“Perfectionism is a symptom of something,” Thomas Greenspon PhD, an expert on the topic and a recovering perfectionist himself, told me. “It’s not the disease.”
At its core, perfectionism is about anxiety — you’re afraid of failing or afraid that making a mistake means that there’s something wrong with you. “Perfectionism is more than pushing yourself to do your best to achieve a goal; it’s a reflection of an inner self mired in anxiety,” he adds.
According to Greenspon, the most highly successful people are actually less likely to be perfectionistic, because perfectionism can leave you overwhelmed by doubt and indecision and make it difficult to bring any task to a conclusion.
So what’s driving your perfectionism? Is it about proving your worth to others? Is it about avoiding feelings of shame or judgment? While you may think you’re trying to impress a boss who seems judgmental, oftentimes we’re proving ourselves to our parents — who may or may not still be present in our lives — or to an internalized critic we’ve learned to hear above all others.
Like a lot of anxiety, perfectionism can become a comfortable habit. If we’ve been leaning into it since childhood, maintaining the self-talk that powers our perfectionism feels like a superstition or an indispensable ritual. As entrepreneur and startup cofounder Sehreen Noor Ali says, “Our self-talk becomes like an old friend that maybe should’ve been ditched a while ago.”
Your perfectionism, your old friend, won’t go away overnight. Nor will exercises alone assuage it. So my goal here is to help get you on the road to recovery by suggesting new ways of thinking. Here are three to try:
1. Find the motivation
Like breaking any unhealthy habit, it helps to feel really motivated before you start to tackle your perfectionism. I find this question really helpful: What are you missing out on because you’re scared to be less than perfect?
For example, my fear of being shamed for public speaking held me back from applying for a TED talk. For years I’d made fun of TED to anyone who’d listen. I even wrote an article about how overrated TED talks are. But in truth, I desperately wanted to give one, because I knew they lend credibility to speakers and authors and help you get to the next level in a speaking career.
Voilà, there was my motivation. I also realized that if I was going to be a perfectionist, I’d never reach that level, so I applied to seven various TED and TEDx talks. I got rejected from all of them. It hurt but frankly, I wasn’t ashamed. It felt like a badge of honor; it became a punch line for me.
And then one day I got an email from the TED team asking me to do a talk. Turns out they had seen my submissions and enjoyed them, even though they passed on them at the time. If I hadn’t found the motivation to “ditch that old friend,” as Noor Ali put it, I would’ve missed my chance to land a coveted TED spot, which opened a lot of doors for me.
So what are you missing out on because you’re afraid to be less than perfect? Identify and name that experience, and you’ve found your motivation.
2. Isolate your inner critic
You wouldn’t be a perfectionist without the thoughts that keep you there. Many perfectionists have common barbs we like to fling at ourselves.
Here are some examples of the perfectionistic self-talk I’ve heard in heavy rotation:
• Mind-reading: “If I don’t give it 110 percent, my boss will find someone who does. They’ll just fire me”; “My parents gave up a lot to send me to excellent schools and prepare me for a successful career, and I can’t let them down”
• Labeling: “The typo in my article wasn’t a careless error — it happened because I’m lazy and didn’t spend enough time proofreading”; “I can’t be mediocre; it’s not who I am”
• Avoidance: “I’m never going to be able to write a good book, so I’m not even going to try”
• Catastrophizing: “I don’t deserve what I have, and I’d better work harder if I want to keep it”
• Should statements: “If I don’t run at lunch today, I’m going to get out of shape … so I should go, even though my knee hurts”
What voice speaks those lines in your head? Is it a specific person? Is it you? Can you take a moment to notice the next time you automatically chime in with a justification for your actions? How do you feel when your inner critic takes over? What emotions precede it? What could help calm your anxiety in the moment?
Here’s one way to calm your negative self-talk, and you’ll love it because it involves a little self-criticism. I say this with love, but being stuck in our heads — ruminating and focusing on our flaws all the time — is very self-centered.
For this method, I have my former therapist Wilma to thank. One day when I was anxious and frazzled about bombing something, Wilma said, “Why do you have to be so special at everything? Whoever told you that?”
I looked at her and said, “I’ve always been special, since I was three years old.”
To which Wilma replied, “Well, who says?”
Who says, indeed? Where did I get the belief that I must be special and outstanding at everything?
Anxiety expert Alice Boyes notes that this narcissism is self-protective. “You end up believing, ‘The only way I’ve succeeded in life or the only way I’m being accepted and loved … is by being excellent, by overdoing everything,’” she explains.
But that’s another thought trap of perfectionism. The truth is that “not being the best at everything isn’t a threat to you. It isn’t a threat to you getting what you want out of life.”
Sometimes when I’m stressing about a looming failure on my horizon, I’ll just tell myself, “Why can’t you do bad work or have a bad day like everyone else?”
Reminding myself that I’m no more special than anyone else is not self-denigrating, and it isn’t a way to let myself off the hook. It’s an act of self-compassion and a way to gently but effectively expose and address the underlying narcissistic tendencies that power perfectionism.
3. Learn to set “enough” goals
Dare yourself to set “enough” goals and practice using only appropriate effort — rather than going all out and putting in extra effort. Appropriate effort is about doing something well but removing undue emotional investment in the outcome; it’s the opposite of our culture’s expectation to always go above and beyond and always do our very best.
Buddhism teacher Sally Kempton writes that appropriate effort is any effort that doesn’t involve struggle. For Kempton, the secret of acting with appropriate effort is to ask herself, “If this were the last act of my life, how would I want to do it?”
How can you bring appropriate effort into your life? Why not practice being a C+ student? I know that probably made some of you gasp, but just hear me out. Not every project demands your best work. What if you gave only 79 percent? What if your next report doesn’t have prose that rises to the level of greatness? The key is to acknowledge the outcome. Will what you do be good enough for your boss? Will what you achieve be good enough for you? The answer to both is, almost surely.
Think about some happy accidents. Was there ever a time when a meeting was canceled or a deadline was extended, and you magically struck upon an idea or a solution that you’d been striving for? When the mind is free, creativity tends to happen. Remember that the next time you’re inclined to overwork and imagine brain space literally opening up as you decide to stop for the night.
To try this, practice on something outside of work. You could use exercise as a stand-in for setting limits on work time. Science shows we need only a certain amount of cardio and strength training every week to achieve our goals. So if you normally exercise for an hour a day, cut it to forty minutes. See what happens. Is the process less stressful? Do you dread the gym less? Here’s a heads-up: if you’ve been conditioned to achieve, as most of us have, this will make you feel like a failure for a short while. But only for a short while.
You may just find that what you gain — more calm, easeful workdays, more unimpeded time and headspace — is worth what you’ll lose in so much anxious striving. And is that such a loss anyway? Of course not. Know that it’s OK to do some things less well in order to have the complete and healthy life you want.
Reprinted with permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from the new book The Anxious Achiever: Turn Your Biggest Fears into Your Leadership Superpower by Morra Aarons-Mele. Copyright © 2023 Morra Aarons-Mele. All rights reserved.
Watch her video — part of TED’s The Way We Work series — now: