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Letting go of perfectionism and the harm it inflicts

Perfectionism is often seen as an admirable trait, but for anyone who lives with it, you know it can be crippling, preventing you from enjoying what you do or pursuing what you want.

Amy Rigby

Here’s why letting go of perfectionism can be the key to emotional freedom and why perfectionistic tendencies can be harmful.

What is perfectionism?

The American Psychological Association defines perfectionism as:

“the 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. It is associated with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other mental health problems”

The key phrase here is “in excess of what is required by the situation.” A student who double-checks her work before turning in her test is being diligent, but a student who triple-checks her work and agonizes over her parents thinking she’s a failure might be excessively concerned about perfectionism.

Now, you may think, “But isn’t perfectionism what helps me succeed?” And to that, I would say realize that there is a difference between perfectionism and healthy striving.

As put into words by Brené Brown in her book The Gifts of Imperfection: “Healthy striving is self-focused: ‘How can I improve?’ Perfectionism is other-focused: ‘What will they think?’”

If you’re genuinely interested in self-improvement, and you give yourself grace whenever you fall short—that’s healthy striving. But if you want to improve out of shame or fear of letting others down, and you criticize yourself for not meeting expectations—that’s perfectionism.

Is perfectionism a bad thing? A story and statistics

During his lifetime, Claude Monet reportedly painted more than 2,000 pieces of art—and destroyed up to 500. Why did the founder of French Impressionism ruin his own work, particularly when he was already famous for his talent? Perfectionism. Monet was his own harshest critic, once writing to a friend: “My life has been nothing but a failure.” Today, his paintings are among the most coveted in the world. In 2019, a single Monet painting sold for $110.7 million

As you can see from Monet’s life, perfectionism can be ruinous, and people at the top of their game are not free from its snare. Below are some results from scientific research to quantify the harm that perfectionism can wreak.

  • Perfectionism is on the rise in young people, coinciding with a decrease in psychological health. In data from more than 41,000 American, Canadian and British college students, scores for perfectionism increased substantially since the 1980s. [1]
  • Perfectionistic concerns can contribute to depression, anxiety, eating disorders and burnout. [2]
  • Perfectionism can cause emotional, physical and relationship problems. [3]
  • Perfectionists may be more likely to become “helicopter parents,” a parenting style that can lead to narcissism, poor adjustment and alcohol and drug use in children as they get older. [4]
  • Self-oriented perfectionism (expecting perfection from yourself) plus work motivation contributes to workaholism. [5]

What is the root cause of perfectionism?

There can be many root causes of perfectionism, including:

  • Low self-esteem
    “The need for perfectionism can come from a place of feeling unworthy or unlovable, from believing that one has to be perfect otherwise they are a failure or a fraud,” says self-development coach Angela Di Paola. “Of course, perfection is impossible to achieve, and so whenever they make a mistake or don't feel they measure up to their ideal, their belief that they are unworthy is reinforced. They can then continue to look to perfection for validation and continue to not get it, creating this negative feedback loop.”
  • Trauma
    More recently, perfectionism is starting to be seen as a trauma response. For example, research published in Frontiers in Psychology in February 2021 highlighted stories of study subjects whose adverse childhood experiences led to perfectionistic tendencies in adulthood.
  • Social media
    In this digital age, we are flooded with altered images on Instagram and TikTok, so it can be easy to think that that form of “perfection” is attainable. Many mental health experts now believe that the rise in perfectionism, particularly in millennials, can be attributed to unrealistic standards set by what we see on social media.
  • Upbringing
    “Sometimes perfectionism can be seen in individuals whose parents were strict and demanding or who might have had high and even unrealistic expectations,” says licensed psychologist  Nicole Lacherza-Drew, Psy.D. “There could be both genetic factors and environmental factors at play for someone who displays perfectionistic tendencies.”
    In a 2016 study published in the Journal of Personality, researchers found that intrusive parents (those who have high expectations of their children and intrude to make sure they do well) may contribute to their children becoming more self-critical and fearful of making mistakes.
  • Underlying mental health condition
    Perfectionism can also be a symptom of an underlying mental health condition, such as OCD or ADHD. “I often find that the root cause of perfectionism is adult ADHD,” says ADHD specialist Billy Roberts, LISW-S. “ADHD is a disorder of executive function, the part of the brain responsible for managing life and keeping other brain functions in check. At a young age, folks with ADHD feel scattered, and excessive anxiety often emerges as a way to keep feeling scattered in check. As an adult with ADHD, you might ‘overshoot the mark,’ so to speak, to avoid the shame of making errors.”

Is perfectionism a mental illness?

