Calling All Perfectionists: This Advice Just Might Heal YouBecause you deserve way more joy in your life.
Gather ‘round, my fellow perfectionists! I am here to inform you that the American Psychological Association (APA) actually has a definition for people like us (which…rude, but whatever). We have a “tendency to demand of others or of oneself an extremely high or even flawless level of performance, in excess of what is required by the situation,” per the APA. Do you feel as seen (and called out) as I do?
Basically, perfectionism is a non-clinical term for feeling like you and/or others have to meet very high standards in one or more areas of life, says licensed psychologist Bonnie Zucker, PsyD, author of A Perfectionist’s Guide to Not Being Perfect. Most of the time, those standards are impossible to meet, she notes. Some people need their schoolwork or work work to be typo-free and amazing. Others expect the most from those around them. And for others (maybe you? maybe me?) it’s literally all the above—they’re just sort of universally perfectionistic, says Dr. Zucker. Fun!
Listen, perfectionism can help you achieve stuff, according to psychotherapist Sara Walls, LCSW, who works with a lot of high-achievers, perfectionists, and people-pleasers. It becomes a problem, though, when you crank up harsh self-talk, judge your friends or roommate for not meeting your expectations, or avoid a project because you’re scared to eff up, she says. All of that can hurt your relationship with yourself and others and even keep you from getting shit done (every perfectionist’s nightmare).
In her experience, Dr. Zucker has seen people with mental health conditions like OCD, OCPD, eating disorders, and generalized anxiety disorder show perfectionistic tendencies, but you can absolutely have your own brand of perfectionism without meeting criteria for a mental health condition, she says. Maybe you even picked it up from perfectionistic parents, she adds.
The good news is that loosening your grip on perfection might actually make you happier and more content with the things you achieve at work, at school, or in life.
You can start by purposely taking risks to see what happens. Say the wrong answer in class, let people come to your house even when it’s not the cleanest, or meet a friend for lunch without makeup on, Dr. Zucker suggests. You’re exposing yourself to things outside of your comfort zone of high standards and learning that not living up to those standards isn’t the end of the world.
But if you need more inspiration from perfectionists who eventually eased up, we got you. Here, people who get it share what helped them learn to be a little more OK with being just OK. Behold.
1. Remember that striving for perfection isn’t a fun or productive way to live.
“There’s nothing wrong with striving to be your best self and get perfect grades, but College Me thought that I’d amount to nothing if I wasn’t perfect. I let go of perfectionism by realizing, thanks to therapy, that perfection isn't a way of life. Nobody is perfect, and nothing I do will ever be perfect. Even though there's always room for growth and improvement in anything we do, holding yourself up to an unnecessary standard is not helpful. I still try my hardest but not at the cost of my mental health anymore.” —Casey C., 24
2. Ask yourself, “Do I have the energy for this?”
“About a year ago, I realized a lot of my perfectionist tendencies were really me trying to gain control in my life. Now, I really try to focus on why I want something to be perfect. Is it because it will truly make me happy or because I want something to be in more of my control than it is? Is it really something I want to give my limited energy to?
Basically, I try to consider whether reaching perfection is worth the time I'd have to put into it. Like with our Christmas tree: I could spend an extra hour or two making it perfect, or I could spend that time relaxing by the imperfect-but-still-nice tree and give myself a break.” —Rachel J., 31
3. Think about how your perfectionism can hurt people.
“Pointing out a typo my friend made in a text makes them feel self-conscious. Rejecting a compliment from someone sends the message that I think they have poor judgment. When I reflect on that negative impact and compare it to how I want to live, I can relax my standards, bring some lightness into the decision or task, and take action—even if that action is imperfect.” —Sara Walls, LCSW, psychotherapist
4. Consider how much perfectionism really costs you.
“As a student, I often end up doing everyone's work in a group setting. But one time, when I just didn’t touch other people’s work, our group grade wasn’t bad. I realized that my perfectionism might only help us get an extra two or three points; plus, it would cost me hours of work, which I could spend doing other things. That's how I started to let things go.” —Rushitha M., 25
5. Make sure your basic human needs are ahead of perfection.
“I used to feel like I couldn’t go to bed until all of my life and work stuff was done, so I used to be someone who went to bed between 2 and 3 a.m. During the pandemic, everything slowed down and I started sleeping eight hours a night. I learned to prioritize sleep, which meant giving up my perfectionistic ideals of going to bed with my to-do list done. Now, I do not work past 8 or 9 p.m., and I never find myself up until 2 or 3 a.m. anymore. I take longer to get back to people and I turn things in later than I used to, but there has been absolutely no negative impact whatsoever.” —Bonnie Zucker, PsyD, licensed psychologist
