Many of us have high standards for ourselves which can help us achieve success. However, if they are so high that they can only be met with a lot of difficulty, and serve as the basis on which you judge yourself, then you are likely to be a perfectionist.

Perfectionism is not inherently good or bad; there is a distinction between adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism.

Maladaptive perfectionists have high personal standards, are usually dissatisfied with their performance and show high levels of self-criticism. They tend to seek approval from their environment, and thus try to avoid situations where there is a chance of failure. Maladaptive perfectionism is often associated with depression, anxiety, stress and suicidal ideation.

Adaptive perfectionists can tolerate imperfection, and feel satisfied with their achievements. They work well within cooperative environments and relationships. Adaptive perfectionism is associated with positive emotional states, life satisfaction, academic performance, self-esteem and self-efficacy.

Are you a perfectionist?

Perfectionism can affect the way that you feel, think and act. Before you can change this, it is important to be able to identify the signs of perfectionism.

There are certain thinking styles that have been associated with perfectionism. Perfectionists tend to believe that they should never make mistakes, and that doing so will lead to catastrophic results. They often extend these standards to other people. They also consider imperfection to mean they are a failure, and they tend to fixate on mistakes they have made.

Perfectionists often feel stressed since their high standards are not met easily or at all. They are also likely to feel frustrated, anxious, angry or depressed when they are unable to achieve these standards even after spending a lot of time and effort, and because they constantly criticise themselves.

In terms of behaviours, the standards that perfectionists set for themselves often get in the way of meeting deadlines or completing tasks because of procrastination, excessive thoroughness, redoing and checking, and giving up. Since they want the task done just right, they may not trust anyone else to get the job done and rarely delegate.

They might also have received feedback from others that their standards are too high.

Does this sound like you? If you relate to any of the signs mentioned above, it is possible that you might be experiencing unhealthy perfectionism.

What can you do to let go of perfectionism?

Identify perfectionist thoughts

To overcome perfectionism, you will first need to recognise it. This also means that you would benefit from identifying and labelling perfectionist thoughts as and when they arise in your mind.

Develop healthier thoughts

Replace these unhelpful thoughts with more realistic ones that can counter the criticism and demands they put on you, and practise saying them regularly. These can include statements like “No-one is perfect”, “Everyone makes mistakes” or “This does not mean I am a failure”. You can even write these down, and keep them with you.

Change your lens

Make an attempt to view your work from a different perspective. Shift your focus to what you enjoy about the work, rather than worrying about it not being perfect. Instead of focussing on the outcomes, try to enjoy the process of working. Also, take a step back to look at the bigger picture. Ask yourself how much a certain issue matters right now, and if it will matter some time down the line.

Make your standards flexible

Allowing yourself to compromise by lowering your standards or being flexible with them makes them more reasonable and also reduces the pressure you might otherwise feel. This, then, also makes it easier to deal with extreme thoughts.

Tone down the thoroughness

If you find yourself spending too much time checking your work, take action to avoid the same. Deciding beforehand the time or even frequency of checking can help you stick to deadlines and can avoid perfectionistic behaviour.

Tackle procrastination

Since perfectionism is often coupled with procrastination, it is important to deal with the latter. Prioritise tasks that you have to do, break down large goals into smaller and more achievable ones, and assign yourself realistic deadlines.

Be willing to make mistakes

Perfectionism can make you avoid situations where there is a possibility of failing. Gradually expose yourself to these situations and see how you do. If you make mistakes, recognise and accept the mistakes made. Tell yourself that it’s okay – all of us make mistakes from time to time. You could also, wherever feasible and sensible, do work at less than 100% quality and see whether doing this really makes a difference to others or your organisation.

Don’t hesitate to ask for help

Ask for help and delegate tasks to other people. People close to you can also help you set more realistic standards for yourself. You can also reach out to experts for help who can help you let go of the perfectionist mindset.

Prioritise your own needs

Forgive yourself if you make mistakes, and know that it is okay to be who you are – flaws and all. Self-compassion can buffer against the hold perfectionism has on you. Once you see yourself letting go of perfectionism, remember to take time out to treat yourself or relax.