Letting go of perfectionism


Perfectionism is a complex phenomenon that affects millions of people. At its core, perfectionism is the unrelenting pursuit of extremely high standards and flawless performance. For perfectionists, anything less than perfect is unacceptable. This worldview fuels an excessive preoccupation with mistakes, criticisms, and impossible ideals. Ultimately, perfectionism prevents people from finding peace, balance, and self-acceptance.

The good news is that letting go of perfectionism is possible with understanding and effort. This article provides an in-depth look at perfectionism, its causes, and how to overcome it. Read on to learn why perfectionism does not serve you, how to shift your mindset, and practical strategies to help you let go of unattainable standards. You can break free of perfectionism’s grip and create a life defined by self-compassion, flexibility, and inner tranquility.

Letting go of perfectionism

What is Perfectionism?

Perfectionism is a personality trait characterized by striving for flawlessness, setting excessively high standards, and overly critical self-evaluations. Perfectionists possess a heightened sensitivity to mistakes, deficiencies, and imperfections - both in themselves and their external world.

Perfectionism exists on a spectrum. Mild or "normal" perfectionism can be adaptive and drive people to achieve. However, at the extreme end lays clinical perfectionism, which is associated with serious psychological distress and functional impairment.

Those struggling with extreme perfectionism are unable to feel satisfaction because their standards are unrealistic. They relentlessly criticize themselves, chronically doubt their abilities, and become depressed when they fail to meet their own expectations. Their fixation on perfection often paralyzes them from taking action.

Perfectionism is complex and multi-dimensional. There are various forms it can take:

Self-oriented perfectionism - An internally motivated drive to be perfect and avoid failure. Self-oriented perfectionists impose unrealistic standards on themselves.

Socially prescribed perfectionism - The belief that others demand perfection from you. Socially prescribed perfectionists feel constant pressure to meet perceived external expectations.

Other-oriented perfectionism - The imposition of unrealistic standards on other people. Other-oriented perfectionists expect perfection from those around them.

Letting go of perfectionism requires identifying how it manifests uniquely for you. The first step is recognizing when perfectionism transitions from motivating to maladaptive.

Problems Caused by Perfectionism

The belief that perfection should be pursued at all costs may seem noble on the surface. But clinical research has found perfectionism leads to a host of issues, including:

  • Anxiety disorders and depression
  • Low self-esteem
  • Guilt/shame
  • Procrastination
  • Self-sabotage
  • Eating disorders
  • Obsessive compulsive disorders
  • Burnout

Ironically, perfectionism often produces imperfect results. The fear of failure and paralyzing self-criticism cause perfectionists to struggle meeting deadlines, completing tasks, and delivering on standards. Perfectionists rarely feel satisfaction with their performance, even when objectively successful.

Socially, holding others to unrealistic expectations damages relationships. Perfectionists tend to be overbearing and highly critical, alienating friends and family. They also face resentment and pushback when demanding flawlessness.

Perfectionism is correlated with significant psychological suffering. However, the good news is that it responds well to targeted interventions. With proper support and techniques, perfectionists can adopt new thought patterns that lead to self-acceptance and inner peace.

Causes and Contributing Factors

Perfectionism does not arise randomly or in a vacuum. There are often identifiable biological, environmental, and psychological factors underlying its development:

Genetics - Twin studies reveal genetics account for 33-45% of perfectionistic tendencies. Certain innate traits like conscientiousness and neuroticism predispose people.

Childhood Environment - Having extremely high achieving, authoritarian, or overprotective parents often engrains perfectionism in children. Criticism and punishment for mistakes signals perfection is expected.

Insecure Attachment - Disconnection from parents or unstable early caregiving relationships create a shaky sense of self. These children internalize that they must be perfect to be accepted and loved.

Childhood Trauma - Forms of abuse, neglect, loss, and invalidation teach lessons that you are flawed and unworthy. Perfectionism becomes an attempt to prove your worth and erase shame.

Innate Temperament - Natural dispositions like anxiety, people-pleasing tendencies, and self-consciousness lay the foundation for perfectionistic traits to emerge.

