I view myself as a recovering perfectionist.
Growing up, you could have spotted me as a perfectionist from a mile away.
I got straight A’s (mostly) in school, took Advanced Placement (AP) classes, was enrolled in various clubs, and was married to gymnastics. I was so invested in my gymnastics marriage that I earned a full scholarship to compete at a Division I university.
Just prior to starting college, I sustained a career-ending injury. I was on the team for a year but didn’t end up competing. I walked away from gymnastics the summer after my freshman year.
And boy did it free up my time. After years of practicing gymnastics 25 hours per week, I felt like I could do anything. I had so much free time, it was overwhelming.
I went through college and graduate school balancing multiple jobs, social activities, extracurriculars (including coaching/consulting and traveling with various sports teams), and my studies.
That was the honeymoon phase. I felt like I could do anything and I showed no signs of slowing down. My perfectionism was getting me everything I ever dreamed of.
Until the other shoe dropped.
I didn’t feel the downside of my perfectionism until starting my Ph.D. In academia, you are constantly confronted with failure. You are learning brand new skills, your journal articles get repeatedly rejected, and the demands between studying, therapy, and research easily add up to 60+ hours per week — some weeks I was clocking 80 hours. I was just learning therapy on top of everything and was constantly reminded by professors that I was a beginner, that I knew nothing, that I couldn’t be trusted to give advice or consultation.
For a perfectionist who had previously excelled at everything, these were cruel blows. I failed an exam for the first time in my life, I moved across the country with no social support aside from my boyfriend, and I felt intense shame for the first time.
I felt paralyzed. Perfectionism had given me many things that I valued — determination, grit, achievements, and praise from others. But it took all of that away once I finally confronted failure. I was constantly working, consistently pushing myself to the breaking point. I chose work over things that were more important to me like social time with friends or reading my favorite books. I experienced high levels of burnout, fears of failure, and high levels of shame and guilt. My fear of failure made it almost impossible for me to start projects or produce anything that I felt was short of perfect.
Perfectionism not only kept me stuck, but it constantly told me I wasn’t good enough. It edged me out of my social life until perfectionism was my only comfort. It beat me down until I had nothing else left.
I realized that I needed out of this relationship.
How to decide if you’re ready to break up with perfectionism
Perfectionism is a hard partner to shake. After many failed attempts, I realized I couldn’t leave perfectionism until I was ready.
Are you ready to break up with perfectionism?
Make a pro and con list.
Perfection has given you some benefits — otherwise, you wouldn’t have developed perfectionistic tendencies! But perfectionism has a downside.
It’s important to both acknowledge what perfectionism has given us over the years and what perfectionism takes from our lives.
When I look at my list, it looks something like:
Pros: High achievement; high motivation; goal-orientation; praise from others.
Cons: Unrealistic standards of myself and others; being critical of people I love; fear of failure; feeling paralyzed and stuck; procrastination; difficulty making decisions; not taking appropriate risks; motivation to avoid failure rather than to accomplish personal goals; crushing anxiety; feeling like my efforts are never good enough; feeling like I’m not good enough.
My list is pretty clear. There are a lot more cons to perfectionism than there are pros. But maybe your list looks more evenly matched. If that’s the case, you’ll want to mark points on your list that align with your values.
For example, I highly value family and friends. A con on my list is that my perfectionism makes me critical of people I love. Because that corresponds to a value I hold, I’ll want to weigh that con more heavily when I go to make a decision. It’s not about the number of pros and cons on the list, but about balancing what’s most important to you.
After you’ve made your list, decide if perfectionism is working for you. Is it worthwhile for you to continue down this path? Does your perfectionism feel like it’s taken more than it’s given you?
Break up with perfectionism
You’ve completed your pro/con list and you might be ready to break up with perfectionism. Here’s how to do it.
Confronting your perfectionism can feel like an insurmountable task. When we fear failure, the idea of putting ourselves out there and not knowing the outcome is absolutely terrifying.
But the alternative is worse. The alternative — that you’ll be overworked, criticized, and stuck—sets you back before you even start.
Here are the ways that I’ve learned — through both personal experience and my training in clinical psychology — to break up with perfectionism.
Call perfectionism on its shit
When perfectionism shows up, call it out.
When I notice myself getting caught up in perfectionism or fears of failure, I simply say “Ok, I see that my perfectionism is showing up right now,” or “Wow, that thought was a perfectionistic thought,” or “Oooh, my perfectionism is making it difficult to write right now.”
This works on a few different levels. It first allows us to simply notice when our fear of failure is keeping us stuck. Secondly, it helps us separate the perfectionism from ourselves. Rather than saying, “I am such a failure,” I can say “My perfectionism is telling me that I’m a failure right now.” That small shift in language makes a big difference in how I feel.
