A Guilt-Free Guide to Breaking Free of Perfectionism & Becoming an Elite Performer
If you’re here, it’s a pretty safe bet that you care about personal growth and being the best you can be.
Perhaps you’re proud that you take responsibility for your growth, are committed to understanding your life experience, and are careful to mindfully choose your attitude towards challenges. After reading the title, you may even be questioning now: Is perfectionism a bad thing?
There’s a fine line between self-development and perfectionism, and that line makes all the difference. To see where you fall on the spectrum of healthy to unhealthy, ask yourself: Do my achievements make me happy? Do I give myself a moment to stop and celebrate what I’ve done? Or do I constantly move on to the next challenge, the next problem, fueled not by joy and enthusiasm, but by anxiety and stress?
We don’t get a gold star in life for doing everything perfectly. The time we have on earth is precious, so it’s really worth looking at your perfectionistic tendencies and seeing their impact on your life.
In this article, you’ll learn what perfectionism is, how it affects you, and how to let yourself go from unrealistic expectations.
What Is Perfectionism?
First, let’s take a look at what perfectionism actually is. Let’s be clear: perfectionism and a high-achieving mindset are not the same thing. Having high standards, drive, and ambition can be healthy, while true perfectionism is unhealthy. They may look the same on the outside at first glance — high achievers and perfectionists may both accomplish a lot — but, they’re two different things.
Here’s how you can tell the difference between perfectionism and high achieving:
- Perfectionism is focused on identifying and eliminating faults, while high-achieving is focused on achieving positive outcomes.
- Perfectionism is driven by fear of failure or criticism, while high-achieving is driven by passion and motivation.
- Perfectionists aren’t able to enjoy their success. They hone in on errors and mistakes and strive to eliminate those mistakes no matter the cost to their health or peace of mind.
- High achievers do enjoy their success and while they may notice areas for improvement, that’s not their central focus.
- Perfectionism is an unattainable ideal, while high-achieving is more realistic.
- Perfectionism can be a part of mental health disorders such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), while high-achieving is more of a behavioral trait.
As you can see, the primary difference between perfectionism and high achieving is the focus, reason for motivation, and emotional effect. In other words, one makes you feel good and one makes you feel not so good.
You will be able to tell the difference by simply observing how your long hours and intense focus are affecting your mindset. If you’re unable to send an email unless you re-read it several times or regularly lose sleep worrying about performance, you likely have perfectionistic tendencies to address.
Essentially, perfectionists feel that they’re never good enough. Like a hamster on a wheel, they’re constantly spinning, striving, seeking not just to perform, but to overperform. All of this is detrimental to their mental, emotional, and physical well-being.
What Happens When You’re Never Good Enough?
There are plenty of compelling reasons to kick your perfectionism habit, from negative health effects to lost time to unnecessary issues with self-esteem. Perfectionism can impact your personal and professional life in both practical, immediate ways and deeper, more emotionally impactful ways.
Loss of Time
First, perfectionism costs you a great deal of time. Think about how long you take to make a decision about a work project, worry about having said or done the wrong thing, or overanalyze even minor career moves. Was it really worth it to spend so long fretting about a certain word you might use in a document, or checking and double-checking paperwork to ensure consistency?
This side-effect of perfectionism can affect your relationships too. It might lead you to worry too much about making a good impression on a date, second-guess your choices about a romantic partner, or obsess about the ideal activity you can do together. When the runaway worry train gets moving, it’s easy for minutes and even hours to pass without realizing just how much time you are wasting.
Secondly, the constant focus on fault-finding is detrimental to your self-esteem. A perfectionist might do nine things right and one thing wrong and be unable to stop thinking about that one wrong thing.
Is it rational to judge yourself so harshly? No, but a perfectionist seems to be hard-wired to focus on the negative. Constantly judging yourself isn’t going to cultivate self-love or self-compassion, and you may even project that judgment onto others. When all you can do is focus on the other person’s faults, it’s not exactly nurturing to the relationship.
Missed Opportunities and Procrastination
A big sign that you’re a perfectionist is that you haven’t begun significant projects that are very important to you. They may be even your most important projects.
High achievers will be driven by passion and motivation, so they’re unlikely to abandon their passion projects unless they just don’t have time.
But a perfectionist has such high standards they avoid starting those projects at all. They may wait for the perfect time, the perfect conditions, or to be perfectly ready. That time never comes, so they never write that book, start that business, or move forward with that relationship.
The immense pressure that they put on the most important aspects of their lives is simply too much to bear for most perfectionists. As a result, they keep putting it off and putting it off. This can lead to a vicious cycle that lowers self-esteem and intensifies perfectionism even more.
They may berate themselves with negative self-talk, considering themselves to be lazy or incompetent. They may also compare themselves to others who have done more than them and are even younger.
Sadly, a perfectionist might not make the connection that they’re not lazy — of course they’re not! They’ve simply put way too much pressure on themselves to be perfect.
