The Pitfalls of Perfectionism – And How to Overcome Them

I’ll never forget the first time I received my first “C” in school. I was a 19-year-old sophomore in college, struggling through Statistics. My professor had just finished passing out our midterm grades, and as she began her lecture, I felt a surge of disappointment pass through my body.

The red “C” on my paper was glaring at me as I tried to breathe normally and tell myself that other people received C’s all the time. However, I was unable to take comfort in that thought and convinced myself that I had failed. I begrudgingly called my parents after class to tell them the news, but to my confusion, they chuckled. They assured me that they loved and supported me, and weren’t disappointed.

In hindsight, my breakdown in class seems absurd – but the visceral reaction I experienced after seeing that “average” grade was genuinely overwhelming. Thinking back on that memory, I realize that my constant strive for perfection was detrimental to my physical and mental health.

The Journal of Counseling Psychology refers to perfectionism as a personality trait characterized by “a tendency to feel that any less-than-perfect performance is unacceptable.” As explained by one university counseling center, perfectionists frequently experience “fear of failure” or “disapproval,” and are wary of “making mistakes.” Guilt and self-criticism are common consequences of perfectionist attitudes, as are disorders like depression and anxiety.

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In his book, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, David Burns describes the thinking, or cognitive distortions, behind perfectionism. Among 10 common distortions are “all or nothing thinking,” “mental filtering,” “discounting the positives,” and “labeling.”

All or nothing thinking is the belief that outcomes are black or white, with no middle ground. In perfectionists’ case, there is only success or failure. Mental filtering is the process by which individuals overemphasize negative events or actions. Discounting the positives refers to a general disregard for one’s accomplishments. Labeling involves association with one’s flaws or limitations, which often leads to blanket statements like “I’m a loser.”

Unfortunately, perfectionism is a prevalent issue among a variety of people, including but not limited to students and professionals. From putting pressure on oneself to receive straight A’s, to working hard to please superiors in the office, individuals go to great lengths to impress those around them. But when people strive – and struggle – to be flawless, they often do so at the expense of their mental well-being. Studies show that perfectionism actually hinders success, as it results in low self-esteem and the setting of unrealistic and unattainable goals — which contribute to feelings of failure.

Luckily, there are many strategies to overcome the plague of perfectionism. Here are a few:

1. Recognize that perfectionism is harmful to your health. Understanding the health implications of perfectionism is a compelling reason to confront and conquer it.

2. Do your best to refrain from comparing yourself to others. This is easier said than done, but realizing that everyone has unique strengths – AND WEAKNESSES – will help minimize some of the pressure you put on yourself. When you put others on a pedestal, you can fall into a pattern of trying to equal them. Once you realize that everyone has flaws, and that you bring something to the table that others don’t or can’t, you will be less likely to beat yourself up over mistakes.

3. Develop realistic goals. Reflect on previous successes and use them to come up with future objectives. In other words, set goals based on the skills and experiences you have.

4. Focus less on details and more on the “big picture.” Take time to reflect on your actions and where they fit into the bigger scheme of things. This will help you set priorities for yourself, and reduce anxiety over minuscule details.

5. Learn from your mistakes. We all make them, but mistakes can always be turned into lessons for self-improvement. Use them as such!

Ironically, perfectionism has its pitfalls, but it is something that we can all triumph over. With a bit of training, we can actually find peace in our imperfections.

Carimah Townes

photoContributing Author

Carimah Townes is a Special Assistant for ThinkProgress. She received a B.A. in political science from UCLA, where she also studied cultural anthropology. While in school, she served as a festival planner and interned with the Office of Mayor Villaraigosa. Before joining ThinkProgress, she worked for the National Center for Lesbian Rights and interned with the Communications and Development teams at Vital Voices Global Partnership.

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