Perfectionism may seem at best like a boon to your career and at worst like a slightly annoying personality quirk, but for some people it can be a much more serious problem. These people routinely evaluate their self-worth by whether or not they’re meeting levels of perfection that simply aren’t attainable. Recent research has shown that, in extreme cases, perfectionism can be a factor in everything from workaholism to an increased risk of suicide.
“There’s nothing wrong with setting high standards,” says Martin M. Antony, a professor of psychology at Ryerson University in Toronto, and co-author of When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough. “If you’re setting standards that can’t be met, and your whole self-worth is based on whether or not you meet those standards, then it causes problems for you.”
Problem perfectionism can cause issues like depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other issues, Antony says. If you find that your perfectionism is having a negative impact on your life, it’s time to start working on it, he says.
Addressing perfectionism is much like dealing with other forms of fear, Antony says. After all, at its most basic level, perfectionism is rooted in the fear of not being perfect or a fear of making mistakes. Learning to identify some of the common thought patterns that contribute to perfectionism, such as all-or-nothing thinking or double-standards.
Beating yourself up for not getting the highest grade on an exam or beating yourself up for not sticking to a diet you’d never think was sustainable for someone else to follow are examples of that type of destructive thinking, he says. When you feel those judgments coming, stop and notice how and what you’re thinking, and work on shifting those thoughts to be more reasonable, he says.
Personal development expert Stephen Guise, founder of Deep Existence, an information resource and membership community focused on helping people sustain lasting change, says another key to overcoming perfectionism is to change what you care about. Guise says that we engage in perfectionist behavior when we set goals. For example, if your goal is to lose 50 pounds, anything less than that is failure. Instead, it’s better to focus on taking the actions that will lead to the weight loss you want, such as exercising regularly and eating healthfully, he says. That way, you set yourself up for success immediately.
Using a light switch is one of those actions we don’t really think about. Flick up the switch and the light goes on. Flick it down, and all goes dark. Most people don’t think about how they place their finger on the switch or whether they used enough force, Guise says. But when it comes to the perfectionist mind evaluating other activities, myriad factors are considered in measuring performance quality. Did you speak clearly during your presentation? Were you persuasive? Did you wear the right clothing? You may ask yourself many questions in an effort to find fault, he says.
Instead, Guise suggests adopting the concept of binary data, which consists of zeroes and ones. When you embrace what he calls a binary mindset–distilling the options down to simply two–the criteria for “perfection” becomes a much lower threshold.
“If we’re doing something like delivering a speech, then we tend to think about it in analog terms, like, ‘How well am I going to perform here?’ The amazing thing is that we can switch this around so that we can see the speech as a binary task, where you tell yourself, ‘As long as I get up and speak words in front of these people, that is success,’” he explains.
Antony says we can condition ourselves not to be controlled by our perfectionism by simply practicing imperfect acts. He’s not suggesting purposely making a big mistake in your work and letting it fly, but perhaps sending an unimportant email message with a minor mistake in it as a way of showing yourself that the consequences of not being perfect are, in many cases, quite small or nonexistent.
“Just as if someone was afraid of a dog, we would approach dogs until they’re not afraid anymore,” he says. “[W]e encourage people to expose themselves to that imperfection so that they are more comfortable with it–to test out those beliefs, to conduct little experiments to find out is this belief really true; does it really matter as much as it feels like it matters, whether the cake I baked for my child’s birthday party turns out perfectly, for example?”
While the research is still emerging, Antony says that mindfulness and meditation-based strategies may hold keys to overcoming perfectionism. Such practices have shown promise with depression and anxiety, and he believes they could alleviate problem perfectionism–as long as they’re not done in a perfectionist way that creates more anxiety, he says.