Why striving for perfection may not be so perfect

Though having a goal or something to work towards is an excellent idea, when we expect perfection from ourselves or others we are often left disappointed. The reality is that striving for perfection holds us back.

Think about yourself. Do you:

a)  Focus on high standards or achievements but never quite feel satisfied?

b)  Accomplish goals and then quickly move on to the next goal, setting your standards higher than before?

c)  Become so worried that you will make a mistake, or not do a good enough job, that you end up procrastinating and putting things off?

Perfectionism is like running in a hamster wheel. We can get caught up in a cycle of trying to be ‘perfect’. For many of us, when we have such high and strict standards, it can become impossible to meet these standards. I do not know about you, but when I aim for a goal and do not achieve it I can feel pretty disappointed. Where perfectionism can be a problem is when people experience low self-esteem, anxiety, and low mood. We also know that perfectionism can be associated with the development and maintenance of several psychological disorders (e.g., Depression, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Eating Disorders).

So what do we do?

The answer isn’t to be sloppy and lazy with work or to stop caring completely. We just want to find that space where perhaps we could do more, but that the results wouldn’t match the effort needed to get there.

Understanding these four things may help you to keep in mind to start to deal with some of the pitfalls of perfectionism.

1) Perfection isn’t attainable

We try so hard to get something that just cannot be achieved. There is no perfect body, perfect job, or perfect life. It does not happen that we are 100% perfect and happy every single moment of every day.

Life is unpredictable and things do not always turn out the way we imagined. Once we start to realise that, we can start to let go of those never-ending standards. Trying to be perfect all the time leaves no room for errors. An error is not an “all or nothing” situation. Mistakes are opportunities to reflect, learn, and adjust your approach; who knows you may have a fun adventure on the way!

Once we start to entertain the idea of letting go of our perfectionism, life could become that little bit easier. Maybe even a bit less stressful!

2) Listen to praise

So often when we receive a compliment we brush it off, we say things like “it was nothing”, “anyone could do it”, or “I just got lucky”. When we have been discounting our successes for a while or are experiencing imposter syndrome we can brush these compliments off without even thinking about it. Yet it may be helpful to start giving more attention to the positive feedback we receive.

Just by spending a little bit of time taking in these successes, we may start to become more attuned to when we are actually doing a good job. Even holding that compliment in mind for a second or two may start to improve our mood.

Maybe next time someone starts to compliment you, instead of dismissing it immediately or thinking that you have to return a compliment to get the attention off you, just try a little experiment and say “thanks, I appreciate it”. You may start to see a bit of a change, even if you do feel a little uncomfortable doing this at first. 

3) The law of diminishing returns

After all this, we may be thinking “but if I am not perfect, what will happen”. Often this uncertainty can be paralysing. To combat this we often put in effort over and above what is actually required. Try to keep the law of diminishing returns in mind whenever you are presented with this again in the future.

This law of diminishing returns is an economic concept whereby after a certain point further investment (or effort) does not increase your expected return, rather it can actually reduce it.

A good example is when people study for exams. Although it’s important to study for an exam (or practice a work presentation etc.), there is a limit to how much time and energy we can invest and still expect to see an improvement.

If we practice too much we’ll start to feel burned out and may even start to make more mistakes. We then become frustrated and try to practice more leading to more mistakes (see where this is going!). Instead of pushing yourself further and further, maybe acknowledge the successes you have so far and take a well-earned break. You may find that you actually still have the same outcome in achievement, just a whole lot less stress along the way.

Which brings me to my final point.

4) Be compassionate

You can’t hate your way into accepting yourself. Convincing yourself of what a failure you are will never make any situation better, and repeating to yourself that you’ll never live up to your potential certainly won’t lead you to reach it.

It may be hard to give yourself a break when you feel like you are no good at all. When we’re feeling inadequate, we tend to crave care, to feel adequate, competent, or just feel like you are ‘enough’. Yet we tend to base our sense of self-esteem on our achievements. Instead of needing to achieve something to feel good about yourself, try basing your self-esteem on something unrelated to achievement or high standards. A simple way to think about is that we don’t just give compassion to or friends or family based on how much money they earn, how much power they have, or how popular they are. Rather, we give compassion because we care, and that can include ourselves too.

Aim to step off the perfectionism hamster wheel – stop the constant running after something that is never getting any closer, so that you can find the balance of achieving your goals and feeling better about yourself at the same time!

Written by Dr Joel Howell, Clinical Psychologist (Registrar).

More information

If you would like to learn more about perfectionism or book an appointment with one of our experienced clinical psychologists, contact our friendly client team by calling 6143 4499 or email via our contact page.

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