Three Steps for Managing Perfectionism

Often, we find ourselves trying to live up to impossible standards. Sometimes, these are standards we place upon ourselves or others place upon us. Either way, the pressure to reach impossible standards leaving us feeling inadequate and never enough.  It is common for people to spend too much time working on things, whether it is activities with children or spending extra hours at work in order to reach these standards.  Have you experienced moments of feeling not enough and wondering if you will ever be good enough?

If you answered yes to this question, then you are probably struggling with perfectionistic standards or perfectionism.  The weight of perfectionism can lead to several issues including anxiety, panic attacks, and depression. It can also contribute to feeling easily irritated or annoyed with situations or people.  You may find that things which once brought you joy like hanging out with friends or hitting the gym are now causing you dread as you worry about making mistakes or not looking good enough, being funny enough, and the list goes on and on.

To make matters worse, perfectionism leads to avoidance. In other words, rather than not make a mistake or fail, you may stop doing activities all together. Then, the cycle repeats itself because now you feel guilty or ashamed for not doing that load of laundry or getting that homework assignment done on time.  The feelings of guilt and shame further alienate you from other people and lead you to want to avoid things even more.

The wonderful news is that there is hope for breaking the cycle of not being enough! You can fight back against perfectionism and the unreasonable standards it creates in your life.  There are three steps which I have used with may clients to help break the cycle of perfectionism- catch it, check it, and reel it in.

The first step is catch it which means noticing when your perfectionism is kicking in.  The voice of perfectionism often sounds like a should statement and uses words in the absolute (i.e. always, never). For example, ‘I should always finish all of my work before I leave for the day.’ Another example would be, ‘I have to exercise everyday if I will ever lose any weight.’

You may also catch perfectionism as the voice of doom and gloom, having thoughts of the worst happening if you make any mistake or do not give 110%. For example, ‘I will never get a promotion at work unless I work overtime everyday.’ Another example would be, ‘I am letting my wife down if I don’t say yes to whatever she wants.’  Look out for these voices of perfections and catch them before they become louder in your head.

The second step is check it which means ask yourself if this way of thinking is reasonable.  Perfectionism is typically driven by the emotional brain in response to anxiety and worries about doing things well and not letting others or yourself down. You can turn down the volume on the emotional brain and turn up the logical, rational thinker in you by asking yourself questions such as: ‘On a scale from 0 (not likely to happen) to 100 (definitely going to happen),  how likely is it (fill in the blank with whatever you are telling yourself that you have to do)’. For example, ‘How likely is it that I will lose my job if I go home on time tonight and do not work overtime?’ Another example would be, ‘How likely is it that I will fail my math exam if I go to bed now and instead of studying for another hour?’

The third step is reel it in. You can reel in your perfectionistic thinking by using a method called the double standard.  When using this method, ask yourself, ‘What would I say to a family member, friend, or colleague who was thinking this way about themselves?’ ‘What advice would I give them in this moment?’ Chances are that your words to someone else will be much gentler, kinder, and understanding and will put that perfectionism in its place! Now, take that advice and apply it is yourself. For example, ‘I would tell my son to take a break from cleaning his house in order to spend time with his family. It is okay for me to stop cleaning now, so I can watch a movie with my husband. I will finish the chores tomorrow. They can wait.’

Again, when feeling overwhelmed by the weight of perfectionism, pause and use the three steps: catch it, check it, and reel it in.  The goal is not to never have perfectionistic thoughts but rather to reign them in when they are causing you high anxiety, depression, and frustration and making you dread things you want to do or enjoy.  We all can benefit from being kinder and more patient to ourselves.  Try out these three steps to help you on the journey to self-compassion and less self-criticism.  Fight back against perfectionism!

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