How to overcome unhelpful perfectionism and accept you are good enough

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What is perfectionism and when does it become unhelpful?

Striving for excellence is useful, and at times vital. However, there is a big difference between doing this in certain areas of your life and feeling that it applies to everything you do and are. This is when perfectionism becomes unhelpful and even damaging.

Unhelpful perfectionism is where you feel that whatever you do is never good enough. Where you feel that unless you are perfect (which is impossible), you are useless or unacceptable. Where you judge everything you do against some impossibly high standard you have set for yourself. Where you are super-critical, blind to the good bits and only focussing on the (often imagined or unimportant) errors. This can apply across the board - how you look, sound and behave as well as what you do or achieve.

It's not surprising that so many people fall into the trap of perfectionism. Right from the word go, you have been judged against a set of standards. Starting from SATs through to your degree classification. There has been a constant raising of the bar. For example, introducing A*s. Always some higher standard to aim for. Then the sense of failure or inadequacy if you don’t attain it. This feeds the idea that you must be perfect to be acceptable.

Unfortunately, it is not only about academic perfection or getting everything right at work. It can be how you look, dress, walk, talk. Social media doesn’t help as everyone presents their perfect image to the world – no matter how imperfect they might feel inside.

Do you recognise any of yourself in this? It’s probably been going on for a long time. It is pernicious as it deprives you of ever having a real sense of achievement or feeling good about yourself or what you have done.

Perfectionism can also lead to anxiety and low self-esteem as you are driven by the fear of not being good enough. The reality is probably that everyone else sees you as fine and often excellent. This might be hard for you to accept. This can lead to imposter syndrome, where you feel like a fraud, afraid of being ‘found out’ at any minute.

Procrastination is another by-product as you may put off doing things because they have to be perfect! This can be driven by fear of failure or rejection. It is all very complex.

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How to get out of it: some strategies

Perfectionism is a hard habit to get out of but it can be done:

  • Notice when you are doing it and gently challenge yourself; is this rational or reasonable?

  • Be aware of all or nothing thinking; there are lots of grey areas between 100% perfect and completely imperfect.

  • Focus on the successes, the good bits, the positives in what you do – there will be many more of them! Accept and believe praise. Allow yourself to enjoy your achievements.

  • If you feel bad because you think you have failed in some way, practice self-compassion. This will help you bear the feeling and arrive at a more balanced viewpoint.

  • Recognise when it is important for something to be faultless (and there will be times when this is the case, although fewer than most of us think) and when it is being driven by your inner perfectionism.

  • Don’t forget about the impact of your perfectionism on other people. Do you extend your unrealistically high expectations of yourself to other people?

  • Notice when you are reluctant to delegate as you feel only you can get something done to your impossibly high standards. This ends up giving you extra work – and makes those around you feel deskilled or useless. This can happen at work and at home.

Try to accept yourself just as you are. People usually love us because we are not perfect. Nobody is.

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