Overcoming Perfectionism: How It Harms You, & What To Do About It.
Updated: Sep 30
“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” - John Steinbeck
It really is incredible how hard we all are on ourselves. I see it over and over again with clients and friends, and I see it in myself; the standards and expectations we set for ourselves are quite literally impossible to meet.
And, on the rare occasion that we somehow do achieve the impossible, we take approximately 5 seconds to revel in it, feel good, and then we push the bar up even higher. No basking, no celebrating, just a note to self: “if this goal was achievable, then I should be asking even more of myself.” It’s brutal.
Perfectionism is a game we cannot win. It dresses up in disguises which make it appear useful and motivational. It usually arises at a young age, when constantly striving and appearing ‘perfect’ wins us the approval of parents, teachers, friends. For that reason, it tricks us into believing that we need it in order to be successful, that it pushes us and keeps us moving forward, doing more, being better.
It tells us that our feelings of insecurity and shaky self-esteem will improve if we just get there, to our impossible standards and goals. If we just push harder eventually we will feel better! But this belief is flawed, and it’s harmful. In fact, it’s making us feel worse. Because it’s a continuous message to ourselves that nothing we ever do is good enough. That we aren’t good enough. We are setting ourselves up for failure, and then berating ourselves for it.
Perfectionism robs us of our joy, our confidence, our feelings of success, our opportunities and ultimately, our happiness. It is a mechanism we developed to keep improving and growing and striving, yet which over time, paradoxically, begins to erode our self-belief and therefore causes us to be paralysed by fear, to hold back, and to turn down opportunities which we would excel at but which our inner narrative tells us we aren’t good enough for.
The truth is that we deserve better than this. We deserve better than every success being overshadowed by a new, bigger, tougher goal. We deserve better than the sinking, aching, debilitating feeling of not being enough, no matter what we do. And the good news is that this, unlike many obstacles out there in the world, is entirely within our control. We can change the narrative.
The key is to start shifting the internal conversation; to value ourselves for our inherent worth. To accept ourselves as we are, and not make our self-love or self-respect contingent on what we do or achieve, but just who we authentically are. It doesn’t mean we need to stop being self-reflective, or to stop seeking opportunities to grow and thrive, but just that we need to build a foundation of unconditional self-acceptance.
We need to stop saying “I will be good enough when…” and start saying “I am enough, exactly as I am, and I want to grow because I love and believe in myself and what I bring to the world.”
The first step is awareness; start noticing where and when perfectionism shows up in your life, what it says, how it feels. Remind yourself that your thoughts are not objective reality, they are just thoughts. They feel real because they are familiar not because they are true.
Once you have been able to observe these critical thoughts, once you can start to see their sneaky ways and identify the language they use to make you feel small and weak, then you can start to challenge them. When a negative thought arises, and you notice it, you have a few options:
You can try gently, respectfully, saying “thank you for trying to help me, but right now I don’t need you”, and then let the thought go.
You can stop the thought in its tracks, and replace it with positive thoughts about who you authentically are, about what you have already achieved.
You can write the thought down, and journal about it. Or try writing down 3 pieces of evidence that this thought isn’t true (or try the wonderful Byron Katie’s inquiry technique).
You can throw some humour and light-heartedness in there. Laugh at how your amazing, beautiful brain can come up with these ridiculous schemes which try to keep you safe and protect you from failure by stopping you from feeling or celebrating your successes.
You can give the inner critic a name, and a character, and start rolling your eyes when it shows up like a drunk and obnoxious dinner party guest, and show it the door.
Experiment, see what works, and stick to it.
You will not lose your edge, you will not stop growing, you will not lose all motivation and end up wasting your life and potential. You will just find another, happier, more fulfilling way.