Perfection: How to deal with the pressure to be perfect, avoid setting impossible standards

By Roy Chancey, LCSW, ACCFC | April 17, 2024

Perfectionism is a trap that we unwittingly set for ourselves. So, when does perfectionism become maladaptive? Ascribing to themes associated with inferiority, unworthiness, failure, and guilt constitutes maladaptive perfectionism. It masks overcompensating. Maladaptive perfectionism can be described as a trait involving extremely high performance standards and an obsessive concern over making mistakes. Studies show that individuals who have maladaptive perfectionism are less likely to enjoy pleasurable experiences, suffer from depression, and use coping skills such as disengagement, denial, somatic complaints, and projecting blame.

Rigid, rule-governed behaviors are the cornerstone of perfectionism. A compulsive desire to control, fix, and ruminate about a solution to avoid mistakes leads to our demise but also at other’s expense. One unfortunate byproduct of perfectionism is it invariably spills over into our relationships. A misguided need for others to meet this perfectionistic standard can be exhausting for both parties and lead to an increasing sense of resentment and bitterness. Friends, family, and colleagues can rarely meet these perfectionistic standards, thus alienating those we most need and adding to loneliness. For those who find mistakes intolerable, the unending desire for perfectionism is exhausting.

To avoid this trap, one must resist trying to change perfectionism. Radically Open DBT encourages clients to embrace their fallibilities rather than constantly attempting self-improvement. Therefore, the key lies in loving one’s shortcomings. Trying to eliminate perfectionism is accepting a belief that one is never good enough. In other words, the desire to rid yourself of perfectionism is an admission of being flawed. This can be an impossible task for a perfectionist.

Instead of trying to change your perfectionistic tendencies, loving and appreciating them is essential. Once you have achieved this, you are no longer trying to be free of making mistakes because this incessant striving has stopped, and, at this moment, you are not a perfectionist.

So, how does one manage perfectionistic tendencies? Radically Open DBT suggests the following:

  • Complete tasks without looking back over the details or double-checking your work
  • Practice being lazy or decrease excessive work behaviors (i.e., take a nap on the weekend, read something simply for entertainment)
  • Practice playing and developing hobbies or leisure activities that aren’t designed to improve you.
  • Spend a set amount of time to complete a task. If you’re unable to complete the task during the period, practice accepting the task can always be completed later.
  • Develop a sense of pride in being capable of letting go of rigid desires to work and in not always having to be right.
  • Practice the art of resting.
  • Practice being loose and relaxed, find ways to be less serious, and reward yourself for letting go of rigid desires to fix or solve the problem.
  • Practice making minor mistakes and watching the outcome, and notice that a mistake does not always mean something bad will happen; learning something new can often emerge from apparent mistakes.
  • Practice interacting with individuals who are different, less serious, or less work-focused
  • Stop “box checking”- Reward yourself for a job well done rather than automatically moving on to the next task.
  • When situations are ambiguous or uncertain, practice revealing your uncertainty rather than pretending to be in control.
  • Practice letting go of urges to tell another person what to do or how to manage a problem.
  • Practice confiding in others.
  • Decrease avoidance of situations where positive emotions could occur.
  • Decrease expectations that all grievances should be repaired or wrongs righted; notice the times you cannot fix or repair a situation despite your best intentions.
  • Practice trusting what others say and giving them the benefit of the doubt.

Being unwilling to let go of rigid beliefs inhibits change and is a form of avoidance. “Having but not holding” an emotion is a step towards being vulnerable and keeping perfectionism in check. Removing the lens of perfectionism challenges our perception of reality because we often “don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” Letting ourselves off the hook is no different than allowing ourselves to do the same for a close friend. We must see our imperfections as what makes us unique and honor who we are.

“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”- Leonard Cohen.

Author

  • Hillside Therapist – Residential Treatment Program - Roy has over 35 years of professional experience treating children, adolescents and their families in both residential and private practice settings. He has been a clinical director, consultant and trainer for numerous programs throughout the state as well as Alabama, Arkansas and New York. Roy is intensively trained in Dialectical Behavior Therapy and Radically Open DBT. Roy specializes in working with people clients who are “overcontrolled” and is one of Hillside’s most seasoned clinicians. On campus, he is known for his genuine warmth and great sense of humor. He lives in Atlanta with his family and has also co-authored several publications in professional journals.

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Current Version
May 2, 2024
Written By: Amy René, LCSW
Edited By: Brian Fenstermacher
April 17, 2024
Medically Reviewed By: Angie Hoke