Are You Stuck in the Perfectionism Trap? Here’s How to Escape!

Julia Cameron

Perfectionism is not a quest for the best. It is a pursuit of the worst in ourselves, the part that tells us that nothing we do will ever be good enough.


The Value Drawbacks of Living as a Perfectionist…

Perfectionism… “To be, or not to be?” That is of course the ultimate question, and there are certainly arguments for and against it. Those who support perfectionism may tell you that it’s a measure of their attention to detail and thoroughness when getting a task done. Moreover they may say that it’s all about living to a higher set of standards that help give them the edge within a competitive environment. In other words, it could be said that perfectionism is a form of excellence where you strive to perform at the highest possible level. But is it really about striving for excellence? Are they one and the same thing? Or do they grow from different aspects of ourselves?

You will discover within this article that perfectionism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In fact, it can be just as debilitating as it can be helpful; and when it’s mismanaged it can potentially sabotage all your good intentions. Why? Because perfectionism is something that is built upon fear, inflexible rules, and unreasonable standards that have absolutely no basis in reality. However, before breaking down these details, let’s first take a closer look at what perfectionism actually means.

To be a perfectionist means being overly concerned with personal achievement. Everything needs to be done perfectly or otherwise you simply can’t move forward. This naturally stems from the fact that a perfectionist indulges in the notion of all-or-nothing thinking, where things are either perfect or they’re just not good enough. As such their life stagnates and they are unable to move forward as quickly as needed because of the simple fact they have created in their mind a set of unreasonably lofty expectations.

A perfectionist persistently pressures themselves to reach these unachievable objectives, to their own personal detriment, without ever realizing that perfectionism is in a constant flux; it’s based purely on interpretation. In other words, what’s perfect for one person is far from perfect for another person. Moreover, what’s perfect today can be far from perfect tomorrow because the more we learn about something, the more we often realize how much we actually don’t know. Therefore what is perfect for you today, will be far from perfect tomorrow. Therefore perfectionism simply doesn’t exist. It’s rather all in the eye of the beholder, and our eyes fool us more often than we may care to acknowledge. 🙂

But of course you might be thinking that perfectionism is all about just going out there and trying to do your best in every situation. This is a valid argument. Going out there and trying your best to get something done is honorable. Doing our very best and trying to live up to the highest of standards can certainly be of tremendous value, however there is a healthy and an unhealthy way to go about this.

Those who try their very best and strive for excellence do so from a place of empowerment. These people have a high level of self-worth, self-esteem and self-confidence in their own ability to get things done at the highest of levels. This behavior is healthy because these people come from a place of yearning for growth and development. And it’s this behavior that helps them perform at the highest level.

On the other hand, there is the unhealthy form of perfectionism. All people who succumb to this kind of behavior do so from a place of fear that often translates into procrastination. In other words, they engage in the act of perfectionism as a means of avoiding something they fear, and as a result they succumb to bouts of procrastination. This often manifests in inflexible thinking, self-criticism, performance anxiety, and guilt. But of course the underlying factor here is that these people have very low levels of self-esteem. They just don’t believe they are good enough and therefore operate from a sense of failure, which actually impairs their personal growth, productivity and performance.

Of course, in order to make up for all these shortcomings they set the highest possible standards for themselves; all the while thinking that striving for perfection will help ease their fears. However, this strategy never works because the underlying problem still exists.

Their lack of self-esteem means that they are constantly comparing themselves (their performance) to others. Yes, outwardly they seem competitive, but this competitive spirit comes from a place of weakness and vulnerability. As such, they consistently seek reassurance from other people that they are on the right track, and as a result they are quite vulnerable to criticism and rejection.

Constantly checking for imperfections and finding faults, they are never satisfied, and yet it’s exactly this kind of behavior that leads them astray. They become so engrossed in the act of doing things perfectly that “making progress” and “forward thinking” take a back-seat to the idea that “things are just not good enough”. And because “things aren’t good enough” they don’t take any meaningful action towards the attainment of their goals and objectives, and as a result they remain stuck in limbo. Unable to move forward and unable to break free, they engross themselves even further into a world of unrealistic expectations and unreasonable standards that can never be met. And all this is a direct result of their inability to handle fear.


The Evolution of Perfectionism

Now that we understand how perfectionism manifests in our lives, let’s now briefly take a look at how it evolves over a lifetime.

There are numerous influential forces that can come into play that make a person more prone to falling victim to bouts of perfectionism. For starters, there is one factor that is somewhat out of our personal control. This of course comes down to the temperament we are born with. However, our temperament becomes less of a factor as we age and undergo social conditioning.

