Meet Karla, a successful entrepreneur who, on the outside, seemed to have it all. Yet, behind the scenes, she grappled with perfectionism, a common struggle among high achievers for years.
Perfectionism is more than just a buzzword; it’s a silent tormentor that often lurks behind the facade of success. But here’s the twist – Karla is me, and I’m on a journey to help you, too, break free from the shackles of perfectionism.
It’s not uncommon for high achievers, entrepreneurs, and career professionals to suffer from perfectionism, which only keeps us from achieving our dreams and goals. People with perfectionism tend to set extremely high standards for themselves, which can end up weighing us down and keeping us stuck. But the good news is there are actionable steps you can take to address this issue. Keep reading to discover more!
Before we dive into how to overcome perfectionism and perfectionist tendencies, let’s first take a closer look at what makes a perfectionist a perfectionist.
What is Perfectionism?
Perfectionism is a mindset characterized by the belief that you must demonstrate and achieve absolute flawlessness in pursuing a goal or outcome. Those who identify as perfectionists tend to hold themselves and others to extraordinarily high standards, often setting unrealistic expectations and goals. You may feel an inherent need to be perfect or at least be perceived by others as perfect and flawless to gain acceptance, attention, and love.
However, this relentless pursuit of perfection comes at a cost. The desire for flawlessness leads to the setting of unattainable goals, causing excessive stress, pressure, and burnout. This obsession with perfection can stifle creativity and limit your potential for growth and new opportunities. Perfectionists also tend to fear failure, which hinders your willingness to take risks. Any setback or failure feels deeply distressing, as it reinforces any feelings you may have of inadequacy, rejection, or not being good enough—emotions you’ve been striving to avoid at all costs.
Types of Perfectionism: Signs and Effects
You might be surprised to learn that perfectionism can manifest in many different ways. There are three main subtypes of perfectionism. As you look at these, you may notice that you only fall into one subtype or hold traits in more than one. You may also notice that these show up differently in different areas of your life. You may find yourself as one type of perfectionist at work, but when it comes to your family or health, you may find yourself as another type.
The three main types of perfectionism are:
Self-Oriented Perfectionism: People with self-oriented perfectionism set unrealistically high expectations for themselves, leading to a constant fear of failure and self-criticism. For example, as a self-oriented perfectionist myself, I often set unrealistically high expectations for myself, thinking I could accomplish so much more than was realistic in a day, week, or month. I was always in constant fear of failure and tended to criticize myself, regardless of what I accomplished, thinking it was never enough.
Other-Oriented Perfectionism: This type involves having high expectations of others and being overly critical of their performance, which may strain relationships and lead to disappointment. Regarding other-oriented perfectionism, imagine a manager having exceedingly high expectations of their team members. They constantly micromanage, expecting every detail to be flawless. They are hard on their team members, even with small mistakes. This leaves the team members feeling stressed, frustrated, and lacking motivation.
Socially Prescribed Perfectionism: With this type of perfectionism, you perceive external pressure to be perfect, which can result in anxiety and a fear of judgment from others. This is commonly experienced as external pressure from your friends, family, culture, or community to excel in an area of your life, such as your career. This pressure can cause extreme anxiety and fear of judgment from others as they fear if they’re not perfect and excelling in their career, they will be considered a failure.
Being a Perfectionist vs Having Perfectionistic Tendencies
Not everyone labels themselves as a perfectionist; some individuals exhibit perfectionistic tendencies without fully embracing a perfectionist mindset in all areas of their lives or identifying as perfectionists.
The terms “perfectionist” and “someone with perfectionistic tendencies” are closely linked, but a subtle distinction sets them apart:
Perfectionist: A perfectionist embodies a deep-seated personality trait or core identity rooted in the pursuit of perfection across various life aspects. Perfectionism becomes an integral part of their character, influencing their approach to tasks, goal setting, and responses to both success and failure. Perfectionism is ingrained in their mindset and shapes their overall persona.
Someone with perfectionistic tendencies: This term refers to someone who exhibits specific characteristics or behaviors commonly associated with perfectionism. However, these tendencies may not be as deeply ingrained in their core identity as in a full-fledged perfectionist. In essence, perfectionistic thoughts or behaviors suggest that they may display certain traits of perfectionism without fully embracing the perfectionist mindset in all aspects of their life.
In essence, being a perfectionist represents a more overarching characteristic of one’s personality, whereas having perfectionistic tendencies is about demonstrating specific perfectionistic behaviors or thought patterns without these behaviors defining one’s entire identity.
