7 Ways to Overcome Perfectionism and Cultivate Self-Compassion

Man walking across street in a quiet neighborhood at sunsetWe all know perfection is an illusion. If perfection is unattainable and unrealistic, why do so many people strive to achieve it, setting themselves up for a perpetuating cycle of disappointment and shame?

For many perfectionists, there is an underlying fear that they are not “good enough,” “won’t succeed,” or “won’t be loved” if they don’t strive for perfection. At its core, perfectionism may essentially be an act of disowning our true selves. It’s often a coping mechanism for shame and inadequacy. Perfectionism thrives in convincing us that striving for it will make us our “best self,” when in reality, it can cause us to play small and take us away from our true selves.

Perfectionism can be like a coach who initially appears to want you to succeed, but then berates you, makes you practice to the point of exhaustion, and yells at you when you try to take a break. You may think that without this type of pressure, you won’t be able to achieve your goals⁠— but the opposite is actually true. If you allow yourself to rest, acknowledge your progress, and engage in positive self-talk, you’re much less likely to burn out and more likely to achieve your goals without sacrificing your health and quality of life along the way.

Perfectionism can be like a coach who initially appears to want you to succeed, but then berates you, makes you practice to the point of exhaustion, and yells at you when you try to take a break.

If you’re struggling with perfectionism, it’s important to keep in mind that it doesn’t go away overnight and that it takes time to learn how to overcome perfectionism. Below are seven tips to help you learn how to start letting go of perfectionism and be kinder to yourself.

7 Tips to Overcome Perfectionism

1. Identify the beliefs and rules that drive your perfectionism.

It can be helpful to identify the underlying beliefs and rules that drive your behavior. For example, many perfectionists have an underlying belief that they are not “good enough.” As a result of this belief, they may adhere to certain rules and all-or-nothing thinking such as “I must be perfect or I will be rejected,” or “I must be perfect or I will fail.” Often these beliefs and rules were formed in childhood. Bringing awareness to these beliefs and rules as well as how they impact different areas of your life can be the first key in the process of deprogramming these beliefs.

2. Honestly evaluate your expectations.

Take some time to honestly evaluate your expectations. It’s not realistic to expect that you will never fail or make mistakes because you are human, and you will inevitably make mistakes as we all do. Consider how you can create more realistic expectations for yourself. When you create realistic expectations, you are able to meet them. You’ll also build up your self-trust and self-confidence, two tools that can help you combat perfectionism.

3. Acknowledge the costs of perfectionism.

Perfectionism often leads to loss. These losses include: loss of quality time spent with others, loss of enjoying the present moment, and loss of connection with oneself. Many perfectionists struggle with modifying their standards due to fear they will fail as a result. Reflecting about what perfectionism has cost you in different areas of your life can help you realize that the costs outweigh the benefits. This realization can help boost your motivation to tackle perfectionism and be a helpful reminder for those times you feel tempted to give in to your inner critic.

If perfectionism were a physical illness, doctors would most certainly prescribe self-compassion as a way to treat it.

4. Practice self-compassion.

One of the most helpful ways to combat one’s inner critic and address perfectionism head-on is to practice self-compassion regularly. If perfectionism were a physical illness, doctors would most certainly prescribe self-compassion as a way to treat it.

Perfectionists are often their own worst critic. While they can be compassionate towards others, they may have difficulty being supportive of themselves. When you’re feeling critical towards yourself, some questions that can help you increase your self-compassion are:

  • What would I say to a friend in this situation, and how can I apply that to myself?
  • What would a friend say to me?
  • How can I take care of myself right now?
  • What do I need right now that I’m not getting?
  • What are some ways I show others compassion that I can apply to myself?

Certain meditations can also help increase your self-compassion.

5. Engage in activities that build resilience.

Individuals who struggle with perfectionism often over-prepare and actively avoid making mistakes or putting themselves in situations where they may be bad at something. This fear can hold them back from learning that mistakes do not define their self-worth and most likely won’t cause others to reject them. It can be helpful to engage in activities you fear you will be bad at. Think of these activities as experiments that can help you practice letting go of unrealistic expectations and build resilience. This can be an anxiety-provoking process that takes time, but it can ultimately be very freeing for many perfectionists.

6. Reach out for support from others.

Perfectionism thrives in silence and isolation. Often perfectionists are surprised to find many others struggle with similar issues once they start opening up about it; this can reduce the feelings of shame that typically accompany perfectionism. Start by identifying one person in your life that you trust, and share with them about some of your struggles. The more you practice being vulnerable with people whom you trust, the less isolated you will feel, and the freer you may become.

7. Reduce your social media use.

Social media contributes to frequent social comparison, which can exacerbate perfectionism. Try taking a break from technology for a half or full day and see how you feel. When you start using social media after the break, notice how you feel. Are you engaging in social comparison and feeling “not good enough?” If so, consider implementing a regular break from social media a few times per week.

Keep in mind that it’s helpful to have realistic expectations for yourself as you’re working on your perfectionism—it’s a process that takes time. If you find yourself getting stuck during the process, it can be helpful to find a therapist who specializes in perfectionism and can help you combat your inner critic.

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  • 4 comments
  • Leave a Comment
  • Tammy

    Tammy

    July 24th, 2019 at 11:36 AM

    One of the best articles I’ve read on this
    Bookmarking to share with my clients

  • Roxy Zarrabi Psy.D.

    Roxy Zarrabi Psy.D.

    August 25th, 2019 at 3:22 PM

    Thank you for reading Tammy, I’m glad you found it helpful!

  • Taryn

    Taryn

    July 27th, 2019 at 8:04 AM

    Very relevant post. My inner critic is so loud!!! I just avoid everything. I should definitely do something about social media use. Also, try to get out of my head more often.

  • Roxy Zarrabi Psy.D.

    Roxy Zarrabi Psy.D.

    August 25th, 2019 at 3:34 PM

    Thank you for sharing, I think a lot of people can relate to your experience. It’s helpful to keep in mind that quieting the inner critic is a process that takes time and you can find the steps that work best for you through trial-and-error. You can also meet with a therapist to assist you further if you find yourself getting stuck.

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