For instance, while growing up you might have received unusually high levels of praise from your parents, guardians and/or peers. As a result you now have very high expectations of yourself and rather inflexible beliefs in certain areas of your life, and this can of course manifest in perfectionistic behavior. On the flip-side, there might have been an absence of praise while you were growing up. In such scenarios, you gravitate towards perfectionistic types of behavior in an attempt to make-up for your shortcomings; proving to other people that you’re deserving of higher praise.

Being overly punished for making mistakes while growing up can also trigger perfectionistic behavior. Now, as a result of these mistakes you feel as though you’re just not good enough, smart enough, strong enough, etc. Today, you strive to avoid experiencing this pain by indulging in perfectionism. You feel that if you do things perfectly that no punishment/pain will result.

Being overly dependent upon receiving rewards from other people can also lead to perfectionistic behavior. While growing up you might have consistently been rewarded for completing certain tasks and activities to a set of standards that your parents set for you. As a result, you have been conditioned to receive a reward when completing a task to the highest possible level. You now therefore indulge in perfectionism in order to keep receiving those rewards. Mind you, those rewards have probably changed quite significantly since you were a child, however the expectation of getting something in return, even if it is just praise, is enough to keep your perfectionistic indulgence alive.


The Maintenance of Perfectionism

The examples above are all well and good. However, what these examples do not explain is why throughout our adult lives we continue to indulge in perfectionism.

There are actually underlying reasons why perfectionism might still be prevalent in your life, and these reasons have to do three core factors: fears, unhelpful thoughts, and rules. All three factors work together to satisfy your hunger for perfectionism.

Fears

The first reason why you continue to indulge in perfectionism comes down to your inability to deal with fear. Fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of making mistakes and even the fear of success can all lead you down the path towards perfectionism.

You indulge in perfectionism because fear breeds uncertainty. And when things are uncertain this creates doubt; and because there is doubt you procrastinate, but instead of avoiding the task altogether — as most procrastinators tend to do — you instead try to trick yourself into believing that you are actually making progress. You do this by completely absorbing yourself within an easy part of the task that you feel rather comfortable with. In fact, you convince yourself that you cannot move onto the next part of the task unless this first part is done perfectly. This is of course a ploy you use to distract yourself from the fact that you just can’t bear the thought of dealing with the fear that’s waiting for you around the corner.

For instance, let’s say that you have a presentation to do that you have been putting off for weeks. You convince yourself that you are not quite ready and continue to spend all your time preparing for the presentation; making sure that everything is perfect. But yes, this of course is a ploy you use to avoid the FEAR you experience when you think about actually going through with this presentation. You are afraid of stepping out of your comfort zone, and therefore indulge in perfectionism to help ease the tension and uneasiness you feel.

To help you move through these fears more effectively, please have a read of Understanding Your Fears article.

Unhelpful Thoughts

The second reason why you might continue to indulge in perfectionism comes down to a set of unhelpful thoughts that lead you astray. In fact, your fears actually stem from these unhelpful thoughts you indulge in.

These thoughts hinder how you view the events and circumstances of your life, and as a result you tend to make inaccurate assumptions about how things are and about how they could end up being if you follow-through with a specific kind of action.

You might for instance assume that if you make a mistake while giving the presentation that people will judge you. This of course triggers the fear of failure or criticism. As such you need to now do everything within your power to try and avoid this dilemma, which means that you will continue to plan and prepare your presentation in order to delay the inevitable moment for as long as possible.

There are in fact several unhelpful thoughts that might be leading you astray and forcing you down the path of perfectionism. For a detailed description of the various thought patterns that could be letting you down, please have a read of the Unhelpful Thinking Styles article.

Psychological Rules

The third reason why you might continue to indulge in perfectionism comes down to having inflexible rules. These rules are of course interlinked with your unhelpful thoughts and fears. In fact, there is very little separation as all these components work together to lead you down the path towards perfectionism.

When it comes down to the reluctance you feel about giving your presentation, your rules could for instance be as follows:

I can’t move forward unless I am able to find the right graphics for this presentation.

I must conduct thorough research for the topic of this presentation in order to impress my boss.

I should spend more time on preparing myself in order to avoid making mistakes.

All of these rules that you have created for yourself keep you within a perfectionist cycle. It’s a “cycle” because even if for instance you find the right graphics for this presentation, there will still yet be another excuse that will keep you stuck.

