How to become a recovering perfectionist

I admit I am a recovering perfectionist. You can become one too.

recovering perfectionist
Photo by Giulia Bertelli

When I was in school (and I was in school for a very, very long time), I tried to be the perfect student, the perfect friend, the perfect daughter, and the perfect big sister. I got married and strived to be the perfect wife. When I worked outside the home, I aimed to be the perfect employee, the perfect co-worker, and later the perfect boss. Staying home with my children, I tried to be the perfect mother and perfect homemaker. Even in my free time, I aim to be the perfect knitter, yanking out and starting projects over time and again.

Even now, knowing how harmful perfectionism can be, I agonize over every blog post and email I send. Perfectionism is so engrained in me, I continually have to remind myself to give it up.

Many smart and caring women have perfectionistic tendencies

So many women I work with and know are perfectionists or recovering perfectionists. Our society compels us to be this way. The training starts early. Take one look at popular social media feeds aimed at girls, and you’ll see perfectly curated images that suggest they need to be smart, sporty, crafty, fun, and sexy.

Open any home or fashion magazine. Look even at LinkedIn, and you’ll see how women are pressured to be stellar, giving, and polished while building “personal brands.”

In addition to societal pressure, smart and caring women have found that their perfectionist tendencies have helped them succeed in the past. It is only when their worlds expand as a result of their success and more people recognize their abilities and rely on them that conscientious women have an even harder time dialing back. Their caring nature won’t let them disappoint the people.

It is important to remember that perfectionism isn’t about being perfect. It’s about having unrealistic expectations. We feel pressure from the outside and then internalize it.

Striving for perfection also takes a lot of time, wastes energy, and fills your mind with unnecessary clutter. Research has shown it is connected to anxiety, depression, disappointment, and dissatisfaction.

So, what do we do?

The first step in becoming a recovering perfectionist

…is to notice when you’re being critical.

Perfectionists are particularly hard on themselves. They know instinctively what is wrong and exactly how to fix it. (They also see faults in other people–which can make them difficult to be around.)

Don’t believe me? When you walk into another room in your home. Look around. What do you see? I bet, the first thing you begin to notice are any messes, anything out of place, shabby, dusty, or untidy.

You don’t see the loveliness, coziness, or positives first. Am I right?

So the first step is recognizing when you start to get into critique mode. When you find yourself spotting the things that are wrong, just notice that you’re doing it. You don’t have to correct yourself at this point. Just say, “Oh, there I go again.”

Do this for a week until you’re able to notice how often you take on the role of critic. You’ll be amazed at how pervasive your criticizing is.

The next step on the road to recovery

When that awareness kicks in, you can then take the next step: try to interrupt your negative thoughts with positive ones. Replace your inner critic with your inner advocate.

This takes practice…which is why simply noticing is the first step.

Ask yourself, “What’s good about this?”, “What’s working?”, or “What’s going well?”

Or, try a mantra that works for you. When you start thinking negatively, try to replace it with a simple message like, “You’ve got this, [state your name]!” “You’re doing the best you can.” (Remember using your name and second-person help.) Or, “this is good enough.”

What also helps recovering perfectionists

…is to recognize that aiming to do things well or build upon one’s existing skills is mastery. The emphasis here is improving and enjoying that process. It’s how we find flow.

Mastery can seem similar but is different from perfectionism which strives for a certain outcome.

Perfectionism can be more challenging because outcomes are often not within our control. Mastery, on the other hand, is.

Your turn

Let me know whether you want to start becoming a recovering perfectionist. What will you try or what other things have helped you?

An older version of this article was first published in September 2008.

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