Perfectionism: How to Manage Unrealistic Expectations

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When you think of the word perfectionist, what comes to mind first: A well-dressed person? A neatly organized desk? An immaculate house?

While the idea of perfection can be associated positively with incredible places and experiences, or even delicious food, a perfectionist is often depicted as a ridgid, yet somehow enviable, individual. This person usually isn’t much fun, even though they might look great or have the trappings of the so-called good life, like having a high-powered career and a bevy of accomplishments. 

Depending on the role perfection plays in your life, you might identify with this description. If this is the case, and you want to try to break out of the mental stuckness that comes from being obsessed with doing things flawlessly, read on. 

The following guide will break down perfectionism to explain what it really is, how people fall into perfectionistic thinking and how to ultimately free yourself from this mental trap. 

What is a perfectionist?

A perfectionist is someone who sets unrealistic expectations on themselves (or others) due to unusually high personal standards and an overactive inner critic. ​​Perfectionistic behavior might apply to every area of someone’s life, or just one facet of it. 

For instance, a perfectionist could be obsessed with looking a certain way and spend hours working out or practicing their beauty routine. Or, they could be overly concerned with achieving success at work, dedicating nights and weekends to clocking in extra hours. In some cases, perfectionists tend to focus on one task or activity to hone, like writing, cleaning or baking. 

There’s definitely a spectrum of perfectionistic self-presentation. Some perfectionists are self-promoting and will gladly show off their own flawlessness to others. On the flip side, there are also perfectionists who might downplay their achievements as a no big deal. Finally, there are those who try to conceal or avoid revealing their own imperfections. The way a person displays their own perfectionism affects their relationships and ultimately their own sense of self. 

Some perfectionists are able to laugh at themselves or not take themselves too seriously when they know they are being obsessive about certain things. But, for the most part, full-on perfectionists are too busy chasing excellence to have that kind of self-awareness. 

What causes perfectionism 

Perfectionism can be thought of as both a mental health issue and a personality trait. Psychologists tend to agree, however, that perfectionists are mostly made, not born, with perfectionistic concerns that lead to high expectations and over-achieving.

Like many other psychological disorders, perfectionism can have roots with a person’s family of origin. Perfectionists tend to believe that their self-worth is dependent on what they can achieve, what they have or what they look like. Oftentimes, perfectionists grew up with parents who criticized or  shamed them. Or, they may have had parents who had very high expectations of them. 

Perfectionism could also have been modeled if someone grew up with parents who were highly critical of themselves and then modeled these perfectionistic tendencies. Perfectionists also tend to have a fear or disapproval from others (or themselves), a deep-seated worry that can be paired with feeling inadequate and insecure. 

Perfectionism can present itself in different ways. Other types of perfectionism (outlined by psychologists in what is called the “multidimensional perfectionism scale” include: 

  • Self-oriented perfectionism 
  • Other-oriented perfectionism
  • Socially prescribed perfectionism 
  • Maladaptive perfectionism 

Self-oriented perfectionism is the one we usually think about. This is when someone is personally striving for flawlessness and is self-motivated to be perfect. Other-oriented perfectionism is, as you can guess, the belief that others should be perfect. These perfectionists are critical of other people who don’t live up to their high expectations. 

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Socially-prescribed perfectionism is when someone believes that other people expect them to be perfect (like a parent, a partner, a teacher or the social group they belong to) and they adjust their behavior accordingly so they can please that person or entity. Finally, maladaptive perfectionists combine setting unrealistic standards for one self with harsh self-criticism, creating a vicious cycle of low self-esteem and unmet expectations. Some call this “self-critical perfectionism.” 

Is perfectionism always harmful?

There is such a thing as healthy perfectionism—to a point. 

In small doses, perfectionism can motivate you to pay attention to detail or finish a task well. But when striving for perfection becomes obsessive, all-consuming or detrimental to your mental health, it can be harmful to your psyche—and even to your physical health as well.

Some major mental health problems are linked to perfectionism, including depression, anxiety, thoughts of suicide and obsessive compulsive disorder. Studies have also found that people who have perfectionist tendencies are more likely to have high blood pressure. When perfectionists have physical illness, they’re also less able to cope than people who don’t display perfectionistic behavior. 

For these reasons, having perfectionistic traits is more harmful for you than it is helpful. While it’s great to be self-motivating and detail oriented, going overboard with striving for perfection in any area of your life can be highly detrimental to young people or older folks alike.

Signs you may be a perfectionist

There are a number of signals to indicate that you are a perfectionist—or at least that you can fall prey to perfectionistic thinking from time to time about certain aspects of your life. Here are some of the more common traits that perfectionists share: 

All-or-nothing thinking 

Perfectionists are not flexible. They want whatever it is they’re doing to be perfect, or they don’t think the endeavour is worth embarking on at all. This results-focused mentality can take the fun out of any activity or project they tackle. Perfectionists believe that in order to be successful, they need to produce perfection, and nothing less will do. 

