healthy perfectionism

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True perfectionists get a bad rap for being time-wasting sticklers who demoralize those around them. But it isn’t all bad. In fact, being a stickler has some valuable attributes. The key is to separate healthy perfectionist behaviors, such as striving for high but achievable standards or devoting time to things you care about, from the damaging ones, such as feeling that every mistake is catastrophic. Focus on the positives of being a perfectionist while keeping an eye out for the harmful tendencies.

The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself. Anna Quindlen

Common perfectionism traps

(1) Self-perfectionism gets people trapped into the rigid mindset of “I must not make mistakes,” “I must have the approval of others,” or “I must behave in a certain way to be worthy.”  When people adopt this way of thinking, it can be very painful to feel the slightest sense of disapproval or there may be intense feelings of shame or self-punishment when a mistake has been made.

These forms of faulty cognitions keep you stuck… they tend to play over and over again in the mind, almost as a form of self-mockery or self-punishment.  These thoughts take you away from the present moment (i.e. mindlessness) and keep you from changing your behaviors in an effective way that will actually help you reach your goals.

(2) Social perfectionism is the idea that other people “should” comply with your rules.  This form of perfectionism and control will eventually go awry since the only person’s behavior you can control is your own.  If you want to choose to put yourself in a position where you are guaranteed to be frustrated, ineffective, and drive away those you care about, try to control the behavior of other people.

Sometimes other people’s ideas and desires correspond with your own, and you can happily engage in similar activities together. Other times, people hold differing views or have different wants/needs.  Begin to learn how to build up your emotional tolerance by choosing to focus in on what you can tolerate about important people in your life.  Look for one positive to balance each negative.

(3) Learning perfectionism occurs when you find yourself being your own worst critic when you are trying to learn something new.  Perfectionists can be their own toughest critic, and can be excessively harsh on themselves when they don’t pick up new skills or knowledge “right away.”  Recognize the rigidity of this mindset and the negative consequences that it has on you.

We all can be awkward and slow when learning a new skill.  Try to reframe your difficulty as a learning opportunity.  There is much to be learned from failure – minor and major.  Apply mindfulness to difficulties that you encounter when learning something new – really observe and notice where the difficulties occurred and what corresponding thoughts and emotions you had as a result.

(4) Product perfectionism is the idea that anything “less than perfection” in what you do is seen as a threat or as unacceptable and evokes a strong feeling of anxiety.  Many perfectionists who are creating something new in their home or work lives feel a powerful sense of anxiety over whether or not the final product will be “good enough” or meet some ideal standard.

For many, this anxiety over the perfection of the final product prevents them from taking action when they should and keeps them stuck in the “development phase” for far too long.  Try to reframe this anxiety by recognizing that development is a process.  Notice that creating new products has many stages and that there are often opportunities to go back and make revisions on products later.

(5) The comparative trap occurs when you relentlessly compare your own accomplishments to those of other people. Perfectionists tend to choose very accomplished people to look up to and compare their own progress.  While having very successful role models can be inspiring and motivating, be careful that it doesn’t put you in the position of never being satisfied “enough” with your own work that you are able to develop real traction and momentum.

Constantly comparing your own success and performance to other people makes it more likely that you will be in a constant state of anxiety and fear.  It also tends to make people feel much more anxious when in the presence of others that you have “decided” are superior in some way.  Instead of getting caught up in this competitive mindset, focus on what you can do to improve.  If you must compete or compare, compare your current self to your former self… strive to be “better” than you used to be.

(6) Performance anxiety can ensnare you when you begin to believe that you must succeed in all of your endeavors.  This is the idea that success is the only option and that mistakes cannot and should not be made.  This is a rigid way of thinking, is highly unrealistic, and is difficult to maintain in the long-term.

If you identify as a perfectionist, or if you believe that you have certain perfectionist tendencies, it is likely that you identify with at least one of these traps of perfectionism.  Choose to mindfully focus on the perfectionist trap that you struggle with the most.