5 Ways to Challenge Your Perfectionism

A little perfectionism can get you a long way, but too much holds you back like a 300-pound bouncer trying to break up a bar fight. This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen covers 5 ways to challenge the mindset of perfectionism.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #247

Perfectionism: it’s more than just high standards or wanting to excel. Instead, perfectionism is the setting of unattainable standards and making self-worth contingent upon meeting those standards. In other words, it’s like constantly running a race where the finish line can never be crossed.

We’ve talked about perfectionism on the podcast before (here and here), but thanks to social media, the issue has been turbocharged to the point that it bears another look.

Interestingly, imperfection is hot right now. Fitness gurus are posting their belly rolls on social media, “fails” videos attract way more attention than perfectly executed performances, and the otherworldly, filtered version of life on Instagram has been declared over.

But unrealistic goals and extreme expectations still permeate society like a single drop of ink colors a glass of water. We’re always looking to be even more productive, attractive, high-achieving, wealthy, or famous. 

Indeed, sometimes perfectionism can seem to work for us. A study in the Journal of Research in Personality found that self-oriented perfectionism, which, as the name implies, is focused on reaching one’s own sky-high standards, can actually go along with better physical health.

By contrast, with socially prescribed perfectionism, which is when we behave as if everything is a performance for a harshly critical audience, our health suffers.

So, which type of perfectionism is the real troublemaker? And if perfectionism is bad, why? After all, perfectionists are hard workers, have high standards, and often look fabulous. What’s so bad about that? 

The problem is that perfectionism isn’t necessarily about striving for perfection. Instead, it’s the nagging feeling of never being good enough.

The problem is that perfectionism isn’t necessarily about striving for perfection. Instead, it’s the nagging feeling of never being good enough. Perfectionism has many causes, but the end result is a creeping, constant feeling of inadequacy and fear of failure.

At the end of the day, everyone is looking for security, connection, and a bone-deep feeling that we are really, truly enough as we are. In today’s culture, those things are elusive and rare.

But there is hope! This week, rather than searching for a more optimized to-do list or a more efficient workout, we’ll cover 5 ways to chip away at the entire mindset of perfectionism.

Tip #1: Realize that perfectionism backfires.

You can probably relate: Walk into a magazine-perfect living room, and you’re afraid to sit down. Arrive at a perfect dinner party and you suddenly feel self-conscious and a little formal. When you see a perfectly pulled-together colleague, you feel ashamed of your own scuffed shoes and past-due haircut. 

Indeed, those who present as perfect are often seen as superhuman. It’s a paradox because they’re working really hard not to be rejected but their perfect appearance or performance makes them seem intimidating or annoying. It’s hard to connect with someone who doesn’t seem relatable. Indeed, by covering their own humanity, they can make everyone around them acutely aware of their own.

If the goal is connection and belonging, turning your perfect persona down a few notches is actually more effective.

Tip #2: Remember to feel, not just plan.

When perfectionists feel lousy, they tend to do one of two things: either solve the problem or avoid it altogether. 

By taking the first route, perfectionists tend to look for information on how to solve their problem—they’ll read a book, search out an expert opinion, and generally figure out a more fully optimized plan. 

With the second route, perfectionists may choose to procrastinate on a task that makes them feel incompetent or bored, steer clear of a potential conflict, or otherwise avoid whatever it is that makes them feel lousy. Procrastination may be productive—emptying the dishwasher or making a list, anyone? Or, it may be pure escape, like binge-watching an entire season of Mr. Robot.

Whichever route they choose, perfectionists skip over the step of feeling their feelings. They forget to check in and ask themselves, “How am I doing?” “What am I feeling?” “What’s happening here?” 

When you feel the urge to procrastinate, avoid, or problem-solve, use that as a cue to check in with yourself.

A solution: when you feel the urge to procrastinate, avoid, or problem-solve, use that as a cue to check in with yourself. How do you feel? What does that emotion feel like in your body? Is your back tight? Your teeth clenched? Does your chest feel cold or your stomach heavy? 

Learning to recognize and sit with emotions—especially negative, personalized emotions like shame, guilt, or feeling stupid or inadequate—is uncomfortable, but essential to developing the true cures for perfectionism: resilience and flexibility.

Learning to tolerate negative emotion is the first step in learning how to deal with failures, setbacks, and disappointments, which ironically, will help any perfectionist fly further and higher than they could while shackled to perfectionism.

Tip #3: Give help a chance.

Coaches and therapists and counselors, oh my! Perfectionists often have the nagging sense that something is wrong and may search out an expert to quiet their distress. 

But then, a dissonance arises. Perfectionism tells us we must perform at the highest levels, but we’re not allowed to accept help to get there.

Why is this? Perfectionism sometimes develops when early experiences teach us that support never materializes, even if we’re upset or in need. That can lead to a belief that you’re a burden for having needs and emotions, or that you’re not worthy of care.

So a perfectionist stuck with the dissonance of needing help but not expecting to be helped often decides that the therapist doesn’t know what they’re doing, that coaching is pointless, or that they know more than the expert.

But, if a perfectionist can see that they’re intellectualizing, getting cynical, or performing for the counselor—and can allow themselves to truly accept help—the same inner drive that makes perfectionists achieve often allows them to supercharge the lessons of therapy or coaching.

Tip #4: Create excellence for the sake of excellence.

Pursuing excellence for the sake of excellence is the ultimate in satisfaction. We build mastery, derive pleasure, and feel competent and confident when we contribute something well-done to the world.

Therefore, if you want to make a showstopper British Bake Off-worthy unicorn cake because you’d get pleasure and satisfaction out of it, go ahead and pipe that purple icing mane to your heart’s content. 

Ask yourself what actions are actually in line with your values and priorities.

But if you have a nagging sense that you wouldn’t be trying to make hooves out of frosting if you weren’t overcompensating, performing, or comparing yourself to others, ask yourself what actions are actually in line with your values and priorities.

Tip #5: Prioritize.

Perfectionists do everything well, with the emphasis on everything. And while being on top of everything may look good on paper, in reality it means your attention, focus, and energy get stretched like not enough butter over too much bread. Putting the same amount of drive into your deep work and your email doesn’t pay off. Instead, it leads to burnout and ultimately holds you back.

To find the answer, ask your values. What’s truly important to you? Where should most of your energy, focus, and time be allocated? Then, start there. Everything else will fall into place.

So to wrap up, start to notice your feelings (even the yucky ones), accept help, prioritize, and pour your energy into things you love that are important to you, not just anything that enters your field of vision. And if all else fails, remember that to err is human. To be perfect is, frankly, to be kind of annoying.


Order Ellen's book How to Be Yourself. Follow the Savvy Psychologist on Facebook and Twitter.  Download free, science-backed resources to fight social anxiety at EllenHendriksen.com. Listen to the Savvy Psychologist on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, or your favorite podcast app.

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.