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Ditch Perfect and Embrace Imperfection: Empowering Yourself to Overcome Perfectionism

Updated: Jun 16

A woman holding a sign which says "Perfectly Imperfect"


Unveiling Perfectionism: Exploring Its Impact on Your Mental Health and Wellbeing


Does your mind ever tell you the story that nothing you ever do is good enough?


Does it compare you to other people and tell you that you’re failing to come up to scratch?


Is it difficult to accept a compliment and perhaps you feel really uncomfortable when someone praises something that you have done?


Or maybe you find yourself striving for excellence in your work, relationships, or personal endeavours but never getting it quite as good as you’d like it to be?


If any of this resonates with you then you may well be experiencing perfectionist tendencies, impacting one or more areas of your life, which are robbing you of the joy and fulfillment we would all hope to experience through our endeavours and leaving you feeling stuck in a pit of self-doubt and dissatisfaction.


Living your life under such a weight of perfectionism can understandably take a toll on your mental health, leading to both anxiety and depression due to this pervasive sense of inadequacy that can permeate so many different areas of your existence.


If we can learn to embrace our imperfections with self-kindness and self-compassion then we can start to draw strength from being perfectly imperfect.


Understanding Perfectionism: Unpacking the Different Dimensions


Often perfectionism manifests as demands for excessively high standards that we place upon ourselves and this is called ‘self-oriented’ perfectionism. 


But it's not always the case that we only apply these impossibly high standards to ourselves - sometimes we find ourselves also applying them to other people too, and this is called ‘other-oriented’ perfectionism.


A man with a sad expression and the words "imperfect" and "retouch" written on his face to express his perfectionist persepctive

A third type is called ‘socially-prescribed’ perfectionism, which is when we feel pressure from others to attain impossible standards and can lead to us fearing that we will be judged negatively or rejected in some way for not coming up to scratch.


In previous posts, I've talked about unhelpful thinking habits and perfectionism can be linked to these, as it is a very rigid and black & white perspective which encourages us to focus intensely on mistakes and imperfections.


As I mentioned above, perfectionism can be driven by a fear of judgement or a fear of failure.


Equally, rather than being experienced as a fear-type reaction, it could be driven by an intense desire for approval; or even due to a need for a sense of control - particularly if we have a low tolerance for uncertainty.


It's important to note though that perfectionism isn't the same as striving for excellence or setting ‘stretch’ goals - these are part and parcel of healthy ambition, encourage growth and can be part of an individual's journey of development.


By contrast, perfectionism can become a barrier to growth and be detrimental to the mental health and well-being of the individual.


The Perfectionism Trap: Recognising Its Sneaky Manifestations


It's hardly surprising then that individuals who experience perfectionism tend to have heightened levels of stress and anxiety as a constant fear of falling short of expectations is bound to increase the pressure they're placing themselves under and potentially trigger episodes of worry.


Once that internal worry dialogue starts up, self-critical thoughts can start showing up. 


When we judge ourselves harshly for perceived mistakes or inadequacies it's an open invitation for our ‘frenemy' the self-critic to join the party.


What we're doing is layering our negative self-talk over the worry and this acts as a confirmation of the reasons our minds have given us for worrying in the first place.


Over time, this feeds into feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness, hitting hard on our self-esteem and feeding back into the perfectionism vicious cycle.


A cat with only one ear sitting contentedly on a wall to represent imperfection

When we are in the grip of perfectionism it can have a wide-ranging impact and can significantly influence our behaviours.


For example, if someone holds a fear that they're not good enough to meet the standards that they, or others, may have set themselves then they could be prone to avoidant behaviours and procrastination.


After all, if you never try doing the thing then no one will ever discover that you didn't do it well enough! 


That can seem like an effective strategy in the short term for relieving anxiety and stress, but in the long term it leads to missed opportunities, decreased productivity and effectiveness; it can also result in feelings of guilt and frustration.


We might also find that our effectiveness and productiveness are hampered due to a tendency to second guess ourselves and struggle to make decisions - it’s difficult to decide about something when we fear making a less than optimal (or even a completely wrong) choice.


For some people, this over-analysis can become almost paralysing and presents a significant barrier to progress and growth.


Another area that can be adversely impacted is that of your significant relationships - if you’re holding yourself and those close to you to impossible standards then it’s more likely to lead to conflict and resentment between you, particularly if communication becomes strained.


It can also be hard to properly connect with others if you’re fearful of them judging or rejecting you (even if that’s the last thing on their mind).  


One of the saddest things about perfectionism is that it steals your ability to enjoy the moment, or take pride in your accomplishments, because if all you can focus on are the perceived flaws or imperfections in any given situation then it will detract from any potential pleasure you may have gained from your successes; eventually, if it happens over and over, then it can start to seriously erode your overall satisfaction with life.


It’s an exhausting way to live!


Scrabble tiles, spelling out the words 'Done is better than perfect'

The relentless pursuit of perfection can result in compromising our wellbeing to the point of us pushing ourselves to both physical and mental exhaustion - BURNOUT.


Once we get to that stage then it’s not too much further to travel to start experiencing mental health challenges such as depression and anxiety, which are like the ‘common colds’ of mental health; but there are also links between perfectionism and problems such as OCD and eating disorders.