Finally, the stress of being a perfectionist can take a toll on your body, too. Remember, our minds, emotions, and bodies are all interconnected. The anxious striving of a perfectionist can lead to digestive issues, insomnia, weight gain, and stress-related diseases.
Perfectionism can also exacerbate or even cause mental health issues like generalized anxiety, depression, and even suicidal ideation.
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The Root Cause of Perfectionism
Everyone’s different, so it wouldn’t be fair to classify every perfectionist the same way. Further, not every person’s perfectionism is severe — many traits lie on a spectrum.
Still, one thing that perfectionists have in common is a highly critical inner voice. This voice can manifest for a number of reasons, often originating in childhood, such as:
- Caregivers who withheld affection when you didn’t perform well in school or activities
- Teachers, coaches, or mentors who judged you harshly
- The school system, with its emphasis on standardized testing and grouping of children into “Gifted” and “Not-Gifted” categories
- Certain religious beliefs, which may emphasize themes of judgment and punishment
- Developmental trauma, such as abuse from a family member or bullying at school
- Being placed in an adult position early in life, such as becoming a parent to siblings or taking care of a parent with mental health issues
- Social codes and mores, such as those in strict societies that value achievement
Of course, some people will naturally be more hard-wired to respond to these circumstances with perfectionism than others. Every case is unique, so it’s important to keep an open mind. It’s also important to take actionable steps to overcome perfectionism rather than mulling over its causes for too long.
How to Overcome Perfectionism
Being a perfectionist is no fun, but change is possible. With the right mindset, commitment, and approach, you’ll be well on your way to achieving a more balanced approach to achievement.
The first step to overcoming perfectionism is becoming aware of your thoughts, beliefs, and expectations. You may have been a perfectionist your whole life. In that case, those self-critical thoughts or unrealistic expectations are likely second nature.
A great way to counteract those initial reactions is to set the intention to notice your perfectionistic thought patterns and journal about them. You can do this in the Notes app on your phone or write them down at the end of the day.
When it comes to perfection-driven procrastination, take an extra careful look at your excuses. Is the timing never right? Are you waiting for the perfect website to launch your company? Are you worried about launching a social campaign when you don’t know exactly what your branding is going to be? Have you noticed by now that there is always an excuse?
Look at Things Logically
Take a look at what your expectations are, and ask yourself, is this realistic? Is this truly necessary? How important is this email? How important is this outfit? Do you need to spend this long on this one project? Probably not.
As a perfectionist, your inner child may be like that student who arrives early, pencils carefully sharpened, always ready for a pop quiz. But guess what? You don’t have to be an A+ student for everything you do — you haven’t failed if you get a B-.
Set Time Limits
Some projects require a lot of time. Others…not so much. Give yourself some boundaries around how long you spend on tasks, especially if you find yourself fretting about even minor decisions. Set a timer if you need to, and make yourself stop and wrap up when it goes off, even if you haven’t achieved perfection.
Over time, you’ll get used to being imperfect. And when you allow imperfection to happen and accept it, it’s not that bad!
Look at the Costs
You can also try keeping track of the time you spend on projects normally, without any boundaries in mind. This is part of a good cost-benefit analysis, in which you can see the return on investment for various activities. Look at the costs and the benefits. How much of your time, energy, and self-esteem is this one activity really worth?
To hone in on this, look at the projects you haven’t started because of your perfectionism. When you see all of the things side by side it can be highly motivating.
Focus on Emotional Healing
Since much of perfectionism is emotionally driven and has its origins in childhood, logic may only go so far. You may know that you shouldn’t stake your entire self-image on this one project, but not doing it is an entirely different matter. This is where emotional healing helps. You might work with a therapist or coach, make art, or engage in activities that you’re really good at as a form of confidence building.
There are plenty of avenues to help you heal mentally and emotionally, from positive affirmations to yoga to meditation. We’re so lucky today to be able to choose from an assortment of healing practices, so find one that works for you.
Remember, we’re always in transition, just like life is always in transition. Nothing is ever perfect or complete. If you chase perfection, you’re chasing something that’s not attainable. Don’t miss out on opportunities or lower your quality of life! You deserve to feel happy about your achievements, perfect or not.
You Can Be a Happy High Achiever
Perfection is a myth, but that doesn’t stop perfectionists from constantly chasing it to their own detriment. As illogical as it is, perfectionists are driven by the need to overperform, to leave no stone unturned, to cover every base. This has significant negative costs. Unlike high achievers, perfectionists never get to enjoy all of their success. They’re always focused on mistakes.
Luckily, there are ways to turn this around. Doing a cost-benefit analysis, developing self-awareness, and working on the emotional roots of perfectionism are all effective ways to break free from the cycle of perfectionism. The reward is a life lived with more joy, peace, and the ability to celebrate yourself and life. That’s true greatness!