What are the Signs of Perfectionism?
- Unrealistic Standards: Perfectionists hold themselves and others to unrealistic goals and expectations that are hard to achieve.
- Having a Fear of Failure: Perfectionists avoid dealing with inadequacy at all costs. They can not fail, feel less than others, or face rejection by not achieving, as the distress it causes is very difficult for them to accept, manage, and deal with.
- Not Living Up to Full Potential: Perfectionists are often smart and have a lot to offer to the world. However, because they have a lot of rigidity around goals and expectations, they often hold back the parts of themselves that are more creative, the parts that like to take risks or be vulnerable. For instance, you may hold yourself back from a new job that better reflects your skill sets but also requires you to take risks and be vulnerable. Emotional risk is often the risk that holds people back.
- Feeling Stuck: Perfectionists tend to have an all-or-nothing approach. If they don’t feel they can achieve a goal perfectly without taking risks or experiencing setbacks or failure along the way, they will often stay stuck or comfortable in doing “nothing” since it can’t be done perfectly.
- Feeling Overwhelmed: Perfectionists are known to take on too much responsibility as they feel they need to do everything themselves for it to be “perfect.” They also overthink and overdo things, trying to make everything perfect, along with having unrealistic expectations for themselves. All this leads to overwhelm, which can then cause a perfectionist to shut down or feel stuck.
- Procrastination: Procrastination can be common in perfectionists as the mindset can be along the lines of if “I can’t do it perfectly, why even bother.” Perfectionists can also feel overwhelmed by a task or goal, which can also keep them stuck and procrastinating.
- Overworking or Overdoing Things: Perfectionists seek validation outwardly, pushing themselves to exhaustion to get the dopamine that comes from achieving. They often feel like things are never good enough, so even if something has been completed or accomplished, they want to improve it. They tend to put goals and achieving over prioritizing their own self-care.
- Struggling to Make Decisions: Perfectionists may struggle to make decisions because they are looking for the perfect option. Perfectionists may also have unrealistic high standards, which can cause them to overlook or not take advantage of great opportunities. They may spend too much time ruminating and overthinking, making it hard for them to make decisions.
- Time Stress: Feeling overwhelmed, procrastination, and having unrealistic expectations can all contribute to perfectionists experiencing time stress. They may not feel like they have enough time, or there is too much for them to do. Perfectionists also tend to feel as though they have to do everything themselves rather than delegating or asking for help or support.
- Fear of Rejection or Criticism: The truth is no one likes to experience the feeling of rejection or being criticized, particularly in a harsh or non-constructive manner. Perfectionists tend to avoid it at all costs as it can be highly emotionally triggering for them. They have been conditioned that their performance or achievements are what give them worth, so rejection or feeling criticized can feel equivalent to feeling unloved or experiencing heartbreak.
- Not Living Up to Your True Potential: For perfectionists, it can feel easier to hold themselves back than take an emotional risk by putting their true selves out there and risk feeling rejected, criticized, failing, or simply others seeing their imperfections. So, they hold themselves back because it feels more comfortable and less risky. However, ultimately, this leaves them feeling less happy, loved, and fulfilled in life. There is a trade-off.
What is a Healthy Perfectionist or Healthy Striving?
While both can include setting high standards for yourself, the main distinction between perfectionism and healthy striving is where your focus lies.
Healthy striving embraces the journey, focusing on continuous improvement. Perfectionism demands a perfect outcome and avoids mistakes. Strivers gain confidence from the journey, while perfectionists seek external validation.
Perfectionism has a tighter grip, more of an all-or-nothing approach. They do not allow themselves room for mistakes, thinking they’ve failed if things are not perfect.
Strivers are focused on excellence and have a more innate confidence and pride that come from the efforts of the journey to achieving.
Embracing a Growth Mindset and Setting Realistic Expectations
The first step in conquering perfectionism begins with adopting a growth mindset. A growth mindset acknowledges that failure is an intrinsic component of the learning journey and that setbacks present opportunities for advancement and refinement. Rather than giving meaning to mistakes as unequivocal failures, someone with a growth mindset regards them as invaluable learning experiences.
To foster a growth mindset, begin by acknowledging that failure is a natural facet of the learning process. Rather than categorizing mistakes as definitive failures, consider them as windows to personal growth. Creating realistic objectives involves acknowledging that perfection remains an unattainable standard. The pursuit of achievable goals is pivotal in avoiding overwhelm, procrastination, and other unhelpful consequences associated with perfectionism.
