Perfectly Fine: 5 Tips to Overcome Unhealthy Perfectionism

 man cleaning stains off the tableEveryone has an image of a “perfectionist” in their mind—the person with the meticulously organized house, the work desk without a pencil out of place, who works fervently day and night to make sure not a mistake passes on their watch. Despite the stigma and stereotypes, perfectionism is neither inherently good nor all bad. And a lot of it depends on where the motivation for perfectionism begins.

Researchers have identified three main types of perfectionism. The first is self-oriented perfectionism, wherein the individual has high standards for the self. This person may think, “I need to do better on this because I know that it isn’t the best that I can do,” or, “I have to redo this. I never do anything right.”

The second type of perfectionism is socially prescribed perfectionism. This person feels the external pressure of family members, coworkers, and bosses, or society in general, to live up to a high standard. They may think, “If I don’t do better, I’m going to let everyone down!”

The third type of perfectionism is others-oriented perfectionism. This person holds others to intense scrutiny and, at times, unrealistic standards. They might be the micromanaging boss at work, the parent who nitpicks the child who left socks on the bathroom floor, or the child who is constantly correcting other students in class when they make minor grammatical errors.

Recognize yourself in any of these? A family member or coworker, perhaps?

By recognizing the root cause of the perfectionism, anybody can work to engage in healthy perfectionism and avoid being torn down by maladaptive coping skills associated with unhealthy perfectionistic habits. This doesn’t involve changing the worldview or personality of the person with perfectionism; the first step is to recognize how thought patterns impact the way a person feels about a situation. Again, being a perfectionist is a strength in many ways! One would hope that the heart surgeon in the operating room has a few perfectionistic tendencies. But counterproductive thinking patterns associated with unhealthy perfectionism can cause a lot of worry and anxiety.

Here are five steps to breaking the patterns of unhealthy perfectionism:

  1. Learn to strive for excellence! The No. 1 thing that people with productive perfectionistic tendencies are able to do is enjoy the challenge of a difficult task without getting distracted and distraught by minor errors or perceived imperfections. (Remember: sometimes a mistake that a perfectionist sees would never be noticed by another person.)
  2. Change negative thought patterns to realistic, positive coping statements. Change the thought, “I always mess up everything!” to “I make mistakes. Sometimes I can fix them and sometimes I can’t, but if I’m doing my best, I know I can feel proud of myself.” It is important to focus on creating realistic coping statements; statements that are too positive (“I am great at everything I try to do!”) lose their power often because they are too general.
  3. Prioritize activities and tasks by importance. People who get caught up in the minor details sometimes lose sight of the big picture and may become procrastinating perfectionists. Prioritizing the importance of things can also be effective for the others-oriented perfectionist because it can help put into perspective the real impact of constantly critiquing others for minor flaws.
  4. Set specific and manageable goals. Perfectionists often become overwhelmed by the daunting nature of the tasks they undertake. At times, they may have difficulty delegating responsibilities to other team members (a form of others-oriented perfectionism). By finding one small goal that would improve the nature of one’s perfectionism and feeling the success associated with it, step-by-step progress can be made to move from unhealthy to healthier perfectionism.
  5. Find a buddy. One confidant who can share the struggle and help to (kindly!) bring awareness to negative thought patterns or destructive perfectionistic strategies can be great. Perfectionists often feel like they should be able to solve all of their problems on their own; by taking a team approach, it helps them to look at the unhealthy patterns from an outside perspective and make the changes that will ultimately lead to increased happiness and contentment.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Emily Kircher-Morris, LPC, therapist in O Fallon, Missouri

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.

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  • Carol

    Carol

    February 19th, 2015 at 10:24 AM

    Unfortunately I think that my own need for being perfect stems from having parents for whom nothing ever seemed to be good enough. Typical eh? But I have carried that over with me into adulthood and no matter how much I try to shake that need to be perfect all the time and just say that good enough is actually good enough, there is always that little voice in my head telling me that it isn’t enough and that I should try harder and work harder. Can you only imagine how exhausting this can be?

