The Struggle of Perfectionism

Doing things well is satisfying, but perfectionism can turn almost anything into a struggle. Every time you strive to be perfect, the best, or better than you were before, you put pressure on yourself. Not only does that pressure accrue, it robs you of joy. In addition, it’s almost impossible to be mindful and live in the moment when the sword of Damocles is hanging over your head exhorting you to do everything as well as possible or face dire consequences. 

And what would those horrific consequences be? That you would be average? That you might go unnoticed? Unappreciated? Unloved? Unremembered?

Whatever your deepest fears might be, they’re rarely conscious. They roil under the surface egging you on until, ultimately, you collapse from overwhelment.

That can take many forms. It might be ill health, the sundering of a relationship, an accident, abruptly leaving a job, selling a house, going on a long retreat, or anything else that radically shakes things up.

For most people, there’s a limit to how many times you can whip yourself into shape before you realize how battered you are.

Recovering from perfectionism is a long and arduous task. If there hadn’t been wonderful benefits from it you wouldn’t have continued to do it. Doing things consistently well rewards you with respect, appreciation, even love, and your ego laps it up.

The combination of ego gratification and deeply entrenched habits makes perfectionism very difficult to overcome; yet, it can be done.

While not an addiction, per se, it has many similar hallmarks. And like an addiction, recovery is an ongoing process.

Start by asking yourself what would be so terrible about being average? As David Burns said in his book, Feeling Good, “Dare to be average!” It actually takes far more courage for a perfectionist to dare to be average than to keep putting their best foot forward.

Next, deliberately do things less perfectly. Stop dotting every “i” and crossing every “t.” Purposely choose to neglect something. Don’t forget to pick up your children at school, but fold the laundry less precisely, or make your kids a PB &J instead of a complicated lunch. Ask yourself: What would I do differently if I just cared a little less and I could leave my ego outside the door? Choose things that won’t have negative consequences. Relinquishing a little control can have symbolic ramifications that free you up both energetically and emotionally.

Working to overcome some of your perfectionism is incredibly difficult as it fed your ego for a long time. Ego gratification is just as addictive as any drug. Be gentle and patient with yourself and go as slowly as necessary, taking baby steps while you assess how you feel along the way.

Using an “ I can care less” mantra can be a useful strategy in combatting perfectionism’s insistent lure. You can also ask yourself: What’s the worst thing that can happen if I do this later or do it to less stringent standards?

An often overlooked aspect of perfectionism, is a perennial people pleasing part of you that has trouble setting boundaries.

Sometimes, it’s easier to start with setting small boundaries as they are easier to see and tackle than deeper patterns of perfectionism. Sarri Gilman has an assortment of YouTube videos, books, and workshops on her website that can help you recognize your patterns and change.

Perfectionism and trouble setting boundaries are often legacies of childhood trauma, as they go hand in glove with co-dependent relationships. Both typically occur when you have grown up with an addicted parent or sibling. They can also arise from situations where you were called to be a little adult as a child. Last but not least, if you grew up in a critical household where you were blamed or punished when you didn’t succeed or forgot something, you could have easily developed a tendency to micromanage everything. It’s natural under the circumstances and often fueled by fear of making a mistake and feeling that shame again.

I love to talk about how crucial it is to be self compassionate. Here, I would extend it to forgiving yourself and even having mercy on your sweet younger self as you were always doing the best you could.

For starters:

Steep yourself in self compassion meditations (I highly recommend the free app: Insight Timer; especially Kristen Neff’s offerings).

Set a timer on your phone and pause for 30 seconds to appreciate something in yourself.

At the end of the day, notice everything you can feel good about; especially the things you allowed yourself to do less perfectly.

Actively dispute thoughts that exhort you to do more or better.

Celebrate everything you might have viewed as a mistake in the past as an opportunity to learn and grow. (Read the piece on this site titled: No mistakes, only lessons.)

Patience is your ally as you slowly and lovingly work to free yourself from the shackles of perfectionism.


Copyright Nicole S. Urdang


Nicole Urdang

Nicole S. Urdang, M.S., NCC, DHM is a Holistic Psychotherapist in Buffalo, NY. She holds a New York state license in mental health counseling and a doctorate in homeopathic medicine from the British Institute of Homeopathy.