This is one of the reasons why when working through things in therapy it can be really helpful to map out and understand the processes that are involved in your particular challenges - knowing how perfectionistic perspectives are influencing your experience of anxiety, depression, burnout etc. is really useful for coming up with a treatment approach. 


From Perfect to Progress: Navigating the Perfectionism Trap


There are many tools that we can use to help ourselves break free from a perfectionist perspective, and the very first one is to actually notice that we’ve been caught up in that mindset in the first place.


After all, we can’t do something about something if we aren’t even aware of what that something is!


Regular mindfulness practice is a good way of developing our ‘observing mind’, that part of us that sees everything that is going on in the present moment but without any judgement.


It helps us to learn to become aware of the thoughts that automatically pop into our heads - some of which can be purely habitual - and also become more aware of our behaviours that are associated with having a perfectionism mindset (like the avoidance or procrastination that I mentioned earlier).


I am a huge fan of writing as a therapeutic tool; it’s not a coincidence that I am a blog writer - for me, this is a very therapeutic pastime and helps me process a lot of things and consolidate my own learning.


Journaling is another fantastic way of developing the ‘observing mind’ as reflecting on things that have happened, unpicking the underlying reactions that we had to situations, can help us to understand and recognise our own patterns and triggers of perfectionism.


Another helpful tool is, once you have identified your perfectionist thoughts, to see if there is a way of reframing them into something more helpful.


If we can show ourselves compassion in replacing unrealistic expectations with more balanced perspectives then we will be supporting ourselves with kindness towards a more helpful and healthy relationship with ourselves.


If that’s You talking to you in your head, then who is it listening?

It’s also You…just a different ‘part’ of you.


We have to listen to ourselves 24/7….there’s no escaping ourselves!


Imagine if you were being followed around by another person who was constantly telling you that you have to do better, it would be pretty awful.


Writing in wet sand, saying 'Love Your Flaws'

Again, this is where the ‘observing mind’ can help - tune in to that inner dialogue and just have a listen to how you speak to yourself.


Then experiment with changing the language that you’re using.


Some people find that having an affirmation or mantra can be helpful and a useful one for the perfectionist mindset is to remind yourself that:


“It is progress not perfection that counts”


The best progress is usually made in incremental improvements as opposed to going from zero to 100% in one big step.


As I’ve discussed in a previous blog post - it is important to celebrate each of the steps along the way and acknowledge your small wins…because each of those small wins comes together and contributes towards the ultimate goal at the end.


Another approach to managing perfectionism is to purposely make mistakes and do things imperfectly.


This can be very scary at first but if you can be brave and give it a go you may find that it’s actually very liberating.


It doesn’t have to be anything groundbreaking, especially in the beginning.


Start with relatively small things and build up.


For example, something I did myself was to purposely leave a coffee cup ring on a lovely notebook that I had been avoiding using because my mind was telling me that it was too beautiful for me to spoil it with my untidy handwriting.


Once the stain was there it was like the spell had been broken and I was able to quit procrastinating about using it.


As I’ve discussed above, stress and burnout can be a real issue when perfectionism gets a hold, so it’s really important to prioritise your self-care and develop stress management skills that you can draw upon as part of your toolbox.


Meditation and relaxation are great activities to help with this, along with any activity that is going to help you reduce chronic adrenaline and cortisol, such as a favourite hobby or connecting socially with your favourite people.


A common theme in my discussion has been that of self-compassion and kindness.


It is so important to have a compassionate stance towards ourselves when trying to overcome a perfectionist mindset - we often find that we speak to ourselves in a way that we’d never dream of speaking to someone else.


Try talking to yourself with the loving kindness that you would afford someone that you cared about, and see what difference it makes.


Conclusion: Embracing Imperfection - Your Path to Liberation from Perfectionism


So as we’ve seen, perfectionistic tendencies can have broad-ranging impacts on our daily lives; whether it’s in the sphere of work, social, home life, or all three, it can significantly contribute to feelings of dissatisfaction, on the mild end of the scale, through to mental health and wellbeing challenges at the worst end.


The antidote to perfectionism is to start to work on embracing imperfection whilst adopting a self-compassionate and supportive stance towards ourselves.


By shifting our focus from perfection towards progress, and celebrating all our small wins along the way to acknowledge the steps we are making towards positive change, we can start to improve our self-esteem and consequently our overall effectiveness, productivity and wellbeing.


The perfectionistic mindset is incredibly common, so please remember that you are not alone in your struggles and also remember the good news that this is something that you can work on to improve your quality of life and satisfaction.


CBT is a very effective strategy for helping you to learn how to reframe the perfectionism mindset, thus freeing yourself from the suffocating grip of unrealistic standards and self-criticism.


And ACT teaches you how to cultivate a more balanced and compassionate relationship with yourself, so that you can finally start to enjoy the credit that you receive for your hard work and dedication (in whichever part of your life may be relevant) without the burden of unrealistic standards holding you back.


Please reach out to me if you would like help in overcoming your problematic perfectionism!


'Broken Crayons Still Colour'

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