The pursuit of perfection has its flaws.
Many of us strive for the perfect house, the perfect relationship, the perfect body, or the perfect career, but is it really a good thing? “Nobody’s perfect, but perfectionists want to be that person who is,” says Gordon Flett, PhD, professor of psychology at York University in Toronto and specialist in the role of perfectionism in psychopathology. All that pressure gets exhausting, and may lead to chronic stress, anxiety, depression, and lack of self-acceptance, he says. When your inner control freak takes over, here’s how to let it go.
1. Keep Your Focus
Having things “just right” may seem like a good thing, but striving for perfection can actually hurt our ability to accomplish our goals, Flett says. In fact, he says there is no strong link between perfectionism and higher achievement. When we’re trying to be perfect, instead of focusing on the task, we get derailed and lose focus because we’re too worried about making a mistake.
Solution: Set a small goal, finish it, and leave it behind you. Perfectionists tend to drag things until the very last minute before they let them go, or dwell on minor corrections, Flett says. While a major project can be overwhelming, focusing on mini goals can help you stay productive, without the fear of messing up in a big way.
2. Open Up to Others
The connection between trying to be perfect and ending up being lonely is strong, Flett says. When you always expect negative feedback, or can’t handle your mistakes, it isolates you, especially when you avoid social situations. “Perfectionists are pretty hard on themselves in terms of not cutting themselves some slack,” he says. “They tend to find any way to beat themselves up.”
Solution: Instead of suffering alone, give up the front that everything’s fine. Talk to your friends or co-workers about what you’re struggling with and work together to find solutions. That may mean letting someone else take charge, or asking your partner to share household responsibilities.
3. Don’t Pass It On
“Some people tend to take things out on others under the guise that they’re improving peoples’ lives,” Flett says. They’re willing to tell people what is wrong with them, and often set unreasonable goals for others (especially in relationships), he says. Demanding perfection from our relationships plays a major role in marital problems and dating difficulties.
Solution: Ease up. Instead of focusing on making someone else perfect, reflect more on what you’re feeling. Are you projecting your insecurities onto your partner? Rather than nitpicking, focus on what you can control, Flett suggests.
4. Accept Imperfection
“We get our standards from idealized ways that things should be, but if perfectionism is so part of your identity, what’s left when you remove it?” Flett says. Learn to be okay with imperfection by reassessing how you react to the little things, like smudged mascara or spilled paint. These minor incidents shouldn’t ruin your attitude or day. Try these tips from Flett to learn to accept that things won’t always be perfect:
- Have a day full of (little) mistakes. The psychologist Albert Ellis used to recommend that his patients go out and make mistakes, intentionally, in order to break perfectionist habits. Try to avoid touching up chipped nail polish, purposely hang a picture frame lopsided, or spend half as much time picking an outfit in the morning than you normally do.
- Share embarrassing stories with your kids. Kids love to hear about their parents’ pitfalls, he says. So describe a blooper moment to your children, and laugh it off together. Plus, you’ll teach kids that people don’t need to be perfect.
- Try a breathing exercise. Studies show that perfectionists do not always practice mindfulness. “We can train ourselves to relax to avoid upsetting patterns of thinking,” Flett says.
The Bottom Line
Our imperfect moments can be our most defining. “Learning how to accept oneself and accept other people is essential for life,” Flett says. When we lower the pressure a little bit, it can be more satisfying to go for excellence, not idealism. “Embrace the ‘ideal’ of imperfection, it’s unique!”