How to Make Perfectionism Work For—Not Against—You
How many times have you said “that’s perfect!” without realizing it?
It’s a word we throw around so much that its meaning has been watered down by our everyday conversations. Cupcakes can be perfect, days can be perfect—weather can even be perfect.
But something shifts when we use the word to describe other people or our own actions. Suddenly, the word comes with pressure and expectations.
That feeling of perfectionism in people—the state of refusing to accept anything other than perfect—is on the rise. A 2018 study of students from the United States, Canada, and the U.K. found that from 1989 to 2016, self-oriented perfectionism (our internal desire to be perfect) increased by 33 percent, according to the Atlantic. Other-oriented perfectionism (our desire for other people to act perfectly) also increased by 16 percent.
But is there any good in perfectionism?
Yes—if we steer ourselves towards the helpful kind of perfectionism. Experts boil perfectionism down into two kinds: maladaptive perfectionism and adaptive perfectionism.
Maladaptive is when we have perfect expectations—and beat ourselves up if they don’t come to fruition. It’s directly correlated with self-consciousness, depression, and anxiety.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have adaptive perfectionism. This is having those same high expectations—but showing yourself grace if the standards aren’t reached. It’s a healthy boost that translates into realistic goals and something to strive for, without self-shame if it doesn’t come to fruition. Students, for example, who have high adaptive perfectionist tendencies, often set high (but realistic) expectations for themselves and succeed at higher rates.
Coming from a place of adaptive perfectionism can help boost your motivation, but it can be hard to find a balance between maladaptive and adaptive perfectionism—especially considering it’s nearly impossible to be faultless 100 percent of the time.
But psychologists in Australia have uncovered what exactly can ease the link between perfectionism and depressive symptoms: self-compassion. Their research showed that participants who practiced more self-compassion “undermined the effects” of maladaptive perfection tendencies.
Those moments of self-compassion can look different for a lot of people. Here are some ways you can inject self-compassion into your day to combat any negative perfectionist tendencies.
1. Level up to an ‘achievement oriented’ mindset
You can test if your perfectionism is helpful by asking yourself: Do I have an "achievement oriented" or "failure oriented" mindset?
Achievement oriented perfectionism is similar to adaptive perfectionism. Those who fall into this category focus on positive aspects of “how they set goals, how they feel about work, and how they respond to setbacks,” according to neuropsychologist Theo Tsaousides, Ph.D.
Simply put: Achievement oriented perfectionists set their sights on what they can gain instead of what they stand to lose. For example, Tsaousides explains, wanting to win the race is achievement oriented while not wanting to lose the race is failure oriented.
The next time you have a big goal, try taking a moment to reflect on your path towards achieving it and take a second to examine the way you think about it. Is it with the journey in mind or attempting to dodge failure?
Finding ways to frame your goals or setbacks with success in mind—and keeping your hustle in that lane as much as you can—can help reframe some of your perfectionist tendencies for the better.
2. Keep a gratitude journal—for yourself
Taking time to see your strength on a daily basis can help you view yourself in a kinder way. You do a lot, every day! Writing it down in one place can shine a light on all your achievements, big or small.
Find at least 1 thing to be grateful for every day this week, and write it down somewhere. Once you’ve collected a week’s worth, take a moment to reflect on all the ways you’ve grown and conquered your days.
3. Switch up your self-talk
On days that you find yourself murmuring negative things about the way you gave a presentation or how you presented yourself in a conversation, take a moment and pause. It may take some practice noticing these tendencies we all have to talk down to ourselves, but pausing that inner-conversation and reframing those thoughts into positive affirmations can help you push through moments when the perfectionist in you is trying to get a word in. Don’t let it steal the mic!
4. Treat yourself like a friend
Friends don’t let friends feel guilty, not take care of themselves, get down about personal achievements, etc.—so you shouldn’t allow yourself to feel these things either.
Give yourself permission to treat yourself like you would treat others. Forgiving yourself and being your own BFF has its own perks too—like an overall boost in happiness and health.
5. Find a mantra—and repeat it
Harness the power of a mantra by cultivating one that is aligned with your values and whipping it out in times of need.
Maybe it is as simple as “I am confident and capable as I am” or as complex as Wonder Woman’s “I am Diana of Themyscira, daughter of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. In the name of all that is good, your wrath upon this world is over.”
Throwing a mantra (or a few!) into your self-compassion tool kit can help make dark moments a little brighter.
Walking that fine line between maladaptive and adaptive perfectionism can be tiring. Show up for yourself with forgiveness and self-compassion, and you’ll soar without the pressure of perfection weighing you down.
Read next: What We Forget When We Talk About 'Me Time'
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