Conquering Perfectionism: A Guide


Perfectionism in Redux

Cut by: Davita Cuttita

The last time I wrote about how my perfectionism was literally crippling me physically and psychologically, I took some time out to relax and try to get this thing in check. Also, reader Becky B was quite helpful by sending me tips and encouragement on how to deal so I’m going to pay it forward with this article and try to help my fellow perfectionists live a far less stressful yet, still insanely awesome life.

Being a perfectionist does not make you a bad person, OK? You are not bad for being a perfectionist. What is problematic about it though is how we tend to let our perfectionism get the best of us which usually results in physical, mental or social ills and when this happens, what do we do? Try even harder to make things perfect just the way we like them whilst shirking accountability for our actions and before we know it, we’re caught in a vicious cycle.

You don’t have to run in this hamster wheel forever so let’s talk about how we can get out of it because there is hope.

This piece is dedicated to all the perfectionists out there, past and present; who have fought or continue to fight hard against themselves and the boundaries of reality to achieve excellence.


Step 1: ADMIT IT
You don’t have to tell anybody if you don’t want too, but at least admit it to yourself. You can go to the nearest mirror, look at your reflection and say “I am a perfectionist.” Us perfectionists like to hold things in so at the very least, do yourself some justice and let that out. More importantly, let it go and ask yourself if you are ready and willing to make some positive changes. It is imperative that one realizes that mistakes are only a part of being human and if we did not make mistakes we would not be human…we would be…atoms floating through space or water molecules. Or rocks, I dunno. We just can’t exist without them.

Analyse what kind of perfectionist you are and find out how it may be negatively impacting your life or the lives of those around you. There’s no point in being a perfectionist if you’re too tired, too stressed, too passed out in a hospital, too depressed, too alienated from your loved ones or simply too dead from a heart attack or high blood pressure. The three types according to Psychology Professor Gordon Flett are as follows and you can click them for further information. I am definitely the first option! So are you…

Now that you have chosen what type of perfectionist you are, ask yourself how it negatively impacts your life. Do other people find your perfectionist habits annoying or constricting? Is it difficult for you to relate to or work with others? When you are supposed to be relaxing, do you find yourself instant replaying the day and its mistakes in your head or unable to stop thinking about work? Perhaps it is difficult for you to get a promotion or maintain social or intimate relationships because you seem “high strung” or unable to let go of the past. Maybe you even seem controlling, rude or cocky. On the other hand, maybe you’re exhausted, depressed, anxious, or frequently ill due to stress. I can definitely relate to most of the points I’ve listed. Are these negative effects worth what you are working towards?

When things seem to be spiralling out of control, ask yourself: Is this worth my health? Is this worth my loved ones being concerned and distressed because of my actions? Is this worth the comfort and happiness you or your loved ones have? Yes, sometimes it’s inevitable to experience the latter on the path to achievement but as perfectionists, we always define what we want and how we want it but never when it’s ENOUGH so long after something is complete, the effects still linger on and not in a good way either.

Look, perfectionist to perfectionist we both know bullshit when we see it. Let’s not kid ourselves here. However, what is the point of these achievements if you cannot enjoy them, let alone enjoy your own life? Once we start ruining ourselves over shit like a crooked photo or things that are printed incorrectly, things we can fix or things we cannot change, it’s time to enforce a new mode of being perfectionist that will benefit ourselves rather than drive us into an early grave or the psyche ward. Which leads us to our next step.

Do not panic! I find that when I make a noticeable mistake, I simply lose my shit—I can’t remember what I was doing, my chest hurts, I get nauseous and my head starts throbbing. Then it takes me even longer to complete the task at hand because my whole system is mush. Before this happens, LEARN TO COPE. Imagine how many mistakes happen in a day…now, times that amount by 365. If you’ve just shit yourself, you know that coping skills are important.