Perfectionism itself is not a mental illness, but it can be a symptom of a mental health condition that requires support. For example, someone with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder may be seen as a perfectionist because they are overly concerned with getting things “just right” and have severe fears that if they don’t do something perfectly, something bad may happen. In the case of someone with OCD, this “perfectionism” is not enjoyable at all and causes them significant distress.

While perfectionism is not listed as a mental disorder in the DSM, it is listed as a characteristic of other disorders, specifically personality disorders. For instance, Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (not to be confused with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which is categorized as a different condition) has this criterion in the DSM 5: “A persistent pattern of preoccupation with order; perfectionism; and control of self, others, and situations.”

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Is there an antidote to perfectionism?

While there is no “quick fix” for any mental health issue, research has shown that self-compassion may be an antidote to perfectionism. Self-compassion means being kind to and accepting of yourself, which can serve as a buffer against your tendencies toward self-criticism. 

In a 2018 study published in PLOS ONE, researcher Madeleine Ferrari and colleagues found that self-compassion weakened the relationship between perfectionism and depression in both adolescents and adults. 

How to stop being a perfectionist: 5 tips to try today

Gain self-awareness

“The first step is being aware of when you may start to display these tendencies,” says Lacherza-Drew. “What are the triggers, so to speak…places, people, tasks, etc. Once the triggers are known, you can start to take a more proactive approach and work on realistic expectations for yourself.”

Of course, the challenge with gaining self-awareness is we can’t see our own blind spots. That’s why enlisting the help of a coach or therapist can be so beneficial. Both can ask insightful questions that help you see where your strengths lie and where you can grow. Therapists take that even further as licensed mental health professionals and can diagnose mental health conditions if present and suggest evidence-based treatments to help you feel better.

Practice self-compassion

“Practicing self-compassion can be helpful with accepting yourself where you are and offering yourself the same kindness you would a friend or loved one,” says licensed marriage and family therapist associate Erin Dierickx. “Writing down the remarks you make to yourself when you make a mistake or don’t reach your goals, followed by rewriting it kindly, can be a great start to this practice. Remember, this is a constant practice. In this case, practice does not make perfect, which is great because perfection isn’t what we are aiming for in the first place. Instead, perhaps it’s self-acceptance.”

Make peace with “good enough”

“Replace perfection (which is impossible to achieve and just as difficult to define) with good enough,” suggests Di Paola. “When you find yourself striving for perfection, take a step back and ask yourself, ‘What is good enough?’ Define good enough as clearly as you can, and then strive for that. Once you reach your good enough, you can decide whether you are satisfied or wish to set a new good enough. By replacing perfect with good enough, you create achievable goals, and you see yourself succeeding. This improves your self-esteem and reinforces that you are, in fact, good enough.”

Habituate to failure

“Adopt a beginner’s mind by learning a new skill that you enjoy, and embrace the failures in learning,” recommends life transformation coach Joyce Bao. “One of the biggest challenges with perfectionists, speaking from a recovering perfectionist, is the fear of failure. I’ve learned to overcome this tendency by picking up a new skill where I have to fail in order to improve. Improv actually is a great avenue to combat perfectionism because the ‘Yes AND’ mentality and celebrating ‘happy accidents’ completely rewire the brain to embrace failures.”

Strive for progress, not perfection

“A great mantra that is often shared in recovery communities is ‘Progress not perfection,’” says Press. “It can be helpful to practice that one in your head in order to loosen the reins on some black-and-white thinking. Just because something is not perfect doesn't mean it's worthless.” 

Letting go of perfectionism: Why it’s so hard

As a self-professed perfectionist, I find it hard to let go of this tendency because it feels like my “secret sauce,” like it’s the key to my success thus far. After all, even though perfectionism was the driver behind Monet destroying up to 500 of his paintings—isn’t it also the reason he created 2,000 others? (Not that I’m comparing myself to the founder of Impressionism, but I think you get the point.) 

I asked licensed marriage and family therapist associate Erin Dierickx for her thoughts on this common conundrum.

“Like many of the qualities we carry, I would argue that we don't necessarily have to let go of our perfectionism entirely,” Dierickx explains, “but instead, learn more about how much it contributes to our life in order to recognize when it can be helpful versus harmful. Every characteristic we have falls on a spectrum, so any of them have the potential to become either harmful on one extreme or barely existent on the other. Perfectionism can add a lot to our lives in various ways, like aiming for accuracy and maintaining expectations to promote growth. It can become problematic when we start to define ourselves by our perfectionism and become discouraged or disparaged when we fall short. Perhaps, to continue with that analogy of the ‘secret sauce,’ like any sauce, usually a little goes a long way, right? So knowing when to apply it and when to pull back can be the art of that delicate balance.”
So here’s to letting go of perfectionism when it harms us and to striking that delicate balance in our lives.

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