Beating Perfectionism

Have you ever been caught in the perfectionist trap the endless cycle of nothing ever being good enough? I first noticed the trap when I became aware that I was a workaholic. I was standing over the photocopy machine at 10 pm at night looking for missing commas in a paper due the next day. I was starting to see double I was so tired. There has got to be a better way, I thought. When did I learn how not to stop?

“The perfectionist does not achieve more or better. It is not a badge of honour.”

Imagine you are driving a train that is running late. The train is like the mind when it becomes trapped in perfectionism. You go faster and faster to reach your destination until you are no longer running on all cylinders, the wheels start to creak, the brakes start to creak and the train is forced to stop due to engine trouble. The train is broken. You fix the train. You continue on your way, faster and faster. You arrive at your destination 20 minutes late. The passengers have had an uncomfortable time and so have you. You are exhausted.

Now imagine that you choose an alternative approach. You accept that the train you are driving is going to be late. You nudge the train steadily over a period of time towards its destination. You start to exert the brakes gently and deliberately as you go around the corners and stop at some stations along the way to refuel and give the passengers a stretch. You arrive 20 minutes late. The passengers are happy and so are you. You are calm. 

Slowing the train may be the power move that takes you beyond the self-punishment of perfectionism towards self-respect, self-acceptance and high performance in your team. How often do we create busi-ness to make an impression that we are indeed working hard? How often do we scare ourselves into performance addicted to the surge of adrenaline which can be so damaging for our bodies day in and day out? 

We all know those times when we need to stop, take stock and say to ourselves: 

  • to say “No” to an unreasonable request from a colleague or superior
  • to say “Yes” to your inner child who needs to rest and not spend the night making an impossible deadline to please someone else
  • to say “I am enough” when all your inner thoughts are railing against you and greedy to keep you performing to keep on proving to the world that you can get do more and more

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life.” 

– Anne Lamott

Perfectionists have unreasonable expectations of themselves and those in their life. Perfectionism is an escape from the sabotaging thoughts of not being good enough, smart enough, beautiful enough, prepared enough, brave enough etc. The list goes on. Perfectionism is not only ineffective and inefficient in work and life, it makes a person risk averse. We do not do the things we are capable of because we are afraid. If this is familiar to you, read on. Paradoxically, until we accept ourselves as “human beings’” and not as “humans doing” we will continue to set unrealistic standards and achieve less with more angst and effort. We stay cramped in a smaller life than we deserve. Breaking free of perfectionism is about accepting reality. 

According to Amy Cuddy (2016), it is the experience of powerlessness in those high-pressure moments that cause us to maddeningly accelerate our thinking, to create a “do-all’ mentality, distort our thinking and decision making which drives us to meet ever greater standards of perfection hitherto not met by anyone before (to our detriment). Then when we fail to meet our absurd expectations of ourselves and others, we enter a phase of self-recrimination and blame: we blame ourselves and others for not being “perfecto”, we descend into a state of powerlessness, anger and blame. The cycle of low self-worth continues until the next time we try to achieve the impossible and push ourselves beyond reasonable limits. We become fixated on results rather than the process.  

When you have a negative thought about yourself or others, ask yourself (Beck, 1995):

  • What is the evidence that this thought is true?
  • What is the evidence that this thought is not true?
  • Is there an alternative way of thinking about this?
  • What is the worst that can happen?
  • Could I live through it?

Diffuse distressing negative perfectionistic thought patterns by creating new or revised automatic thought. Reframe:

  • “I will plan to meet this deadline today – the work will be good enough.”
  • “What will I feel good accomplishing today?”
  • “I will go to that meeting today.”

Practise entering a room where you know nobody or feel ill-prepared (if that is a risk you normally avoid due to perfectionism). Practise smiling when you move away from one thought pattern such as: “I am scared I will make a mistake” to “Making mistakes is part of learning to do my best”. If this feels fake, keep on practising until you mean it. Save yourself the angst. Do the opposite of how you normally respond.

Thought for the day: we are human beings doing our best today. What we learn today we can do better tomorrow.

Try it and see!

  1. Cuddy, A (2016). Presence: bringing your boldest self to your biggest challenges.  London: Orion Publishing. 

More Articles

Subscribe to the Start Anew eNewsletter