If your situation cannot be perfect, your coping skills can be and when you’re coping skills are well developed and you’re level-headed, you’ll find that fixing mistakes becomes easier, faster and more efficient thus POSTIVELY feeding your perfectionist urges while simultaneously being a kick-ass at damage control of all shapes and sizes. I like to be a smarty-pants and call this process “Substitution and Transference”.

So how do we cope? I like taking a couple of minutes to close my eyes, put my head down on my desk or wherever and take a couple of deep breaths. If it’s lunch time, I’ll even turn my ipod onto my quiet jams playlist, play my favourite tune (typically something by Bjork, Radiohead or Inuit throat singing) and take 15 minutes to breathe in time to the music slowly. If you’re pressed at work, take a five minute bathroom break. You probably don’t even have to go to the bathroom (I’d imagine the smells and sounds are not constructive to relaxation purposes unless you’re making them) but take that time to get your shit together as the more stressed you are, the harder it will be to work and the more mistakes you will make which will in turn, further stress you out in the future and hinder your progress. There are other things that one can do off the job to help cope as well. Some people like yoga, exercise, enjoying a hobby, listening to music, taking a long bath or taking a nap. Here are the big three:

1. Talk it Out: Talk about your problems with someone you care about and trust. (Note that I wrote TALK not TAKE, taking out your problems on someone else will not make your situation any better.)

2. Recognize Your Triggers: This one I got from Becky B. Sometimes as perfectionists we tend to put our suppressed emotions into the things we do rather than confront the problem itself head on as we fear there will never be a “perfect” resolution to them. For example, the more stressed I am the longer I take cleaning the bathroom; 30–45 minutes will suddenly become an hour or more as I try to get it “perfect”. Find out what triggers you and if there are any underlying issues behind your actions and confront them.

3. Never Say Never: This I got from Becky as well. Never run away from a bad situation–remain steadfast, strong and confront it! Look at the bigger picture and try rating it on a scale of 1–10. Put things into perspective in accordance with reality rather than your definition of perfection.

Nothing is the end of the world and responsible people anticipate mistakes happening and how to effectively deal with them. If they didn’t, nobody would’ve invented fire alarms, erasers, seat belts or hospitals. Leaving an institution with your life, position and the knowledge that you were productive that day should be your primary objective; many people aren’t so fortunate. As a matter of fact…

Sometimes part of being a good perfectionist is knowing when to look at a project and say “fuck it.”

Before we continue, let’s first define a good perfectionist. For one, they are alive. Next, they use their heightened sense of attention to detail, good work ethic and superb analytical abilities to make things better for themselves and for others. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness and at times will allow something to be done quicker and more efficiently. What if orders have changed or something has been missed? Asking for assistance helps to rectify problems and in some cases, decreases the amount of mistakes that can be made and if something goes wrong, it disperses the blame instead of having everything collapse solely upon your shoulders.

Have you ever been around another perfectionist? I once worked on a French presentation with a perfectionist and although we were both batshit insane at times, it helped me learn look at myself from the outside and learn what tendencies I have that may be annoying to others and stressful to me so it encouraged me to relax. It also helped me realize that the concept of perfection is quite relative: what I thought was perfect, she thought needed improvement and vice-versa so we had to work together and create a product and concept of completion based on a whole new blueprint of what we both thought was excellent. This required a lot of compromise and at the same time, respect for what eachother were capable of. The lesson is learned especially when said perfectionist is a different type from you but y’know what? We both got an A+ on that presentation.

Forgive yourself and if your perfectionism has negatively impacted others, be sure to apologize and make amends—neglecting to do so defeats the entire purpose of wanting to change in the first place. Remember: your goal needs to change from trying to make things or people “perfect” to making your perfectionism work for you in a positive, constructive, manner (because it can!).

We are PERFECTIONISTS! We’ve been expertly pre-programmed to make everything look easier than shooting fish in a barrel and as exquisite as the finest diamond. Never forget it and never, for a second let any asshole make you feel ashamed about it. I do not want to see my fellow perfectionists vilified by others, let alone themselves. I’m sure you’re sick of hearing the trite “OH, I KNOW YOU’RE A PERFECTIONIST BUT I CAN ONLY BE MYSELF BLAHBLAHBLAH”.

