Perfectionists use rules and assumptions to pursue high standards.
We don’t want to get rid of standards, they are useful in working out where we want to go and what we need to do to get there, but when they are rigid and unrealistic they can block us from moving through the steps to get somewhere. Anything less than perfect feels like failure and it's the perfect recipe for 'imposter syndrome'.
Strategies often suggested:
- Learn to recognise it
- Alter your self-talk: you are good enough
- Set smaller goals and take small steps towards them
- Learn some techniques to manage anxiety
- Compare yourself to you, not to others
- Talk to people or reach out to others to share your experience
- Accept that self doubt is part of being human and no one is perfect
Below you will find three common blocks (barriers and misconceptions) that slow down our progress when dealing with perfectionism.
My high standards will make me successful
If we blindly accept unrealistic high standards for ourselves and others, then we accept the idea that everyone thinks this way and has the same expectations as we do, thereby putting even more pressure on ourselves to perform to our high standards. If we don’t meet our high standards we feel even more negative about ourselves, thinking that other people would have met these standards.
Credits: animation by James Gleeson-McCoy.
There is no point doing it unless it is perfect
Practicing new behaviours is the only way to break free of old behaviours. As perfectionistic standards are unrealistically high, the chance of us meeting them is slim to none. Talk to friends or family, or reach out for counselling and start challenging thoughts that keep you trapped in these behaviours. There is beauty and growth in imperfection is we make room for it.
If I’m not perfect in this then the rest of my life is impacted negatively
Ironically, rather than help us progress, this style of thinking negatively impacts other areas of a person's life. Being perfect isn't possible but when we try to pursue it, it leads to the very outcome we want to avoid - poorer health, relationships and less progress at work and study.
Thinking like this is our mind's way of trying to avoid uncertainty and anxiety, and it's not uncommon. Listen to this student's perspective on dealing with 'imposter syndrome' and the fear or not being perfect.
Below are three things you can do to boost success.
Take a step
What is the smallest step towards your goal that you can recognise as a step in the right direction? Asking this question is a good way to start to move somewhere. It is better to be moving somewhere than to not move at all because it is not perfect.
It is what it is
This is not to say that you can't strive for excellence in your life, but suggests instead to be realistic about the limitations that life throws at us (e.g. time, genetics, environment, resources). Be happy with what you have managed to achieve and focus on this rather than what you haven’t got or achieved. Practice gratitude for what you have.
Challenge your expectations
Recognise that your expectations may be unrealistic and not how others think. Practice talking to yourself in ways that challenge perfection (e.g. “I might not get into Masters at UofA but I have options at other universities around Australia. There is more than one way to get to where I want to go.”)
Need more info?
- Consider working through these modules on Perfectionism from the Centre for Clinical Interventions.
- Explore in depth material in a book (e.g. Overcoming Perfectionism: A Self-help Guide Using Cognitive Behavioral Techniques by Shafran, Egan and Wade.)