4 Ways to Challenge Perfectionism

Perfectionism is something I have dealt with my whole life- even when I didn’t really know what to call it. The highs are highs and the lows are…

Well, sometimes the lows have been soul-crushing defeats.

It’s not easy to admit that getting an 89 on a paper can cause a two hour spiral, but sometimes it does! I don’t like making mistakes. 

I don’t like saying the wrong thing in class, being in a time crunch and having to throw a random outfit on, giving someone a gift that’s less than amazing, not having a solid itinerary for a trip, messing up a batch of cookies, smudging a doodle in my bullet journal-

You get the picture.

The point is, I’m a perfectionist. I want to do my best all the time and, sometimes, that does more harm than good. My eating disorder, for example, largely stemmed from the desire to be perfect. I wanted to be in perfect health, find the perfect college, get the perfect grades, be the perfect daughter, and eat a perfect diet.

Nothing’s “perfect” about having to leave college to get help for an eating disorder, is it? No, and that’s OKAY! I’ve made peace with the fact that I am a perfectionist and although I still struggle with this, I have a few ways I challenge the desire to be perfect. Here are my top tips:

P.S. Perfectionism isn’t 100% a bad thing, but when it comes to wanting to be perfect at the cost of your mental or physical health, it isn’t worth it! Also it’s important to look at how perfectionism is affecting you in your personal life- how often it comes up, if it impedes on your relationships/work/school/health, and if you think it is something you need to challenge.

Take inventory of how perfectionism affects your daily life

If you’re reading this article, you’re probably thinking perfectionism is something you’d like to have less of and have thought about it, but either way this is an important tip! Think about the main areas of your life: school/work, your relationships with food/people/exercise, hobbies, and any other major categories. For each, take a little inventory and ask yourself if your desire to be or do the “perfect”/”best” thing is causing extra or unneeded stress. Also, try and notice what is normal for you and the greater population. Sometimes comparing these two things can help you decide if you need to work on something or not. Here’s an example:

Let’s say I want to do my best in my biology class and as a result I frequently stress about my grade and will cancel plans to study/do homework, have anxiety attacks before tests, and take over my lab group every time so I do most of the work. Wanting to do well is a normal desire and so is wanting to turn in my best work- most students probably feel the same- but a class shouldn’t be negatively impacting my mental health or social life on a regular basis. I likely need to set aside self-care time, create a reasonable study schedule that gives me time for friends/entertainment, and have a few coping skills set aside for difficult days. 

The perfectionism in the scenario above is clear and an obvious example of perfectionism doing more harm than good, but examples in your life may not be as easy to weed out. Take time to really think. Think about if your friends/family have ever commented on something you’re taking to the next level, where you feel the most anxiety over making mistakes/not being seen as perfect, or something you frequently worry/think about. It may be helpful to take inventory over a few days or weeks as well. Identifying areas in your life you notice or struggle with perfectionism is a vital part of challenging it!

Start small and be realistic

Challenging perfectionism doesn’t mean turning in a terrible paper on purpose, but it can mean doing one rewrite instead of ten. One small way I challenge my perfectionism is with social media- especially Instagram. Social media can make FOMO and the desire to be perfect (or perceived as such) a lot stronger. Although I want my blog’s insta to be “aesthetic,” I mostly want it to be informative, entertaining, and a helpful safe space for whoever wants to be there! It’s a way for me to share my story- a story that very much revolves around combating perfectionism. There are days I worry about if my feed looks good, if my posts are cohesive, if my caption was strong enough- and I challenge this desire for the perfect feed by posting things that I don’t consider “perfect.” This doesn’t mean I’ll never update my brand or change things up, but it does mean I make an active effort to not overthink every post. It’s a small way I challenge my perfectionism! Find a small way you can challenge your own perfectionism and start there. A few ideas would be challenging your “perfect” exercise/studying/chores routine, sticking to your first instinct when making low consequence decisions (where to eat/what to wear/etc.), or posting an unfiltered selfie. 

Change the dialogue in your head

Instead of “I messed up [blank], so I’m a failure,” flip the dialogue in your head to “I did less well than I thought/hoped I’d do, but I tried my best. I did all I could do and I will continue to grow and learn from this experience.” It may sound cliche, but changing how you talk to yourself is huge in challenging perfectionism. If every time you do less than your best (which, news flash perfectionists: your best is sometimes unattainable or close to it!) you speak poorly to yourself and beat yourself up, you’ll quickly become your own worst critic. Did you know 40% of our happiness level is our belief and attitudes? 40% if a lot! If you constantly allow the voice in your head to be your biggest bully, you’ll more than likely do some damage to that percentage. By practicing positive and neutral self-talk, you can improve your attitude and belief towards yourself. In a future article, I’ll go into more examples of how to flip the dialogue!

Embrace mistakes

This one can be hard…and it can suck at times. Depending on the mistake, it can feel like the end of the world! I promise you, though, it’s not. Sometimes mistakes lead us down paths we never thought we’d find ourselves on, sometimes they don’t have hardly any outcome at all!  You are exactly where you need to be and are on your own life plan- find joy in your unique experience! You are NOT the only person to mess something up, make a mistake, do less than your “best,” or feel upset about an outcome. This doesn’t mean you can’t take a little time to be upset or that a negative reaction is something to feel bad about, it just means that you are not alone and that things will get better. When you make a mistake be sure to validate your feelings, ground yourself, and do some self-care if needed. Embrace the mistakes and the moment for what it is instead of dwelling on what could have been! My tip of changing the dialogue came first because flipping the dialogue and talking to yourself with compassion can help you in embracing mistakes and moving forward in a healthy way.

Perfectionism isn’t an inherently bad trait, but it can cause more harm than good when it runs us. For people with an eating disorder, anxiety, OCD, depression, or other mental health problems it can also be an added burden to living life to the fullest and being one’s happiest self. By taking inventory of where perfectionism affects you in your life, challenging it in small ways first, flipping your internal dialogue, and embracing mistakes are all ways I challenge my own perfectionism and I believe will help you, too! Let me know what your favorite tip was in the comments or on my Instagram, @recovroad.

Featured image courtesy of Unsplash

All content on RecovRoad is based on personal experiences, research, and ideas. Please do not repost/share without credit and be aware that nothing on this blog takes the place of professional help. This is also a formal trigger warning: content about and relating to eating disorders may be triggering to survivors. Please see the “RESOURCES” tab, call the National Eating Disorders Association hotline at 800-931-2237, and remember to take care of yourself.

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