand, and this is backed up by scientific research. One of the key factors seems to be that perfectionists will put off what they fear they cannot do to their high standards. That felt very familiar to me.

At this point you might be asking yourself what you can do if you are a perfectionist, or at least have some perfectionist tendencies. One of the first things is to be able to recognize your behavior and how it is holding you back. For instance, if you constantly write and rewrite projects for school or work and it seems to take you longer than everyone else, it’s probably your perfectionism telling you the work isn’t good enough, yet. Or maybe you repeatedly create a goal about something you truly want to do, such as learning to play guitar or writing a novel, but rarely take action on it.

Planning a Better Way

Once you recognize the behaviors that are not serving you well, you need to make plan for dealing with them. For instance, give yourself a deadline that your paper or project will be done and honor the deadline. It might be easier to do this in stages, such as rough draft, nearly completed draft and final project. It might help to get feedback from a co-worker or friend who will have a clearer perspective on your work than you do. Often perfectionists are too self-critical and their projects are completed far before they are willing to consider them done.

For personal projects, like playing the guitar, or writing, setting a big goal, and breaking it down into smaller goals and writing it all out in a planner can be very effective. This could look like:

Big Goal

Learn One Song on the Guitar by the End of the Month

Smaller Goals

  1. Learn the first chord.
  2. Learn the second chord.
  3. Learn the third chord.
  4. Learn the strumming pattern.
  5. Practice the song with all chords.

Having a step-by-step plan helps reduce feelings of overwhelm caused by the project seeming too big, eliminates the need to make a decision about what to do next and when to do it, and has the added benefits that come from putting a goal in writing.

Another way of coping with perfectionism is essentially training yourself to think differently. The University of Michigan encourages students who engage in perfectionist thinking to acknowledge the thinking (“I didn’t get an ‘A’ so I am a failure”), list alternate thoughts (“This grade will probably not impact what I am doing one year from now.”), consider the advantages and disadvantages of both thoughts, and choose the more helpful way of viewing the situation. This type of analysis takes time and practice, but is considered a way of promoting realistic thinking so people can overcome their unhealthy, unrealistic thoughts.

Want More?

For Writers: Are you tired of perfectionism getting in the way of your progress? Are you ready to deal with your harsh inner critic in order to become the writer you’ve always dreamed of being?

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-Cathe McCoy