Once established, the vicious cycle of perfectionism reinforces itself. Rigid patterns of thinking sustain perfectionism by filtering experiences in an overly critical manner.

Letting go requires dismantling old thought habits that fuel perfectionism. The brain is capable of neuroplasticity - it can wire new neural pathways with conscious effort. You can cultivate self-compassion to quiet your inner critic.

Why Perfectionism Does Not Serve You

The first step in overcoming perfectionism is truly accepting it does not serve you. Perfectionism masquerades as high standards, but it is an illusion - no such thing as perfection exists.

Expecting flawlessness is irrational because:

  • It denies the reality that all humans make mistakes and have limitations. Demanding infallibility from yourself or others will always lead to disappointment.
  • There is no objective perfect. Perfection is subjective according to what an individual values. One person's perfect is another's mediocre.
  • Striving for perfectionism often produces the opposite - imperfect results, unfinished projects, strained relationships.
  • Perfectionism causes significant psychological damage like low self-esteem, performance anxiety, depression. The costs outweigh imaginary benefits.
  • Energy spent chasing perfection could be redirected into more meaningful life priorities that fulfill you.

The desire to transcend imperfections and shortcomings is understandable. However, recognizing perfectionism's irrationality helps relinquish rigid, unrealistic expectations that fuel self-criticism and failure.

You are worthy and enough as you are - flaws and all. There are no prerequisites to earn existence, love, or belonging. As you release the need for perfection, you can channel your drives into rewarding challenges without self-judgment.

Shifting Your Mindset: Growth Over Perfection

Constructively moving beyond perfectionism requires shifting to a growth mindset. According to psychologist Carol Dweck, a growth mindset believes talents and abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. It enables:

  • Embracing challenges for self-improvement vs avoiding failure
  • Deriving satisfaction from giving your best in the process vs linking your worth to perfect outcomes
  • Viewing mistakes as opportunities to learn vs as evidence of inadequacy
  • Taking greater risks without fear of judgment vs sticking to comfort zones

Some helpful strategies for cultivating a growth mindset include:

Adjust your inner dialogue - Notice negative self-talk demanding perfection and replace it with encouragement focusing on progress. Celebrate all improvements.

Allow yourself to be a beginner - New endeavors provoke perfectionist tendencies. Give yourself permission to be a novice and grow, free of self-criticism.

Find inspiration in others' growth process - Observe or read how experts slowly honed skills through practice over years. Internalize that growth takes time.

Focus on intrinsic motivation - Connect activities to inherent rewards like fun, learning, contribution vs validation through perfect performance.

Adopting a growth mindset reorients pursuits toward learning and meaningful connection. You disempower perfectionism’s grasp as your self-worth no longer hinges on flawless outcomes. Even when struggling, you know capacities strengthen through effort.

4 Steps to Overcome Perfectionism

Breaking free of perfectionism's constraints requires commitment and active techniques. Here are four research-backed steps to help curb perfectionistic tendencies:

1. Identify Your Triggers

Perfectionism is often context-specific. Determine situations that reliably trigger perfectionistic thoughts and behaviors like:

  • Work projects
  • Household chores
  • Social gatherings
  • Appearance and presentation
  • Hobbies and skills

Keep a log of perfectionism triggers and how they make you think/feel. This illuminates patterns to address. For example, you may notice performing tasks for your boss at work provokes perfectionism most.

2. Challenge Your Cognitive Distortions

Perfectionists perceive information through distorted mental filters that reinforce impossible standards. These include:

All-or-nothing thinking - Expecting to perform perfectly or be a total failure, with no middle ground. Leads to only valuing extreme success.

Overgeneralization - Judging a single failure as evidence you are entirely flawed and incompetent.

Catastrophizing - Blowing the consequences of mistakes severely out of proportion. Believing a minor imperfection is equivalent to total ruination.

Discounting positives - Dismissing, downplaying, or ignoring achievements, praise, and success. Positive data points contradicting perfectionism get rejected.

Learn to recognize these distorted thought patterns and how they fuel perfectionism. Consciously argue against them by challenging their rationality and looking for counter-evidence.