Most of us don’t choose to be paralyzed by perfectionism. So separating it from ourselves can signal that our perfectionistic striving is not our fault. It can also provide relief. When we separate the perfectionism from ourselves, we create breathing room.
You can take it one step further. Think about what would happen if you keep going down the route of perfectionism.
Personally, perfectionism was leading me to sleep deprivation, self-loathing, and loneliness.
It’s easier to avoid engaging in perfectionism if we can link it with consequences. When I’m deciding whether or not to stay awake all night to finish a project, I notice my perfectionism is leading to sleep deprivation and it’s really not helpful to me. Linking the perfectionism with its consequences makes it so much easier to put the work down and go to sleep.
Think about where perfectionism is leading you. Does that path feel consistent with the life you want to live? Or do you want more for yourself?
What would need to change in your life to avoid those consequences? Do that instead.
Challenge your expectations
People with high levels of perfectionism can have extremely high, rigid standards. But most of us would never impose these standards on other people.
Have you ever heard of speaking to yourself as you would speak to a friend? Try that strategy, but apply it to expectations. Set your expectations like you’d set expectations for a friend.
Do you expect your friends to be absolutely perfect and never mess up? No. When they mess up, what do you tell them? You say, “Wow that sucks, but you’ll get them next time.”
Do that for you.
Take your expectations to the level you’d take them for a friend. Realistic, yet flexible. Determined, but fair. More balanced.
Adjust unhelpful rules
Perfectionism thrives on rule-following. But perfectionists take rules to the extreme.
For example, early in life, we are taught that working hard leads to success. Perfectionists who take this to the extreme may think they’ll never be successful if they don’t “work hard.” And then they take working hard to the extreme. To a perfectionist, “working hard” is working relentlessly until you drop. And “try your best” means packing your schedule with so many extracurriculars that there is no time left over for fun or sleep.
These rigid rules are unhelpful ways to live.
Think about what rules you’ve been carrying that are perfectionistic and unhelpful.
Here are some examples:
Failure is not an option
I always need to try my best
I can’t rest until all my work is finished
The problem with these rules is they take effort to the extreme. Rather than saying “I always need to try my best" try adjusting that to “I try my best and take care of myself” or “I want to try my best but it’s okay if I fall short of goals sometimes.”
Practice adjusting your rules to be less extreme. Give yourself some breathing room.
Practice grey-area flexibility
Perfectionism lives in black-and-white. It tricks you into thinking there is only right and wrong, black and white, with no grey area.
We all know that’s bullshit. The world exists in a grey area. There are very few questions I can answer without saying “it depends.”
When you're about to do something, identify the black and white of that action. Next, identify the grey.
For example, I have a project due, it’s 10:00 pm at night, and I need to get to sleep before work tomorrow. I’m trying to decide how much time to spend on this project. The black and white of this decision-making process would be to either 1) avoid the project and not do it at all, or 2) spend hours on the project until I get it just right, regardless of how much time it takes — sleep be damned. Both of these options appeal to perfectionism, but neither of these options sounds great to me.
The grey area is to set a timer, work on the project for an hour to get most of it completed, and then go to sleep. The grey area is to work on the project until it’s good enough and submit it.
Whenever you’re making a decision, find the grey area. This challenges the rigid black-and-white of perfectionism and helps you live in the grey area.
The black-and-white is where we drown. The grey area is where we thrive.
Finally say goodbye
Saying goodbye to perfectionism is hard. It takes several tries and repeated effort.
There will be times when perfectionism sucks you back in. But the more you question if perfectionism has your best interests in mind, the more you realize how unhelpful it is for your life.
You can finally break up with perfectionism for good by following these steps. First, call perfectionism out on its shit. Challenge your expectations and rigid rules. And work to be more flexible by finding the grey area.
These steps turned my life around.
Life after perfectionism
My life completely embodied the pursuit of perfectionism until I decided it was time to break up. For good.
Now I enjoy the freedom to choose between work and caring for myself. I’ve increased the time I spend doing activities I enjoy like reading, watching TV, and hiking with my husband and dog. I make time for rest even when I have urges to work harder.
There are definitely some downsides. My life at times feels a little more disorganized. I still fear failure when I complete a project that isn’t up to my perfectionistic standards.
But it sure beats the alternative — beating myself up every time I make an error, setting expectations so high that I’m bound to fail, and pushing away people I love because my perfectionism demands too much of them.
I’m able to balance my career ambitions while taking care of myself. It’s possible.
And it’s so freeing.