Preventing the Perfectionism Habit

Do you set high expectations for yourself and others? And how often do you feel you meet these expectations? How often do you feel others meet them? Of course, having high standards are both good and necessary to a productive life. But if you find yourself or others falling short most of the time, you might have a tendency towards perfectionism. And while having a slice of it can drive healthy innovation, boost product development, and help maintain a solid work ethic, the whole perfectionism pie can lead to avoiding risk-taking, higher levels of anxiety, and a deteriorating of quality of life.

What Perfectionism Looks Like

It’s worth exploring whether habits you’ve formed are contributing to a happy you or a stressed-out you. Myra Woolfson, of the University of Nottingham’s counselling service, says that often we chase after impossible perfection, and that “it’s a mission rooted in feelings of inferiority or the impact of bullying.” Some other sources of perfectionism could be pressure and the need to gain acceptance, which we pick up along the way from family, social groups, and educational institutions. What’s more, as some studies suggest, is that we may even get to pin some of the blame on genetics. Thanks, Great-Grandma. Whatever the root causes, perfectionism is holding us back.

Take Notice

It’s important to remember that there are both healthy and unhealthy forms of perfectionism. For example, doing the best you can with the time and tools available to you, setting goals and deadlines, and assigning tasks to others within a time frame are all behaviors with benefits. But some of the following behaviors may suggest an unhealthy perfectionism:

  • Being inflexible

  • Obsessing over mistakes

  • Feeling that your work is never good enough

  • Believing there’s only one way to tackle a task

  • Procrastinating due to fear of failure

  • Being overly cautious

  • Having a compulsive drive to achieve

Kick the Habit

So you’ve tipped the scales towards unhealthy perfectionism. Now what? Here are some strategies you can gently practice helping you manage the perfectionist tendency:

  • Practice positive self-talk

  • Engage in hobbies that are “just for fun” and non-competitive (including non-competitive with yourself)

  • Resist setting high, non-negotiable standards for yourself (and others)

  • Focus in on the process, not the result

  • Face small challenges that you’ve been avoiding due to fear of failure

  • Steer away from compulsive excellence

  • Nip procrastination in the bud by breaking up tasks into manageable chunks and taking on one part at a time

  • Develop a growth mindset which accepts mistakes and is flexible

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It’s the Kids

But what if you suspect you are raising a little perfectionist? Clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Dalhousie University Simon Sherry suggests that kids be given opportunities to face challenging situations for the sheer fun of it. “Allow them to accept failure and learn that it is possible to be imperfect and still have a good life.” Just as this is important for us adults, it’s crucial for kids to experience failure, risk-taking, and imperfection, and they can do these things through organized sports, music lessons, building, baking, climbing trees—anything requiring them to try something new. And the key takeaway here is that the importance of performance is de-emphasized in these activities; the point is not the end-result, but the journey through.

During those challenging times, be a calming presence by asking your child, “What is the worst thing that can happen?” This helps them frame scenarios and discover for themselves that it often isn’t as bad as they are imagining. Kids are looking to us as models. If our attitude embraces imperfection and we can laugh at ourselves, there is a good chance that we can foster this in our children.

Do Your Homework

If you want to work on your perfectionist habit, don’t wait! Start today. Break out your memo pad and free-write for 5 minutes. Grab some pencils and draw anything that comes to mind. Surprise your spouse or loved one with a spontaneous cooked meal (perhaps with the number for a great Italian take out if all goes not as planned…since you didn’t plan). Do something new and forget the perfect, finished product. Exercise your creative muscles and your willingness to forego perfection. I’ll bet that you’ll feel a lot happier for it.