For a deeper understanding of how psychological rules influence our lives, please have a ready of the Unhelpful Habitual Rules article.

The Formation of Unreasonable Standards

All the above three factors come together to form your personal standards and the expectations you bring into every situation. Your personal standards are of course guidelines you use to measure your success. They are guiding principles of behavior that help direct what you focus on and how you end up focusing on things. As such, they affect the choices and decisions you make when it comes to indulging in perfectionistic behavior.

Take into consideration the personal standards you have set for yourself in an area of your life where you tend to indulge in perfectionism, and ask yourself:

Are my personal standards in this situation realistic?

Are my personal standards in this situation achievable?

Are my personal standards in this situation flexible?

What problems tend to result from indulging in these high standards?

How does this affect me, how does it affect the situation, and how does it affect my life?

Answering these questions will hopefully begin to break down the walls that form the belief systems you have in place supporting this kind of behavior. However, you don’t necessarily need to work directly with your belief systems to eliminate perfectionistic behavior. There are in fact plenty of other ways to beat perfectionism that we discuss within the next section.

The Evolution of Perfectionism


Guidelines for Beating Perfectionism

Below you will find a break down of several guidelines to help you beat perfectionism. Each guideline by itself requires mental shifts in how you think about your life and circumstances. Making these mental shifts subsequently influences and positively impacts your psychological rules, unhelpful thoughts and the resulting fears. As such, by progressively moving through each of these guidelines you are effectively shifting how you approach circumstances where you typically indulge in perfectionism.

Take Charge of Your Critical Voice

In order to beat perfectionism you must first and foremost take control of your inner critic. Your inner critic is that voice inside your head that keeps reminding you that you’re just not good enough. This is the voice that makes you feel like a second rate person every time you make a mistake; effectively depleting your levels of self-esteem. As a result you become riddled with the fear of failure, criticism or rejection, and that is why you tend to indulge in perfectionistic behavior.

You indulge in perfectionism in an attempt to avoid failure; to avoid rejection; and to avoid criticism, however the problem is that by trying to avoid these things you tend not to make much progress towards the attainment of the goals and objectives you have set for yourself.

In order to take charge of your critical voice you must first become conscious of the thoughts you allow to dwell in your mind. The thoughts you reflect upon and the words you use to talk to yourself are powerful stimulants that trigger a vast array of emotional experiences. Moreover, they lay down the foundations for the attitude you bring into every situation. With the right attitude you can beat perfectionism, otherwise you will fall prey every single time.

To take charge of your self-talk you must begin to shift how you speak to yourself, and this process begins by taking conscious control of your language patterns.

Develop Appropriate Expectations and Standards

Your personal expectations and the standards you set for yourself lay down the foundations for the decisions you make and the behaviors you indulge in throughout the day.

At the moment you indulge in perfectionism because your personal expectations and standards guide you towards making choices and decisions that lead to perfectionistic behavior. You must therefore start setting more realistic expectations and begin building appropriate standards that allow you more freedom and flexibility moving forward.

Typically unrealistic expectations and ridiculously high standards are often set for us by other people; or set by us in an attempt to gain approval from other people. Now, I’m of course not saying that it’s not worthwhile to have high standards for yourself. Striving for excellence in any area of your life requires having higher standards than most people. This is perfectly fine, however it does become problematic when you are unable to attain those lofty standards; which typically begins to play on your self-esteem.

Given all this, it’s absolutely critical that you avoid setting goals based upon external recognition or approval. Set goals for yourself based on your own personal expectations and standards. Moreover, make sure that these goals are challenging and yet realistic. They must be challenging enough to keep you interested, but of course realistic enough to keep you motivated over the long-haul.

Setting strict time limits for completing tasks and projects can also be of value because this will naturally encourage you to make continued progress from one task/project to the next without dabbling in too many details. It’s after all within the “details” where perfectionism thrives.

Time-frames also allow you to focus on what matters most before moving onto the next task/activity. This essentially comes down to the 80/20 rules where 20 percent of the activities you focus on will typically get you 80 percent of your desired results. Yes, there is a chance that you might not get everything done to the level of perfection you had initially imagined. That’s perfectly okay, and in fact it might not even make a difference. All that matters is that you get the bulk of the most important things done. All the other little things will just keep you stuck.

