Perfection: How to deal with the pressure to be perfect

By Roy Chancey, LCSW, ACCFC | August 11, 2023

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 constitute 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 ruminating about a solution to avoid mistakes lead to our own 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 also meet this perfectionistic standard can be exhausting for both parties and leads to an increasing sense of resentment and bitterness. Friends, family, colleagues can rarely meet these perfectionistic standards thus, alienating those we most need in our lives and adding to a sense of loneliness.  For those who find mistakes intolerable, the unending desire for perfectionism is exhausting.

In order to avoid this trap, one must resist trying to change perfectionism. Radically Open DBT encourages clients to focus on embracing their fallibilities rather than making constant attempts for self-improvement. Therefore, the key lies with 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 and this  can be an impossible task for a perfectionist.

Instead of trying to change your perfectionistic tendencies, it is essential to fully love and appreciate them. Once you have achieved this, you are no longer trying to be free of making mistakes because this incessant striving has stopped and, in 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, and if you’re unable to complete the task during the time 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 and find ways to be less serious, reward yourself for letting go of rigid desires to always fix or solve the problem.
  • Practice making minor mistakes and watching the outcome, and notice that a mistake does not always mean that 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 always 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 are not able to 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 also 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”.  To let ourselves off the hook is no different than how we would freely allow 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.

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  • 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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