6. Remember that you are enough.
“For as long as I can remember, I've been a perfectionist. I started my healing journey in 2020 during the Covid lockdown because I had so much free time to really dig into why I am the way I am. I started watching this woman [and hypnotherapist] on YouTube named Marisa Peer, who stresses the importance of the affirmation, ‘I am enough.’ That affirmation changed my life, and whenever I find myself being self-critical or thinking I need to be perfect or do things perfectly, I remind myself that I am already enough, exactly as I am, in this present moment. The need to be perfect fades away and no longer has power over me.” —Gina W., 26
7. Repeat after us: Done is better than perfect.
“This mindset shift has helped me let go of perfectionism. I recently revamped my website, and instead of waiting to hit publish until every word was exactly how I wanted it and I had blog posts ready to go, I realized that having this new site up was more important! I can always come back and make changes.” —Sara Walls, LCSW, psychotherapist
8. Remind yourself there’s always tomorrow.
“My boss, the CEO of my company, has played a huge role in helping me let go of unhealthy perfectionism in my life. She taught me that you don't have to do it all in one day. If you can make a list, put it in a drawer, and conquer it tomorrow, you're still doing ‘perfect.’” —Katelyn A., 27
9. Keep in mind that perfection isn’t real.
“My therapist told me once that perfection is not objective and therefore it does not exist. What your boss or your friend considers perfect is different than what you or someone else might consider perfect. So if you're always trying to reach perfection at work or just decorating your place, you're never going to. It's kind of a mind fuck, but it really helped when my boss would have notes on my work. I didn't suck at my job; she just had a different take than me.” —Ashley O., 33
10. Try to cool it on the judgment.
“I kinda talk myself through situations where I’m second-guessing myself, like when I’m comparing myself to how my friends look. I say to myself: Were you confident when you left the house about your appearance? Yes. Did you feel good? Yes. Then why are you being so negative and critical? The truth is, there’s no need to compare myself to them and fill myself with doubt because I actually did feel confident in my outfit in the first place.” —Giorgia P., 26
11. Step away from all-or-nothing thinking.
“As a kid, I’d let my room turn into utter chaos during the week. Then, on the weekends, I’d spend hours cleaning, and it wasn’t until I went to therapy that I was able to identify the problem. For years, I just thought I was extremely lazy and didn’t want to listen to my parents when they’d say I only needed to clean for 15 minutes a day to keep it as clean as it was on the weekends. But really, I just thought that if I couldn’t clean for hours, it wouldn’t make a real difference. Once I internalized that it’s OK if I don’t clean every single thing at once, and that I shouldn’t give up my goal of a tidy home if something isn’t perfect, it became so much easier to keep my spaces neat.” —Shannon B., 30
12. Aim for some perfection, not all of it.
“What helped was narrowing down the range of what I needed to be perfect. Like: I need to prepare this presentation perfectly, but I don’t have to cook perfect meals just for myself. I had always thought everything should be perfect, but I decided to start compromising.” —Takuro M., 24
13. Ask for help when you need it.
“I can’t do it all even though I want to. It just isn’t feasible. With small children at home and a stressful job, I realized I needed to ask my husband for help, which, in turn, actually helped me let go of perfectionism. I learned to accept that he does the best he can even though it might not be the way I would do things.” —Anonymous, 36
14. Literally stop for a second.
“Whenever I feel my perfectionistic thoughts or tendencies start to creep back in, I literally stop, I notice that I’m falling back into my perfectionistic ways, and I remind myself of my values and my ‘why,’ none of which are aligned with unattainable expectations and standards that society, college, social media, family, and even I have placed on me. Accepting that I’m flawed and still worthy of approval is a game changer.” —Alexandra D., 23
15. Zoom out to see the bigger issue.
“Sometimes my perfectionist tendencies come out in the form of...cleaning. I'll start cleaning and then, before I know it, I'm overtaken by frustration and hopelessness over how my 60-year-old apartment will never be as clean and perfect as I want it to be (have you ever scrubbed grout from 1963?). When that happens, it helps to take a step back and think, Hm, what's this control freakout really about? That perspective enables me to focus on the thing that's fueling my cleaning-based perfectionism. It's almost never the grout.” —Ashley O., 33
16. Focus on progress over perfection.
“Just last night, my 21-month-old son was having a hard time going to bed. I typically get really frustrated and have to ask my wife to take over. Instead, I took a deep breath and reminded myself that just sitting with him is all he needs right now. So I did that. He cried for a while and that was tough, but showing up in that moment even though I was frustrated was progress. Perfection would have meant that he went down without a fuss or I wouldn’t have been frustrated, which is…impossible.” —Drew T., 29
17. Shake it off.
“Our facial expressions and body language can impact how we feel. Our bodies often become tense and rigid when we are in the thick of perfectionism. I literally shake it off when I'm feeling perfectionistic to help me out of it. Just getting some movement in different parts of the body can help so much: shaking out my hands, wiggling my shoulders or toes, shaking my head back and forth a bit, raising my eyebrows or scrunching my face, and sometimes even a full-body dance party (with the accompanying song for bonus points).” —Sara Walls, LCSW, psychotherapist
Quotes have been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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