Signs Perfectionism Is Holding You Back (And What to Do About It)
Perfectionism can be the source of many creative problems, from writer’s block to procrastination. But what does perfectionism look like in different people? This article explores four signs that perfectionism is holding you back (and how to break free). We also offer some advice on how to deal with perfectionism, as well as some tips for how to re-align your expectations and live a more fulfilling life.
What is Perfectionism?
Perfectionism is tough to define. The US National Institute of Mental Health defines perfectionism as a tendency to hold yourself or others to excessively high standards and to judge yourself or others harshly when you don’t meet these standards.
Perfectionism often manifests in our work, where perfectionism is often used as a euphemism for stubbornness. Perfectionists are usually very specific about their work and tend to be resistant when those expectations aren’t met.
The Problem with Perfectionism
The problem with perfectionism is that everyone is human and susceptible to making mistakes. Perfectionists are more likely to experience negative emotions (such as guilt, feelings of failure, or shame) when the work doesn’t meet their expectations. And these negative emotions can cause perfectionists to procrastinate. Over time they may lose momentum for their creative work and become stuck in a rut.
Below we will explore four reasons why perfectionism may be holding you back, followed by guidelines on how to make improvements in your life.
4 Reasons Perfectionism is Holding You Back
- Perfectionists often procrastinate.
Perfectionists feel they have to make every last detail perfect, even if it means pushing things back to the very last moment. They may even be so anxious that they could actually get sick if they have to wait.
- Perfectionists are often scared of their own feelings.
Perfectionists can feel really good about something they have just done, but it’s only when they look back and remember there was a mistake that dissatisfaction follows. They think anything less than perfection will make them look bad.
- Perfectionists are very concerned with what other people think of them.
Perfectionists are always trying to meet other people’s expectations. But if they ever do something less than perfect, they fear the judgments of their audience.
- Perfectionists are often terrified of making mistakes or taking risks.
Perfectionism is a risk-averse mentality that makes it very difficult to create anything new or interesting. Perfectionists have a deep fear of looking foolish or being filled with regret in the future.
If you are a perfectionist, which one of these four tendencies do you relate to?
Which of these is the most difficult for you to deal with? What makes it so hard for you to live up to your expectations? Is there a situation where this is causing problems for you in your everyday life? In this article, we will deal with each of the four areas in turn and explore ways of overcoming perfectionism.
But first, let’s look at the reasons why we need to let go of perfectionism.
Why We Need to Let Go of Perfectionism
Perfectionists often have great things to offer the world, but self-doubt and fear often impair their work. One study found that “perfectionism might be considered a beneficial force during early periods of learning and development, but that it can prove destructive later on,” especially in creative professions. This is because perfectionism makes it hard to learn from mistakes. It creates a vicious cycle where you make lots of mistakes but can never learn from them.
Perfectionists can feel really good about something they have just done but feel as though they have failed with even the most minor setback. They think anything less than perfection will make them look bad.
Perfectionism can also stop you from even starting a project if you feel there’s any chance of failure. Perfectionists are often scared of their feelings; they fear being crushed by feelings of anxiety, sensations of shame, and even painful memories of past failures. They don’t want to risk getting too invested in something that could later be rejected or hurt them in some way.
Tips To Break Free from Procrastination
What can perfectionists do about procrastination?
In the short term, procrastination stems from perfectionism. Perfectionists often push a project to the very last moment, but unless the deadline has passed, it’s easy to put it off. As a result, procrastinators would rather stay busy than actually get started on their work.
The first step is learning to accept that you do have control over your time and that you can make things happen. For example, if you just got started on a project but feel like there’s no way you will be able to complete it by the deadline, then don’t give up.
Instead, try to set a reasonable goal on how much you think you can achieve within the given timeframe.
What can perfectionists do about feelings of fear?
Like procrastination, perfectionism is often driven by fear. Fear of success, failure, or rejection can be paralyzing and stop perfectionists from doing anything. However, it’s only when they are faced with something that scares them that they develop any kind of courage. A perfect example is a famous experiment conducted by social psychologist Adam Grant. He had volunteers complete a public speaking task and then assessed their ratings of confidence in their own abilities.
Afterward, they were asked whether they would be willing to do the same thing again for strangers but with a lot more pressure. Some volunteers were asked to do it for an audience of strangers, while others were asked just to do it for someone watching from behind a one-way mirror.
Those who had done the task under public scrutiny were more confident about their abilities than those who did it anonymously.
What can perfectionists do about fear of failure?
Perfectionists often believe that, by being perfect, they will avoid failing. But this is only rarely true. Perfectionists usually fail to be perfect and, as such, they cannot learn from their mistakes. They don’t give themselves any chance to make mistakes, so they continue to feel as though they will always fail.
They fear that their self-worth is at risk if they make a mistake or fail to reach their goal the way they want to. It creates a self-fulfilling prophecy where perfectionists actually do fail because of their desire for perfection.
And yet, when people are encouraged to be less afraid of failure, ironically, they end up doing better. Research shows that we learn more from mistakes than from success and that we need to embrace failure in order to improve our performance.
One study involved participants who were asked to complete a series of tasks (like building a pencil tower). They were told that more errors meant they would receive a lower score. This meant they worked harder but made more mistakes. However, when the researchers told some of the participants that it was better to make more mistakes, they produced other structures with fewer errors and better performance overall.
The same thing happens to perfectionists. They make lots of mistakes because they are afraid of failing. But when they realize that mistakes are actually what teaches us and that they can actually learn from them, this makes them better at what they do.
Why Should I Seek Therapy for Perfectionism?
Perfectionism is associated with poor emotional regulation and mental health difficulties. Even a slight imperfection can be enough to lead a perfectionist to feel humiliated, embarrassed, and judged by their audience (or even themselves). This leads them to go into an avoidance mode where they avoid any form of risk associated with creating something new.
The solution to this avoidance is to confront your fears head-on. That means being comfortable with failure and disappointment. It’s also about learning to let go of the idea that you are perfect, accepting that you will make mistakes, and that life isn’t perfect.
The fundamental role of perfectionism is to make you a more creative and productive person. Perfectionists who embrace their mistakes and failures develop unique ideas, which lead to more original work that people will love.
The bottom line is this: perfectionism doesn’t help people be happier or more successful. Instead, it makes them feel bad about themselves, which leads them to procrastinate and avoid taking action. The only way forward is for perfectionists to overcome their perfectionism and find a healthier way of working.
If you’re a perfectionist, there’s no need to beat yourself up. It’s not your fault that you do this; you just need to learn how to look at this behavior in a more forgiving and compassionate way. And we can help by taking the first step towards accepting your imperfections as part of who you are, as well as learning how to stop beating yourself up and start treating yourself with more kindness.