3. Practice Self-Compassion

Perfectionism and self-compassion cannot coexist. Cultivating self-compassion transforms your inner dialogue from ruthless criticism to kindness. Treat yourself as you would a good friend.

Self-compassion means giving yourself permission to be human, embracing imperfections as part of the shared human condition. It involves:

  • Extending gentle understanding when you suffer, fail, or feel inadequate vs flagellating yourself.
  • Framing setbacks and mistakes as learning opportunities vs character flaws.
  • Letting go of shame and recognizing you are worthy as you are.

Engage in self-compassion exercises like writing a letter to yourself with support and encouragement. Or, place your hands over your heart while reflecting on an inner dialogue you need to hear.

4. Set Flexible, Realistic Standards

Perfectionists equate self-worth with productivity and achievement. Overwhelming pressure results.

Create emotional separation between tasks and your value as a person. Then set flexible, realistic standards that account for inevitable setbacks and changing circumstances.

Focus on consistent forward progress, not rigid metrics. Build in wiggle room. Manage expectations through reasonable timelines and workload. Adjust goals as needed based on life demands.

Learning to hold standards loosely and recognize perfection is unattainable is imperative. Your value is inherent.

Tips for Maintaining Progress

Letting go of entrenched perfectionistic patterns requires ongoing effort and support. Helpful tips include:

  • Seek therapy - Work with a psychologist specialized in treating perfectionism for accountability. Process underlying issues perpetuating perfectionism.
  • Practice mindfulness - Meditation training helps perfectionists manage negative automatic thoughts.
  • Focus on rest and relaxation - Carve out time where productivity and achievement are not the goal. Do low-pressure activities that replenish you.
  • Establish healthy life balance - Make self-care, close relationships, recreation, and sleep top priorities over chasing unrealistic standards.
  • Find community - Join support groups to exchange encouragement and wisdom on escaping perfectionism with others. You are not alone.
  • Be patient with yourself - Reforming thought patterns and behavior takes time. Expect setbacks and extend compassion.

With consistent effort, perfectionism's grip will loosen. You can create a life guided by self-acceptance, flexibility, and meaning - not flawlessness.

Conclusion: Perfectionism Distorts Your True Worth

Perfectionism is an irrational drive that convinces people they must be flawless to have value and acceptance. Yet chasing unachievable standards only leads to self-sabotage, paralyzing anxiety, and perceived failure.

The path to inner peace and balance involves dismantling perfectionism's outdated thought patterns through growth mindsets and self-compassion. With support, determination, and practice, you can break free of perfectionism's false promises.

Remember perfection does not exist. You are already enough. Progress, not perfection, should be the goal. View mistakes as opportunities to grow wiser. Focus your energy on connecting to what gives your life meaning - your inherent worth remains unchanged by imagined imperfections.

As perfectionism's grip loosens, you will uncover the freedom to pursue challenges and interests without self-judgment. You will deepen self-knowledge, contentment, and closeness with others. Perfectionistic drive can be channelled constructively once released from the irrational insistence on flawlessness. With compassion and realism, you will find the peace that perfectionism promises but never delivers.

Resources used to write this article

Shafran, R., Cooper, Z., & Fairburn, C. G. (2002). Clinical perfectionism: A cognitive-behavioural analysis. Behaviour research and therapy, 40(7), 773-791. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S000579670100059X

Egan, S. J., Wade, T. D., & Shafran, R. (2011). Perfectionism as a transdiagnostic process: A clinical review. Clinical psychology review, 31(2), 203-212. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272735810000921

Flett, G. L., & Hewitt, P. L. (2002). Perfectionism and maladjustment: An overview of theoretical, definitional, and treatment issues. Perfectionism: Theory, research, and treatment, 5-31. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2002-00463-001

Sirois, F. M., & Molnar, D. S. (2016). Perfectionism, health, and well-being. Springer. https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-3-319-18582-8

Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Digital, Inc..

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Moroz, M., & Dunkley, D. M. (2019). Self-critical perfectionism, experiential avoidance, and depressive and anxious symptoms over two years: A three-wave longitudinal study. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 112, 18-27. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0005796718301666

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