Imagine taking a test where you get no credit for the right answers, but you get punished for every single one you got wrong. That’s perfectionism. You brush over any successes while beating yourself up for every mistake. Perfectionism is a mean mother f-er. It’ll steal your joy, your relationships and your self-worth. But we’re about to change that because today I’m going to teach you about the two types of perfectionism (one is healthy!). How do you get from the mean side to the loving side? Stay tuned and I’ll teach you my three tools for how to stop being a perfectionist so you can start being happy!
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I’ve battled with perfectionism my whole life. Being the daughter of a narcissist, it was all about appearing perfect and I would lie, cheat or steal behind the curtain to look perfect in front of the audience.
What Causes Perfectionism?
As with most everything, there’s no “one” cause of perfectionism. As always, it’s a perfect storm of things. Maybe you had a harsh parent, caregiver or coach and you were driven to avoid their judgment. Maybe you had a parent or caregiver who role-modeled unhealthy perfectionism, so you thought that was the right way to do things. Maybe you were that different kid in your family and things didn’t come as easily to you as they did to your siblings, so you created these internal pressures to be perfect.
At the core, unhealthy perfectionism is driven by some fear of failure, low self-esteem and feelings of unworthiness and it often results in anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and obsessive-compulsive habits.
We also know that perfectionism has definitely increased in the last 25 years and it doesn’t seem to care about your gender or culture. From fierce academic competition, to harmful comparisons on social media and to the general tenor of a fast-paced world where you’re supposed to have it all figured out by the time you’re done with high school. So how do you stop being a perfectionist?
The Two Types of Perfectionism
There are actually two types of perfectionists: adaptive or positive perfectionists and maladaptive or negative perfectionists.
And here’s the deal: the two types are actually pretty similar. Both set big goals and work hard. Both care about doing a good job and will put in a lot of effort to get where they want to go.
But there’s one big difference: positive perfectionists are achievement oriented while negative perfectionists are failure oriented.
While positive perfectionists are looking to grow, love to problem-solve and really enjoy being challenged, negative perfectionists are only looking not to fail and believe that others’ approval and love is dependent on them being perfect. Positive perfectionists want to succeed and win while negative perfectionists just don’t want to lose.
Because of this, the way these two types of perfectionists set and achieve goals is very different. How they respond to negative feedback and setbacks is different. How they feel day-to-day is different.
Basically, positive perfectionists have what we call a growth mindset while negative perfectionists have what we call a fixed mindset. With a growth mindset, it’s all about the effort you put in and the goal is about growth and learning. With a fixed mindset, asking for help or saying you don’t know something means you’re stupid, lacking or an imposter. If you’re smart, you shouldn’t have to ask. If you’re talented, you should already do it perfectly.
Positive perfectionists like being good at things of course, but they don’t overreact when things go wrong. They see it as an opportunity for learning and growth and a way to improve their skills. They don’t give up; they just start problem-solving. They find meaning and satisfaction in improving themselves and their situation. Research shows that positive perfectionists are more mentally stable and have better emotional regulation while negative perfectionists struggle with anxiety and depression.
Negative perfectionism keeps you stuck because you end up procrastinating as you wait for the perfect moment for something or don’t even try for fear you’ll fail or not do it well. You don’t make decisions for fear of making the wrong one. Then you get more anxious and caught in a negative spiral.
Signs You Might be a Negative Perfectionist:
- Setting unrealistically high goals/expectations of yourself and/or others
- Quick to find fault
- Overly critical of mistakes
- Procrastinating on something because you fear you’ll fail or not do it good enough (you get into all-or-nothing thinking: “If I can’t do it great, I won’t try”)
- You can’t take a compliment
- You don’t celebrate or honor your successes and are always looking to the next thing
- Looking for approval from very specific people (when they approve it means something, when others do, you brush it off)
- Spending way too much time on something (that someone else gets done in half the time because they weren’t trying to be perfect)!
- You have trouble being happy for the success of others
- You’re chronically indecisive
Top Three Tools to Stop Being a Perfectionist (or Become a Positive Perfectionist!)
I think one of the big issues with people overcoming their negative perfectionism is that others give them advice to become some sort of mellow, carefree, nothing-bothers-me type of person and, my friends, that ain’t gonna happen! It may not help to think about how to stop being a perfectionist but rather focus on your mindset.
For me, shifting into a growth mindset and a positive perfectionist has made all the difference because I was never going to be that person that didn’t try my best or who could just “let it go.” I needed to learn the tools to make the shift from taking action based on negative motivation to instead taking action from positive inspiration.
Tool #1: Make a goal for growth, not perfection, with everything.
In everything you do, from big goals to small tasks, think about applying this mantra. If you’ve got a long day ahead of you with tons to get done (and you know you never finish your list) you could:
- Grow by making a new list of what could actually get done that day. For the record, I hate to do lists, and I’ve got a great alternative!
- If you finished something but you’re unhappy with how it turned out, ask yourself what growth you achieved. What could you do differently next time?
- Identify where you tried hard and put in effort and practice giving yourself credit for the effort and your process, instead of the outcome
- A great tool (which will also help teach your kids to be growth mindset instead of fixed) is to share an epic “fail” at dinner each night. This teaches your kids that failure and taking risks is good and something to even brag about!
In general, you want to set any goals for growth and honor that growth as it’s happening. Things are worthwhile, even (especially?) when they’re not perfect.
Tool #2: Be in Your Moments
Yup. This is key if you want to stop being a perfectionist. If you’re not mindful and in the here and now during your day, you won’t notice when you get caught up in some bullshit with yourself.
You’ve got to become aware of your thoughts and feelings during your day. What are you saying to yourself? Practice becoming aware.
Tool #3: Be Nice!
It’s time to start talking nicer to yourself. Talk to yourself compassionately, challenge and silence that negative inner voice and critic. You can do this in a number of ways:
- Practice Rational Emotive Therapy
- Challenge your internal talk, especially when you catastrophize and generalize. Be mindful of that black-and-white thinking like when you make one mistake and decide the whole day or project is ruined. Remind yourself that you learned something and that you have to make mistakes to learn; it’s how it works.
- Every time someone gives you a compliment or says something nice, write it down. You can keep track in the notes app in your phone. It’s especially great to then write these things on little slips of paper and fold them up and keep them in a pretty bowl in your house. When you’re feeling judgy with yourself, pull out a paper and remind yourself of your humanity and fabulousness.
- Every night before you go to bed, practice writing down two things you did well and one thing you wish you’d done better. If you want to be a rock star parent, you can also do this at the dinner table and encourage your children to do the same so they don’t grow up to be negative perfectionists.
If you notice your internal dialogue sounding anything like, “It’s not good enough” change it immediately to “I don’t have it yet.”
Practicing these tools will help start you on the path to stop being a perfectionist — or leaning toward positive perfectionism rather than negative perfectionism
Anthony J. Bergman, Jennifer E. Nyland, and Lawrence R. Burns, “Correlates with Perfectionism and the Utility of a Dual Process Model,” Personality and Individual Differences 43, no. 2 (July 2007), 389-399.