  • liddy

    liddy

    February 19th, 2015 at 4:00 PM

    I am sorry but how does striving for excellence differ from striving to be perfect? Seems like those two things are pretty close

  • John

    John

    February 20th, 2015 at 12:40 PM

    The difference is that while you strive for excellence you don’t get caught up in the performance and you do your best. Perfectionists will let their need to be perfect hinder their performance.

  • Stefan

    Stefan

    February 20th, 2015 at 4:04 AM

    I do think that much of this is culturally based in that there are some cultures where this is not stressed \but then in other communities it is like this is the only thing that counts for anything. I have been around families where trying your best really was enough and then others where people would think that they were letting down their entire extended family if they did not get an A on that chem test.

  • Madge

    Madge

    February 20th, 2015 at 10:28 AM

    For the perfectionist there is no prioritizing, everything is equally imperative to do and so right, so this has to be hard to get them to thinking that they can actually prioritize things and that it is actually ok if there are somethings that don’t get completed right away.

    I am not saying that you shouldn’t give something your all, but when you think about it, not everything in life has to be top priority all of the time.

  • elle

    elle

    February 20th, 2015 at 6:36 PM

    It seems that these five steps left out the most important part of the preceding paragraph: find the root cause.

    If I had a nickel for everytime I Wanted to just think, “I’m doing my best…sometimes I can fix a problem and sometimes I can’t,” I’d be wealthy. Well, no I wouldn’t because I’d have to give myself the nickel. Haha

  • Jade

    Jade

    February 21st, 2015 at 5:29 AM

    It is very stressful being around this person
    but I can promise you that it is even more stressful to be the person
    i have lived this life where i never felt good enough so I tried to do better and be better
    i guess i always felt that I had something to prove, even though to others it was fine I wanted to be the best

  • Lizzie

    Lizzie

    February 21st, 2015 at 9:15 AM

    If you are doing this to make others happy, then you are doing this for the wrong reasons.

  • simon

    simon

    February 23rd, 2015 at 3:39 AM

    I have witnessed some people getting so burdened by the quest to be perfect that it totally bogs down every other aspect of their lives. And I think that a large part of that comes form society in projecting this idealized perfection upon us even though we know it is mostly unattainable it is still something that is held up for us that we should and should want to achieve

  • Mackenzie

    Mackenzie

    February 23rd, 2015 at 10:21 AM

    It can be really good for you if you can find someone who will hold you accountable and make you aware of the times when you are striving for that perfection that really is good with being just okay. It does sometimes take the perspective of another person to help us understand that what we are doing could be harmful to us.

    We might not like so much what they have to say, but that’s alright if they are doing for us what we would do for them or what we have actually asked them to do

  • Aila

    Aila

    February 23rd, 2015 at 3:43 PM

    Ha!
    I used to be this person until I started to recognize that I was the only person who really respected and appreciated just how hard I was working to accomplish something

  • burke

    burke

    February 24th, 2015 at 3:46 AM

    I work in a field that encourages you to do 110% all of the time, and it better not be a bad 110% either. I think that I have gotten so caught up in how my job performance reflects on me that I also let that stem into my personal life too. I know that it isn’t healthy but I kind of get to the point where something doesn’t even feel like it’s worth doing if I can’t do it in a way that I will think or that others will think is excellent. As you can see it has kind of messed with my thought processes. I have always been a go getter but this is going to the extreme and I sort of see that but what I don’t see is a way to break out of that

  • pATTY

    pATTY

    February 26th, 2015 at 7:47 AM

    My obsessions for perfection were forced out of me by just a few things, like mainly kids and a dog!

  • Kennedy

    Kennedy

    February 28th, 2015 at 9:34 AM

    For my daughter nothing will do but absolute perfection and it is strange how some things will bother her and other things will not. If she gets less than a certain grade at school she cries her eyes out but when it comes to having a clean room, she could honestly not care less.

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