OK…and…you think I care because? I can only be myself, too.

You are not sick, mentally ill or the “bad” kind of weird and never let anyone make you feel that way because you are a perfectionist. There is nothing wrong with being perfectionist but you have to learn how to not let those standards become a destructive force towards yourself or others. Now that you know the negative side of your perfectionism, try to think of what is positive about it.

What good things have you achieved because you are a perfectionist? Surely, the people in your life do not love you *just* because you make excellent pie charts or are always on time for work; so ask them what they like about you and why. You’d be surprised that despite your mistakes, the people in your life may still think you’re perfect and wonderful anyway!

Next, assess and emphasize the positives of your perfectionism.

I get good grades because of my perfectionism. I get well paying jobs because of my perfectionism. I look neat, presentable and approachable at work and school because of my perfectionism which pays off as I meet more (hot) people and am recognized at work as a good employee. I am extremely polite because of my perfectionism which occasionally results in free items or a discount at a store (where none existed!). I am humbled by my perfectionism as I always see room for improvement and never become big-headed from compliments. I achieve my travel goals on time because of my perfectionism and have a blast on my vacations as I usually end up seeing and doing everything I want to do and am able to manage my time well.

What’s great about you? Maybe you’re super-good and more responsible than the average person at fucky-times or throw great parties; maybe your clothes and hair are always in good order, maybe the people at work know they can count on you to edit something or deliver a message. Maybe you never miss anniversaries or birthdays for friends and loved ones or are able to efficiently make time for cleaning, cooking or leisure while those around you are flustered and living in their own filth. Emphasize your positives and be mindful of all you have accomplished and continue to accomplish effectively as a perfectionist instead of brooding on past mistakes or things you cannot change.

It’s important that you find an outlet that works for you in order to keep yourself sane and learn to make your perfectionism work for you rather than destroy you. Find an activity that you know you can solitarily exercise your perfectionism in so it doesn’t spill over onto others who may not be so receptive. I LOVE being meticulous so I like doing word searches or following simple instructions such as trying out a new recipe that I can serve to friends and family. As I am an extremely meticulous housekeeper and pride myself on my domestic abilities just as much as my academic and social ones, once in a while or once a week, I might have what I call a “Lazy Day”. Since I sometimes just can’t stop cleaning or nit-picking, I’ll use this day as an oppurtunity to relax and do little to no cleaning at all (OK, except the kitchen because who wants dirty dishes and/or floors? Seriously!). Typically, I grab some take-out and just vegetate as much as possible in front of the TV, computer, etc. Try doing it with someone you care about and getting out of the house for a while, that makes it even better!

There is a TIME and PLACE for your perfectionism so learn when and what those are and don’t forget to bring your coping skills into play. There are a lot of us perfectionists out there; Michelle Obama, Arnold Swartzenegger, Colin Powell, Katie Couric, Trent Reznor and Chef Gordon Ramsay are just a few of our kind who are in the spotlight. Look at our world—all of it is the labour of people who at one point or another, either were perfectionists or had to exercise the power of perfectionism for good but at the same time; they had to cope with making mistakes, accepting those mistakes and moving on. So hold your heads high, fellow perfectionists! The difference between us and a non-perfectionist is that they take what they can get. What do we do? We get what we want and *make* what they try to get and there’s nothing they can do about it!

So take a deep breath, recognize your strengths and weaknesses, put things into perspective, be emphatic, make peace with yourself and others, learn to compromise and more importantly; learn to cope! Nothing is ever going to be perfect and perfection in and of itself is quite an abstract and non-quantifiable concept anyway so work hard, play harder and remember: nobody’s perfect but that’s OK. Without mistakes to learn from and take accountability for, we’d never become better people.

Special thanks to Becky B for helping to make this post possible and being a supportive fellow perfectionist. Thank you!!


~ by davitacuttita on March 1, 2009.

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