Yes, you might even make mistakes along the way. Time frames tend to put more pressure on our shoulders and it is therefore possible that we will make mistakes. But that’s okay too. You are only human after all and mistakes are just part of life. Forgive yourself, be patient with your missteps, be grateful for what you are able to achieve and stop taking yourself too seriously. You will get better over time. After all, wisdom only comes after a mistake is made. 🙂

Undertake a Cost-Benefit Analysis

If while working on a task you catch yourself indulging in it for a little too long; where it begins to “border” on perfectionistic behavior, take some time to ask yourself the following self-analysis questions.

How is this behavior helping me?

How is this behavior hurting me?

How is this behavior potentially hurting others?

What are the short-term consequences?

What are the long-term consequences?

Asking these questions will help you gain some clarity about what it is you are doing. This is typically what we tend not to do. We never question our behavior, and as a result we just continue to indulge in it for as long as it takes to satisfy our desire for perfectionism. However, when we take the time to objectively evaluate ourselves and evaluate our behavior and the impact that it has on our life and circumstances, that is when we begin to shift how we think about the task at hand, and that is when positive changes can be made moving forward.

Strategies for Overcoming Perfectionism

Shift Your Perspective

Following up on the last point, let’s take a look at the value of shifting our perspective by continuing to question the perfectionistic behavior that we tend to indulge in. But of course for this to work, you must activate a little curiosity. You must be willing to curiously explore what you’re doing and be willing to make some quick adjustments.

The next time you decide to indulge in perfectionism, take a moment to ask yourself:

Does it help me to think this way?

How else could I view this situation?

What’s the worst that could happen?

If I don’t do this perfectly, will it really matter in the long-run? (in a week, month, year?)

These questions are designed to challenge you; to challenge the way you think about your situation through a “big picture” perspective.

Perfection today might feel good in the short-term, but will it really make a difference in the long-run? That here, is precisely the realization you must come to. You need to recognize the fact that spending another couple of hours on this task will not be of significance in the future. You therefore must let go of the need to continue indulging in this behavior if there is no significant long-term value.

Now of course, spending more time on the task means that you are likely to avoid making mistakes, right?

When it comes to perfectionism, failure is of course something that we will do almost anything to avoid. However, failure is just a part of the process. It’s a part of learning, adapting and improving. In fact, you will more often than not make more progress by “failing forward fast” than by trying to avoid failure altogether.

For example, practicing shooting a free throw shot in basketball and missing 20 times in a row before you hit a basket; this is likely to help you learn more about what it takes to “shoot a free throw shot” than trying to figure it out by reading a copious amount of books, right? The same is true with just about everything else that you seek to do in life. We learn when we do. But yes, by all means read a little to help you understand how to shoot the ball, but it’s really only when you get out there and practice taking “shots” that you will improve and make progress.

Given all this, we must all accept failure and mistakes as a necessary part of the process, while also viewing it as an opportunity for growth and development. That’s essentially how we have transformed from toddlers to adults. We have made plenty of mistakes along the way, but we made progress because we learned from these mistakes and adapted our approach accordingly.

Here are a couple of affirmations that will help remind you of the fact that making mistakes is okay:

To be human is to make errors…

Making mistakes doesn’t mean I’m incompetent…

Yes, mistakes might temporarily slow you down, but these are only speed humps on the road. Perfectionism on the other hand is a pothole. Once you’re in, you may struggle to get back out again. 🙁

Tips for Beating Perfectionism

Focus on What Matters

Finally, when it comes to avoiding the pitfalls of perfectionism, it’s important to focus on what matters most.

I’ve already mentioned the 80/20 rule where it’s important to focus on the 20 percent of things that will produce 80 percent of your desired outcomes. This rule is also known as the Pareto Principle and is one of the major keys towards helping you overcome bouts of perfectionism.

Another key is to focus on making progress instead of trying to accomplish specific results. The more progress you make, the more you will learn, and therefore the more progress you will continue to make. That is essentially the key to success in any field of endeavor. However, many of us get stuck in a perfectionist’s cycle where we dabble in the same thing for too long and make very little progress over the long-haul.

I do understand that for certain tasks this can be difficult to resist. In such instances, you might be better off delegating the task to another person. That way you can focus on what matters most and avoid getting lost in the details.

Some people will tell you that being a perfectionist gives them a competitive edge. I’d say that this is a false assumption because dabbling in perfectionism can often hold us back more so than it helps us move forward. But if not perfectionism, than what should we focus on? The answer of course lies in striving for Personal Excellence. This means giving your very best effort while working within specific time frames to help you make as much progress as possible within the allocated time period. That is really where long-term results can be found, and that is essentially what lies on the other side of perfectionism.


Time to Assimilate these Concepts

The Perfectionism Trap

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