“Use what talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang except those that sang best.” – Henry van Dyke
Perfectionistic ways of thinking and behaving are often rooted in deep-seated core beliefs that can be quite resistant to change. The need for perfection can be related to closely attaching one’s self worth to performance or to feeling a strong need to express oneself authentically. Perhaps somewhat ironically, a fear of misrepresenting yourself or being perceived as “different” than you truly feel yourself to be can result in reluctance to take action or anxiety-ridden feelings of intense inhibition.
Anxiety often accompanies perfectionism in the sense that there may be performance-related fears surrounding one’s work or behaviors being “good enough” in some way. There may be an unrecognized thought swirling around the mind that it is better not to act at all than to make a single mistake. When anxiety becomes maladaptive, it can lead to failing to pursing one’s dreams because the time is never quite “right” or delaying taking action because “everything” is not yet in place. Certainly some times may be better than others, but many people who have done great things will tell you that the timing is rarely “perfect.”
Only you can know for sure if your perfectionistic tendencies serve as healthy motivating forces that enable you to live an authentic, values-driven life, and meaningful life, or if they are interfering with your potential to be your most fully actualized self. If you identify with the experience of anxiety and perfectionism interfering with your ability to live as full of a life as you wish to lead, try making some real behavioral changes that can counteract the paralysis of perfectionism.
Make Behavioral Changes to Address Perfectionism
Take a moment to reflect on the ways in which perfectionism interferes with your life. As you read through the following behavioral methods for addressing perfectionism, make the commitment to yourself to apply opposite action to your personal manifestation of perfectionism.
(1) If you have adopted the belief that you must look perfect to be acceptable/worthy/lovable, dress down for a day. Choose to wear something much more casual – maybe even a bit disheveled – than you would normally wear. Perhaps you even decide to wear something that has a hole or stain. The point is to wear something that forces you to confront the discomfort of not looking “perfect.” Notice how much of your self-worth is tied up in your appearance and ask yourself if this is in line with your truest values. The point is not to judge those values as “good” or “bad,” but simply to become more mindfully aware of how your actions are in line with those values and to assess your level of comfort with how you are living a life true to your core values.
(2) Are you afraid of making mistakes? While it is natural to have some aversion to mistakes or failures, take the time to realize that mistakes are an inevitable part of life. Even those people whom you regard as “brilliant” or even “perfect,” make mistakes… really. What matters is how you think about mistakes and whether or not you are willing to learn from your mistakes. Act opposite to this fear of mistakes by actually planning to make some inconsequential mistakes. When someone asks you a question, respond incorrectly and then correct yourself without apologizing. Notice how much the other person truly cares or even notices this small error.
(3) If you believe that you must be charming for other people to like you, act opposite to this belief by seeing what it would feel like to act more natural and without pretense. You may end up discovering that when you stop “trying” to be charming and start being your true self, people naturally gravitate toward you and appreciate you much more. Notice the way that other people interact with you differently when you let down the social facade enough to let your authentic self shine through.
(4) If you tend to dread inviting people to a party at your home out of fear of all the things that might go wrong or all of the negative judgments they may pass, choose to act opposite to this fear by throwing a party or hosting a social event. Notice what actually happens. You may wind up discovering that your guests enjoy socializing with you and with others much more than judging the decor of your home or the food that you serve. Use mindfulness to take a step outside of yourself and be truly present with your guests. When you let go of your fear of others judging you and open yourself up more fully to the moment, you may notice that it was only you who was doing all of that judging.
(5) If you think that everything you say must be perfect, plan to make a few minor mistakes in your conversations with others. Intentionally get a name or date wrong or quote the wrong source. What’s the worst thing that could happen? Perhaps someone could correct you. Would this be the end of the world? Notice if this perfectionistic tendency is tied to core beliefs about needing to appear smart in order to be worthy. Actively challenge these cognitive distortions. Reflect on times in your life you learned through your interactions with others and your experiences that this was a fundamental condition of your self-worth.
You can begin to use behavioral methods to counteract your perfectionism through actively choosing to do things “less than perfectly.” If you have grown accustomed to believing that you need to look perfect or act perfect, it is quite likely it won’t take much for you to go against your ingrained perfectionistic tendencies. In fact, it is quite likely that other people around you won’t even notice. A great deal of anxiety and perfectionism can be tied to a belief that other people are noticing far more about how you look and behave than they truly are. The truth is that most people are thinking of themselves. It can be quite freeing when you realize this and consequently begin to allow your authentic self to shine through the facade of perfection.
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If you are interested in assessing your own level of perfectionism, try this free Perfectionism Test from Psychology Today.
Knaus, W.J. (2008). The cognitive behavioral workbook for anxiety. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Featured image: Birdsong by Steve-h / CC BY-SA 2.0