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Perfectionism: What to Do When Its a Problem


Perfectionism: What to Do When Its a Problem

Do you feel like you’re never good enough at what you do?

Do you often put off finishing papers or projects, waiting to get them just right?

Do you feel you have to give 110 percent on everything or else you’re a failure or people will think less of you?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, wanting to be perfect may keeping you from living a happy, fulfilling life. Instead of working toward realistic goals, you may be setting goals that are impossible to reach.

Perfectionism is often mistaken as desirable or even necessary for success. However, people who have perfectionist tendencies often get in their own way—perfectionism can actually take away your feelings of personal satisfaction and cause you to achieve far less than those who have more realistic expectations.

How Long Has This Been Going On?

Maybe you learned as a child that other people valued you because of what you did or achieved. As a result, your self-esteem may be based on what others think of you or on external standards of good or bad, like the grade you earned on your test. This way of thinking can lead to the problem of perfectionism.

There are a number of beliefs and patterns of thinking that are associated with perfectionism:

  • Fear of failure
  • Fear of making mistakes
  • Fear of disapproval
  • All-or-nothing thinking, a tendency to view things as either all right or all wrong
  • Overemphasis on “shoulds,” or rules for how things ought to be
  • Mind-reading, believing you know what other people are thinking
  • Ignoring the positive, discounting good things
  • Imagining the worst-case scenario, a tendency to magnify the negative

What’s Wrong with Being Perfect?

Perfectionist thinking creates a vicious cycle in which you fear criticism and then create high standards to avoid it. The more impossible it is to reach your goals, the more you criticize yourself for failing to attain them. And the more you criticize yourself, the worse you feel about yourself. So how do you break the cycle?

Time for a Change

Start by setting goals for yourself that are attainable, manageable—and healthy. Below are eight solid strategies that can help keep your perfectionist thinking in check.

  1. Take a large goal and break it down into smaller daily or weekly tasks that are achievable. Be realistic about what you can accomplish within a specific time frame. Base your goals on your wants and desires and what you have done in the past.
  2. Set your goals in a sequential manner so that you can build on what you have learned.
  3. Experiment with not being perfect by varying your standards for success. For example, do something with a goal of 75 percent success. See what happens and focus on the outcome of your less-than-perfect accomplishment.
  4. Focus on the process of the activity instead of the final result. Look at what you accomplish along the way instead of what happens in the end.
  5. Look at your anxiety and see how it’s contributing to your perfectionism.
  6. Think about the many positive things or learning opportunities that come from making mistakes. The greatest scientists, authors and sports figures make mistakes—and learn from them.
  7. Address your destructive thought patterns. There are many different ways to look at a situation, problem or goal. Experiment by looking at all sides of a problem and learn to break your own rules.

After you try these strategies, consider talking with a counselor at the Counseling Center if your perfectionism remains unmanageable or you need help resetting your standards. A counselor can help you turn your perfectionism into healthier ways of thinking and feeling.