Setting excessively high standards, self-criticism and doubt – 8 ways to deal with perfectionism

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Illustration. Image by Getty Images
Illustration. Image by Getty Images
  • These messages tell us that we need to be better, thinner, smarter, more beautiful, more hardworking - more perfect. What we are is quite simply never enough.
  • Or at least this is how we internalise these messages, which come at us hard and fast, consuming us and unravelling our sense of self.
  • The result is perfectionism, a condition of extreme self-criticism and self-doubt that can lead to a crippling paralysis at times.
  • Here we offer you eight tips to overcome perfectionism.

According to psychologist Linda Blair, “Perfectionists are those who strive for flawlessness, for a perfect creation, outcome or performance. They set excessively high standards.”

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Many studies show that this self-critical tendency exists mainly in women. A US survey conducted in 2009 corroborates this, showing that many more women than men feel inadequate in their work and home lives. The desire to be perfect can be traced back to childhood when girls are taught that perfection is something to strive for. 

Perhaps it has something to do with society’s expectations of women and the unrealistic ideals of beauty. Maybe women feel the need to prove themselves because they have had to fight for their power over many generations.

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In their book, ‘The Confidence Code,’ journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman interviewed some of the most powerful women in the United States. They discovered that many of the country’s biggest influencers, from CEOs and lawmakers to athletes and social movement leaders, suffer from imposter syndrome. This is a condition of chronic self-doubt where people feel a sense of inadequacy despite evidence of competence and success.

Whether it be women at the top of the corporate ladder, homemakers, teenagers, or young girls, it seems we are all susceptible to this extreme form of self-doubt. While perfectionist tendencies are healthy to some degree, helping to motivate us to learn and grow, in their severe way, they can have serious consequences.

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It’s no surprise that perfectionism has been linked to anxiety and depression: how can we feel a sense of self-worth when we are continually trying to live up to an ideal that is often not possible to achieve or that does not actually exist? The quest for perfection can be counter-productive, holding us back in life and creating a negative spiral.  

Like all other behaviours, trying to relearn the way we do things and change the way we view ourselves can be very challenging, but it’s not impossible.

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Here are some tips for tackling your perfectionism:

  1. Change your focus from ‘outcome’ to ‘process.’ Not everything in life is about achievement. There is enormous value in the process and the learnings along the way.
  2. To be present in the process, explore mindfulness, practice yoga, meditate, or do tai chi. These disciplines will help you to let go of judgment, regret, and guilt and will enable you to be more present in your life, as opposed to focusing on what you don’t have or cannot achieve.
  3. Stop comparing yourself to others. There is nothing productive about comparison, and it only accentuates our perfectionist tendencies. I appreciate and acknowledge your achievements and see how far you have come.
  4. Cut down on social media. Social media can be a comparison trap and can have a toxic effect on your self-esteem. If you find yourself feeling depressed after time spent on social media, start cutting down. This applies to other forms of media such as magazines and TV shows. Spend your time doing things that uplift you, rather than cut you down.
  5. Realise that good enough is enough. Stop setting yourself extremely high standards, which often lead to procrastination and the inability to complete something.
  6. Exchange negative words for more positive terms- the language we use can have a powerful effect on our minds. Gentler words can influence the way we feel about our achievements and who we are.
  7. Remind yourself that there is beauty in the flawed. Sometimes the things we love most about our friends are their quirks and flaws. They are not perfect, but we still love them. Treat yourself like your best friend.
  8. Accept that you are human, which means you make mistakes, and you will never be perfect.

Do you have more tips to share? Send them to us here.

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