11 Tips to Overcoming Perfectionism
- Limit Social Media: Social media can quickly lead to a downward spiral for perfectionists. It often paints an unrealistic expectation of how perfect others’ lives are, masking the reality that they are just as human and flawed as we are, and they have problems, too.
- Regulate Your Nervous System: Learning to regulate your nervous system is a powerful tool that helps to reduce stress and anxiety associated with perfectionism, allowing you to better practice and implement many of these other tips.
- Set Realistic Goals: We tend to set really high, unattainable goals for ourselves, which end up leading to negative self-talk and feelings of failure when we don’t meet them. When we set realistic goals that are achievable, we have a chance to have success, feel good, and break the vicious cycle of sabotaging ourselves.
- Break Tasks into Smaller Steps: It can be common for us to procrastinate on goals and tasks because we feel overwhelmed and paralyzed by everything we have to do, along with perceiving that we need to do it all perfectly. We can help prevent this by breaking tasks into smaller, manageable steps- and being realistic about what we can accomplish within a time period. Doing this allows us to be more focused and take steps forward towards the goals and tasks without such overwhelm.
- Embrace Imperfection: Take time to learn that perfection is an illusion and give yourself the grace to be imperfect. Celebrate and honor the effort you put into all that you do, even if the results haven’t been perfect or what you desired. If this is hard for you, try starting with the little things where you don’t feel so wrapped up in trying to be perfect.
- Seek Constructive Criticism: Rather than fearing criticism, we want to learn to view it as an opportunity to grow and improve. Constructive feedback can provide valuable insights and help grow and improve so you can achieve your goals. As perfectionists, we tend to forget the journey of growth and think we should be perfect in all we do from the start. But it just doesn’t work that way 99% of the time. Success comes from learning, gaining feedback, and constructive criticism along the way.
- Practice Mindfulness: Mindfulness is about having an awareness of your thoughts of the present moment, without judgment, allowing you to acknowledge and accept your thoughts, feelings, and experiences without striving for perfection or criticizing yourself. This practice allows you to respond to your thoughts with self-compassion and self-acceptance. Next time you feel perfectionism taking over, give this a try.
- Practice Gratitude: As perfectionists, we are great at spotting mistakes and what’s not working. But we often forget to take note of what is working, what is going well, and the great work we have accomplished. I challenge you to take it one step further behind, just noticing the positives and syncing into the gratitude for those positives. Gratitude gives way to more of what’s working and forgiveness for what’s not.
- Practice Self-Care: Self-care is crucial in overcoming perfectionism because it allows individuals to prioritize their well-being and mental health over unrealistic standards and relentless self-criticism. It provides a buffer against the negative effects of perfectionism, helping to reduce stress, anxiety, and burnout. Self-care empowers you to practice self-compassion, fostering a more forgiving and balanced relationship with yourself, which is essential for breaking free from the grip of perfectionism.
- Practice Self-Compassion: The critical voice that so often accompanies perfectionism only leads us to low self-esteem. One of the best ways to counteract this is to practice self-compassion. Give yourself the grace to be human and make mistakes. Practicing self-compassion means you are treating yourself with the same kindness and understanding you would offer to a close friend or a child. When we have self-compassion, there isn’t room to self-criticize ourselves.
- Work with a mentor, therapist, or coach: While these tips are here to support you in overcoming your perfectionism, you may find that you want help from a professional like myself. True freedom from perfectionism comes when we heal the core wounds that have developed into this identity of needing to be perfect. You can book your complimentary discovery call here.
In summary, to overcome perfectionism, limit social media, regulate your nervous system, set realistic goals, break tasks into smaller steps, embrace imperfection, seek constructive criticism, practice mindfulness, practice gratitude, prioritize self-care, and show self-compassion. Consider seeking professional help if needed.
Letting go of perfectionism is possible; I know because I’ve been there. I remember when I struggled with the need to be perfect in every aspect of life. It’s liberating to give yourself grace and compassion, to realize that worthiness doesn’t depend on perfection. You can still strive for success but with a kinder, more authentic self.
Karla Kueber is here to support you in overcoming imposter syndrome and perfectionism so you can stop procrastinating, feeling stuck, and holding yourself back from your goals. Karla is here to help you believe in yourself and own your successes. You can book a freee discovery call with her here.