When high standards hold you back

We all strive to be the best we can be – most of the time. Not only does it show that you’re a hard wonder, driven, have a sense of duty, and do the right things – being your best can also be very rewarding, both personally, emotionally, and financially.

By discovering and learning new things, you’ll be seen as a knowledge holder, and others won’t be able to resist asking for your opinion, and value your contribution.

That’s all well and good, however there are instances in which striving to do your best, and be the best, can have a negative rather than a positive effect.


Refusal to accept any standard short of perfection.

Perfectionism involves us working towards new standards that are so lofty they are unrealistic and unattainable. Perfectionists believe that delivering short, or inferior in any way is simply incomprehensible, and will lead to a catastrophe of some kind. And the fact is, that perfectionism also typically leads to anxiety and depression.

Perfectionists are so afraid of not hitting the mark or making a simple mistake that they become continuously anxious about doing something wrong. Or they end up feeling depressed because they cannot live up to their own high standards.

All of this can result in the perfectionist thinking that they are flawed in some way, or even totally incompetent as individuals.

Types of perfectionism

Over the years, research has identified that there are three types of perfectionism that can negatively impact a person’s life and ability to perform well.

Socially-prescribed perfectionism

No one in their right mind wants the world to look at them as useless, inadequate, and not up to the job (or anything else). Nope. Not me! But when people believe that they are only valued by others when they themselves are perfect, this causes significant psychologic and emotional turmoil. This feeling of inadequacy has been linked with depression and suicide.

Other-orientated perfectionism

Let’s turn this on it’s head. You guessed it, ‘other-orientated’ means that a person demands perfectionism from others around them, family, friends, work colleagues, governments etc. This typically leads to relationship problems, friendship breakdowns and excessive frustration when things aren’t going their way. It’s fair to say that none of us like being continually judged and criticised by another.

Self-orientated perfectionism

This is the type of perfectionism that is a self-motivated desire to be perfect and flawless. Personally, I’m okay with this, but when it’s combined with either 1 and 2, or both, there could be some serious issues to work on.

Are you a perfectionist?

If you’re wondering that you are a perfectionist, or what type of perfectionist – welcome to the club. Here are some ways you might recognise certain behaviours to help diagnose your perfectionist preferences!

  • You don’t disclose personal information just in case it makes you look imperfect or flawed in some way.
  • You avoid situations or activities that could make you look (or feel) imperfect.
  • You make very elaborate lists that breakdown every little detail or activity required for success.
  • Avoiding situations where you’ve previously made mistakes and were not perfect at.
  • Feeling anxious, depressed, or frustrated when you make a mistake.
  • When you are excessively harsh on yourself and self-critical.
  • Procrastinate or have difficulty starting or completing an activity.
  • Avoid delegating, as you fear others will not deliver or complete a task to your high standards.
  • Take excessive time to complete anything, whereas others can do it in half the time.
  • Double or triple checking things – over and over and over.
  • When others say you’ve got high standards, and you just need to go with it.
Photo by Estúdio Bloom on Unsplash

Get over yourself

So how do you overcome your perfectionism?

See and learn – by using some of the points above and identifying the ways you are trying to be ‘perfect’. Think if these are actually a problem by understanding your behaviours. For example;

  • The amount of time you require to complete a task
  • Whether you’re feeling anxious or frustrated with yourself when you try to complete a task
  • If it feels you simply can’t hit the standard you want, or others tell you ‘that’s good enough’, but you can’t accept that.

Change your thinking – perfectionist typically have a self-critical inner dialogue or negative thoughts. If you identify any of the following, then you can work on ways to change your thinking to manage your perfectionism.

  • If I make a mistake, I’ll look like a fool.
  • I should never be nervous or anxious.
  • I’m a failure if I am not perfect.
  • I should never make a mistake.
  • Being less than perfect means I’m a failure, no good, incompetent.
  • I know I’ve forgotten something.
  • I know I haven’t done a great job.

Sounds familiar? They key is to not be so self-critical. Recognise when you are and have a plan of action that helps bring down and effectively manage your unnecessary perfectionist thinking. Here are some things you can ask yourself and help keep things in perspective.

  • Focus on the bigger picture, not the little details.
  • Seriously, what is ‘the worst thing’ that can happen?
  • What are the chances of ‘the worst thing’ happening?
  • If ‘the worst thing’ does happen, you’ll manage it.
  • Will anyone even notice the extra effort you’ve put in?
  • So, what’s the big deal?

Take the perspective of someone else – when you’re being the perfectionist, it’s extremely hard to see another person’s point of view. Another way to tweak your beliefs is to try taking another point of view. Ask yourself some of the following questions.

  • If a friend was behaving like me, what would I say to them?
  • How does someone else look at this situation?
  • How do I feel when someone always takes it to the wire?
  • Why are they tweaking things – it just wastes time we don’t have?
  • They could get that done in half the time if they stopped procrastinating.

Compromise – rather than making zero mistakes (which is all in your head), start by leaving some ‘finishing touches’ behind – one thing, then two, then three. Or rather than driving yourself to run 4k at the weekend when you know you’re tired already, run 2k. By removing your self-made pressure to deliver perfection, you’ll reduce stress and anxiety, and feel better about yourself.

Positive momentum – have a bunch of positive statements that you can regularly say to yourself. Just by acknowledging your perfectionist attributes will help reduce them over time.

  • I’ll do the best I can.
  • I’ll learn from my mistakes.
  • No one is perfect!
  • The little details are just that, little!

Expose yourself – The final step in overcoming perfectionism is to change your behaviours to learn that it’s completely normal to make mistakes. And when we do, it does not mean we, or others are flawed, no good at something, or incompetent. By making mistakes and exposing yourself to them, you learn that nothing bad really happens and that all those negative emotions are not worth it!

Photo by Stavrialena Gontzou on Unsplash

Here are some great (and fun) ways you can expose yourself to your perfectionism. Try them out.

  • Leave a room in your house messy.
  • Avoid washing up or loading the dishwasher until later in the day – or the next morning.
  • Reread an email once – not 3 times.
  • Show up late to a party or an appointment (if you can).
  • Deliberately leave a typo in an email, or something you’ve written.
  • Do something new, without doing any research.
  • Surf Netflix and watch something you wouldn’t normally pick.

Final thoughts

The goal in overcoming perfectionism is not for you to become a lazy person who has zero standards or values. The goal is to develop realistic standards that do not cause you anxiety, disappointment, or frustration.

A great way to look at perfectionism is to change the belief from ‘I have to be perfect all the time’ to ‘that’ll do’.

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