Being critical of yourself and others

Your inner voice can tell you a lot about yourself. Perfectionists tend to have harsh inner critics who weigh in negatively about their every move. This penchant for judgement can also be projected onto others. Perfectionists might hold other people to their high standards or be more disapproving toward others because they do this reflexively with themselves already. 

Having low self esteem

how to stop being a perfectionist
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Many perfectionists feel the need to prove themselves (to themselves and to others) because they simply don’t have a lot of self-confidence. By trying to be and do things perfectly and achieve success, they’re trying to make up for what they feel is inherently lacking within themselves. 

Feeling isolated

There’s a sense of loneliness associated with perfectionism—a perfectionist is a person who’s up on a pedestal, alone, looking down at others. Because their rigidity can push others away and strain friendships, perfectionists can feel isolated from other people and may not have many close relationships. This lack of intimacy within intimate relationships or other people can also make perfectionists more self-critical and worsen their already fragile sense of self, and can affect anyone from college students to older people as well. 

Unrealistic standards

Perfectionists expect excellence from themselves (and from others, in many cases). They see their own unrealistic standards as the only option, rather than seeing a nuanced selection of possibilities. This narrowed mindset makes them easily disappointed when situations and outcomes don’t go as they’d planned in their minds. 

How to overcome perfectionism

Getting perfectionism under control isn’t easy and it can take time and dedication. But the results of finding more peace in your life, stronger relationships with others and a higher sense of self worth makes working through perfectionism worth the work. 

Here are some ways to start: 

Go to therapy: 

Whether or not you’ve been to therapy before or have certain views of therapy when it comes to yourself, have an open mind. Seeing a therapist can help you work through complex emotions and behaviors, allowing you to find perspectives you wouldn’t be able to discover on your own. 

Traditional therapy is one option, as is cognitive behavioral therapy, which might be more beneficial for perfectionists. Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on changing patterns that don’t serve you and helping you find coping mechanisms as you work to solve these problems. And you don’t have to go in person if you don’t feel comfortable, with today’s technology you can also consult therapists through phone or video sessions. 

Become aware of your inner critic: 

Having the ability to pull back from your inner narrator is an important mental skill for everyone, but especially for perfectionists. Listen to your inner critic in order to understand where this narrator is coming from and why this is the voice in your head. 

This is where a trusted therapist can help you go deeper into this work, delving into issues ranging from anorexia nervosa or other mental disorders. Then, figure out a plan for what you can do when this voice starts talking and how you can avoid acting out because of it. Understanding, accepting and then releasing the sentiments from your inner critics is an important step toward healing. 

Try to apply realistic thinking: 

Getting over perfectionism means getting out of the negative and unachievable thought patterns you’ve been stuck in. So, how to be realistic when your brain says otherwise? To do it, you literally need to rewire the neural pathways in your brain so that you don’t stay fixed in your unrealistic thoughts. When you have a thought that’s over-the-top, be aware of it. Ask yourself how you can scale back that thought, feeling or idea so that it’s plausible, doable and grounded in reality. 

Learn to enjoy the process: 

Perfectionists tend to focus on the end goal, not the route they took to get there. As you work on a project, complete a workout or any other specific activity, challenge yourself to stay in the present moment. 

Focus on the five senses of what’s in front of you: what are you seeing, smelling, touching, feeling and hearing? When you immerse yourself in the here and now, you can start to pick up on the sensory pleasures of the process of what it is that you’re doing. This helps ground you and allows you to focus less on the outcome. 

Make compromises: 

Even though you might feel more comfortable in all-or-nothing thinking mode, work to find the nuances in your life. Look for opportunities where you can give a little, even in the tiniest ways, so that you can get comfortable with finding middle ground. 

Face your fear of failure: 

overcoming perfectionism
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To shake yourself out of perfectionist thinking, force yourself to try a new activity—especially one that you don’t think you’ll do well at. Sign up for a beginners yoga class, buy a canvas and some paint, take trapeze lessons. Whatever you choose, use the activity as an opportunity to practice failure. (Or, at least to get comfortable with not being the best at something.) 

Take baby steps: 

Perfectionists are also usually procrastinators as well. Because they are so afraid to fail, they can have a hard time even starting something. When you’re feeling stuck, try to do one small thing in the right direction toward completing the project, assignment or what have you. Maybe it’s writing a paragraph. Maybe it’s outlining the introduction to a presentation. Whatever the task is, divide it into management chunks so you can make slow and steady progress. 

Perfectionism is not a behavior, it’s a way of thinking

In the end, perfectionism is not performative. Perfectionistic tendencies start—and end—in the mind. When you can break down your inner critic and understand the voice behind it, you can start to overcome perfectionism. This voice will likely always be with you but with practice you can determine how loud that voice gets, and choose whether or not you’ll listen to it. 

If it helps, thinking of ending perfectionism as an act of altruism. Ending your own perfectionism will help you mentally be your best, healthiest self but it also helps lighten the pressure on others around you. 

When we can break free of unrealistic standards, both self-imposed and socially-prescribed, we give the people around us permission to be free of those unrealistic expectations, too. This helps create a community of acceptance where we can lift each other up and feel freer to be who we really are. 

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