3 Steps to Unburdening Yourself from Perfectionist Thoughts

Perfectionismportrait of young bearded man with pensive expression is one of those things that carry both positive and negative qualities, making it a tricky and complicated issue to understand. If you are detail-oriented or want the best for yourself, are you perfectionist or just ambitious? I think the answer lies in (1) the way you feel about yourself and (2) whether the idea of perfection is an obsessive thought that won’t let go or, rather, a repetitive behavior done in an attempt to succeed.

Of course, some amount of ambition is a good thing, right? We all want to do our best, to look our best, and to have life go our way. In that way, striving is a positive quality. However, it becomes harmful and maladaptive when we attempt to reach an invisible goal. What is perfection, exactly? Doesn’t it depend on your definition? What might be perfection for some may not be for others.

In a quote by Anne Wilson Schaef, she writes, “Perfectionism is self-abuse of the highest order.” Self-abuse is a strong wording choice that defines the obsessive quality of the idea. Perfectionism can run rampant on your self-esteem, your confidence, and your motivation to do more. If your first thought when you start an exercise routine is that you want to look like a supermodel, you may be experiencing perfectionist thoughts. Even supermodels don’t look like supermodels in real life. If you lose weight, get fit, eat healthier, and yet don’t look like a magazine ad, have you failed? Perfection is a deep whisper in our souls that we, alone, are not enough. Its invasive quality can be quite destructive to a healthy outlook on life.

Perfectionism is most apparent in three areas of our lives. First, we are perfectionists with our bodies and minds. Every commercial, every advertisement, every billboard reminds us that we are not “right” in some way. We’re expected to believe that we must have a toned body, the longest, sleekest hair, acne-free skin, and white teeth. Second, we are perfectionists in relationships and especially parenting. We read the books, get on the preschool mailing list before our children are out of diapers, and kill all germs immediately. This quest for perfection in parenting leads to perfection-driven children who may feel they cannot measure up. Third, we are perfectionists with our environment. We want our homes to be HGTV worthy while we bake like Martha Stewart. An entire home-design-and-improvement culture was created on the perfectionist ideal.

So, what to do when perfection is running our thoughts? Here’s how to get un-perfect and still be OK:

  1. Check yourself. Are you thinking perfection all the time? What if you don’t reach perfection? Will you be happy, healthy, and alive? Will others still love you? Will you still be a good person? If you understand that thoughts can come and go, you will start to realize that perfectionist thoughts can be harmful and they can be released. Check to make sure that while your standards are being met, you are not preoccupied with perfection. Flawed people are great, too.
  2. Focus out, not in. Focusing on ourselves too much can breed insecurity, which in turn breeds perfectionism. Instead of focusing inward, reach out to family, friends, and strangers to see what else the world has to offer. Take a class, help a friend, volunteer, teach, garden, or build something to give away. Perfectionism loves inwardly focused people. Open yourself up.
  3. Fail. Try something new with the intention of being bad at it. Paint a picture and laugh at how ridiculous it is. Talk to a stranger with the understanding that if he or she ignores you, at least you tried! Failing is a vital step to get rid of perfectionism because you learn that failing isn’t as bad as you thought. In fact, it can be fun! If you are always trying to be perfect, it can paralyze you to never try anything. So go out there and fail!

If you believe you cannot get a grip on obsessive thoughts and behaviors, please contact a mental health specialist who can help guide you to feeling more balanced.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Angela Avery, MA, LLPC, NCC, Obsessions and Compulsions / OCD Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Kris K.

    October 15th, 2014 at 1:01 PM

    Is perfection actually perfect? There is no such thing as perfectionism there is only the mere irrational thought process to which we might believe it can be achieved. With determination for a better tomorrow and the great strive for success in an ever changing world that might be consumed with the utopia, or qualm if you would, we recognize achievements that have been made with admiration. When we succeed at problem solving there are steps that one should take in order to have others achieve greatness. This is best illustrated by communication, whether it is written, verbal, or visual. One’s level of success is only transcribed to others by effective communicating in a shared forum. Since there is no such belief in perfect perhaps the most suitable way for the majority would be a conclusion that could be interpreted on a mass scale. The process of thinking is different with us all so how is there perfection? Case in point, what might be perfect to one’s perspective might not be adequate to another. Hence when finding something that may work with a group study it can always be altered like some sort of mutation. As the developing process of success blossoms we have a tendency to relish in the idea of what an achievement has been created. Therefor making the creation acceptable for all of us.

  • Jasonc

    October 16th, 2014 at 6:44 PM

    Perfect answer I believe. Perfection is truly in the eye of the beholder. No matter how something is complete it can always be improved upon. Not even the Mona Lisa is an absolute perfect painting, it has its issues and disimilarities that many would call it not perfect.

  • Maureen

    October 18th, 2014 at 8:41 AM

    Oh,yes! Perfection was a main goal of mine in my younger years. I for example, was bulemic for 9 years, thinking I did not look good enough even though I was not fat, etc. Also, my parents, without realizing it, had high expectations of me. I for instance always had to be the best in sports. So, often would overdue it, until I became the MVP in various team sports . I ended up developing epilepsy at age 20. But I would deny that I had it. I therefore would do the opposite to what an epileptic should do. I swam lengths regularly in a pool when the lifeguard was not present for instance. As well I often refused to take the anticonvulsants prescribed and so would end up back in the hospital. I still wonder if the bulemia was what caused the epilepsy. Doing much better today, although still have seizures. But have admitted to having epilepsy & take the meds.

  • Zuri

    October 18th, 2014 at 2:24 PM

    How do I allow myself to fail when that is the exact thing that I am always trying to protect myself against?
    I don’t even like the thought of not being a success, that drives me mad to think thatiou cld have tried a little harder and done a little more work and been a success but instead I chose to be slack aboutit and fail instead.
    I don’t think that failing is even in my vocabulary, it isn’t the place where I see myself so I am always strivingto b e better and to do more. I really don’t see that there is anything wrong with that. For me it would be worse to know that I could have done more and yet chose not to.

  • Grayson

    October 20th, 2014 at 3:51 PM

    how about stop worrying so much about what others are going to think about you and think instead of how you would like to feel about yourself?

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