How to Overcome Perfectionism

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Are you a perfectionist?​ Many people have traits of perfectionists and are even proud of them, but there are important differences between perfectionists and high achievers and being a high achiever is far better for your health and happiness.

If you have perfectionistic tendencies, it's vital to find strategies to get past them and move toward being a non-perfectionistic high achiever. 

Perfectionism can rob you of your peace of mind, enjoyment of life, and self-esteem. Though it’s a process that may take a little time and practice, shedding the burden of perfectionism can greatly decrease the level of stress you feel on a daily basis.

Important Distinctions Between Perfectionists and High Achievers

Before you delve further into strategies for letting go of perfectionism, it is important to remember the basics of what perfectionism is and is not; this can help you to stay motivated to make changes. Perfectionism differs from high achievement in one important way: where your focus lies. If you are striving for excellence, you can be happy about your achievements and learn from your mistakes.

Perfectionism is different in that the focus is less forgiving; perfectionists beat themselves up for anything that appears to be lacking, and this robs them of the satisfaction and pride that comes from all of the things that they do well. One of the most significant problems that perfectionists face is the fear that if they stop shooting for perfection, they will become low achievers and their goals will go by the wayside. Let this reassure you: Letting go of perfectionist attitudes can actually help you to excel more! 

Perfectionists actually achieve less than those with healthier attitudes, because their focus on perfection robs them of motivation and can bring on procrastination and other self-defeating behaviors.

With that said, here are some important steps you can take to maintain a healthier attitude.

Make a Cost-Benefit Analysis

Take a closer look at your perfectionistic traits. You may think you’re more effective because of them (although according to research, this probably isn’t true), but at what cost? Perfectionism has many negative consequences, and you may be experiencing several of them right now. Make a list of all the ways perfectionism is hurting you (and those around you), and you’ll be more motivated to shed these tendencies.

Become Aware of Your Tendencies

You may not realize how pervasive perfectionism can be. By becoming more aware of your patterns, you’re in a better position to alter them. If you’re able, it’s a great idea to record your perfectionistic thoughts as they pop into your head. If it’s impractical for you to jot thoughts down as they come, it’s a great idea to go over your day each night and remember the times when you felt you’d failed, or hadn’t done well enough, and write down what you thought at the time. This will help you become more aware of perfectionistic thoughts as they come to you in the future. (You can even journal about your feelings about these thoughts, but don’t feel you’ve ‘failed’ if you don’t have time to do this!)

Focus on the Positive

If you’re struggling with perfectionism, you probably have honed the skill of spotting mistakes in even the best works of others and of yourself. You may just naturally look for it, and notice it above all other things. While this habit may be difficult to just stop, you can soften your tendency to notice the bad by making a conscious effort to notice all that is good with your work and the achievements of others. If you notice something you don’t like about yourself or your work, for example, look for five other qualities that you do like. This will balance out your critical focus and become a positive new habit.

Alter Your Self-Talk

Those who wrestle with perfectionism tend to have a critical voice in their head telling them their work isn’t good enough, they’re not trying hard enough, and they’re not good enough. If you’re going to overcome perfectionism, you need to work on changing this little voice! Negative self-talk can perpetuate unhealthy behaviors and wreak havoc on your self-esteem; by altering your self-talk, you can go a long way toward enjoying life more and gaining an increased appreciation for yourself and your work.

Take Baby Steps

Perfectionists tend to set goals of unreasonable excellence with no learning curve. These goals tend to be unrealistic and cause problems by being so rigidly demanding and leaving little room for error. Instead, you can reduce a lot of stress by changing your goals. You don’t have to sacrifice the end result, but if you set bite-sized goals for yourself and reward yourself when you achieve them, you’ll tend to be more forgiving with mistakes. For example, you may normally tackle the task of getting into better shape by working out five times a week. Unfortunately, if you’re not used to working out regularly, you may get quite sore from such a quick change, and perhaps give up. But setting the goal to exercise once or twice the first week, and add an additional workout periodically until you’ve worked up to your goal, you will more likely reach your goal and enjoy many more ‘successes’ in the process.

Enjoy the Process

You may be used to focusing on results, and beating yourself up if your results are less than perfect. The previous suggestion (setting baby steps) can help you create more of an enjoyable process out of your striving. You can also enjoy the process of reaching a goal by getting involved with a group that is also trying to achieve the same goal you’re after or journaling about how you feel and what you learn as you reach toward your goal. If you find you don’t achieve perfection, you can then reflect back and see all that you’ve gained in just working toward a worthy goal, assessing and appreciating the gains you did make in the process.

One important way to recover from perfectionism is to begin focusing more on the process of reaching toward a goal, rather than just focusing on the goal itself.

Learn to Handle Criticism

If you tend to look at criticism as an attack, reacting defensively, an attitude change can help. Constructive criticism can give you important clues on how to improve your performance, making your less-than-perfect performances into useful stepping stones that lead to excellence. If the criticism you’re receiving is pointed or harsh, it’s okay to remind others (and yourself) that mistakes are a great way to learn.

1 Source
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  1. Hulme N, Hirsch C, Stopa L. Images of the self and self-esteem: do positive self-images improve self-esteem in social anxiety?Cogn Behav Ther. 2012;41(2):163–173. doi:10.1080/16506073.2012.664557

By Elizabeth Scott, PhD
Elizabeth Scott, PhD is an author, workshop leader, educator, and award-winning blogger on stress management, positive psychology, relationships, and emotional wellbeing.