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Winifred Lender: Tools for Breaking Free from Perfectionism

In my last column, I wrote about perfectionism and how to recognize if you, a friend or family member is a perfectionist. While perfectionism can lead to success and productivity, it also can cause anxiety, indecision and depression.

Perfectionists are on a treadmill that never stops and are always racing to meet expectations they set that are excessively demanding. They are caught in a cycle that includes setting increasingly higher goals, focusing on perceived failures, procrastinating to avoid failing and discounting their success.

Perfectionists may be aware that they are driven to be perfect, yet feel trapped in the cycle and fear giving up their perfect expectations. They have learned to control the world through their perfectionist tendencies and fear being left with no control if they relinquish these techniques.

Realizing that changing perfectionist behavior, like changing other behavior, is a process that requires intentional focus and willingness to try new techniques is a first step to moving forward.

A perfectionist need not abandon his or her perfectionistic focus immediately in all areas of life. They can begin to attack their perfectionistic style in a limited way in one area and then build the confidence to do this in other areas.

Being free of a perfectionistic style will require intentional focus, time and the willingness to feel uncomfortable at first. Letting go of a behavior and way of viewing the world can be stress producing, and the benefits may not be immediate. However, starting to chart the course to break free of perfectionism can pay dividends in the future.

The benefits of shedding perfectionism can include a decrease in anxiety, depression, more time to engage in preferred activities, less procrastination and more efficiency in making decisions.

Many reformed perfectionists find their relationship with others improved and feel greater energy and the ability to more fully relax.

While breaking free from the binds of perfectionism can initially seem an insurmountable hurdle, what follows are some specific tips to springboard you into action. Consider trying out each tool and then place it in your “toolbox,” using each technique as needed.

Choose One Area to Attack

Perfectionistic behavior typically occurs across settings. Focus on changing your style in one area to start, preferably an area that feels the least overwhelming.

For example, you may be perfectionist at work, with your children, around food preparation, cleaning and exercise. However, you might start by intentionally focusing on changing your style in the area of cleaning.

Develop Small Micro-Goals

Within the area you have chosen to attack, identify small incremental goals. If you are a perfectionist about cleaning your house, you might intentionally decide to skip cleaning a couple of rooms on a given day, do a weekly cleaning task every other week, or give yourself less time to clean the house so you will be forced to eliminate some aspect of the cleaning routine.

Likewise, if you are a perfectionist around meal preparation, you might pick two nights a week where you eat leftovers or plan a very simple meal that requires half the time of the typical meal to prepare.

Set a Timer

Perfectionists can get caught up in a task and spend an inordinate amount of time on it. Often the time spent does not yield a better outcome, but leads to more rumination or procrastination.

Try setting a timer for certain tasks. For example, if you need to write an email to work colleague, think about how long you would typically spend and then using the timer to make you accountable, cut this time in half. The idea here is to be efficient and ruminate less.

Similarly, if you spend endless time finding the perfect gift, give yourself a time limit and then force a decision. You might set your phone alarm to ring in a half-hour and then commit to making a decision when the alarm goes off.

Focus on “Good Enough”

Adopt the mantra “good enough” as you go about your day. Instead of searching for the perfect solution, accept one that is good enough. Ask yourself and others if it is good enough and then proceed.

Use Other People as Guides/Reality Checks

Other people can be a good reality check as you being to try moving away from a perfecitonistic style. Check in with others you trust about whether a plan, goal or routine you have set is perfecitonistic.

Walk Away

Often perfectionists can become so caught up in a task, they have trouble removing themselves from it and seeing the big picture. If you feel you are being pulled in, time yourself out and remove yourself from the situation.

Leave the kitchen or the store and try reciting your good enough mantra, resetting your focus and using one of the tools listed here to attack the perfectionistic tendency.

Focus on the Here and Now

Perfectionists can get caught up in planning for the future or worrying about a perceived failure in the past. Try to stop and focus on the here and now.

Planning all day for a dinner and worrying about if the last one was enjoyed by all, removes you from the here and now of enjoying the day with your family. 

Use Affirmations

Affirm that your worth is not based on your performance on this one task. Affirm that you are a good person regardless of how the dinner turns out, how clean your kitchen is or how well written the email you sent was.

Be Not Perfect on Purpose

Try making things not perfect on purpose and sit with the outcome. You may find that it doesn’t feel as bad as you thought or that others don’t even notice.

The idea here is to appreciate that the world does not stop if things aren’t perfect, and that you may gain more time with family and a release of stress by intentionally making something not perfect.

Seek Help When Needed

Changing behavior takes time and may require the help of a professional. If you are not making headway in attacking your perfectionistic tendencies, consider working with a professional who is trained in cognitive and behavioral techniques to address perfectionism.

Wishing you many “good enough” days ahead!

— Winifred Lender, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Santa Barbara and can be contacted at [email protected]. She is the author of A Practical Guide to Parenting in the Digital Age: How to Nurture Safe, Balanced and Connected Children and Teens available at Chaucer’s Bookstore and Amazon. Dr. Lender completed her undergraduate work at Cornell University and received her master’s and doctorate degrees at the University of Pennsylvania. She completed a fellowship at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia/The University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and is a past president of the Santa Barbara County Psychological Association. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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