Giving up perfectionism can be a tough and challenging journey, but definitely not an impossible one. Perfectionism can drive a wedge between you and your happiness, so letting it go is one of the best things you can do for yourself.
The steps in this post are the basis for the treatment for the kind of depression I discuss in my book, Perfectly Hidden Depression – which at its most severe, can become deadly – as the pressure to never fail, to never falter becomes more and more intense.
If you’re a perfectionist, it’s highly likely that you not only feel overwhelmed by the demands you place on yourself, you can also feel increasingly burdened by the ever-higher expectations that others develop for you.
Yet you can never.. ever… allow anyone to see your struggle.
Maybe you’re the teenage quarterback who has led your team to three state championships and now you’re being carefully watched by professional scouts. Or the young mother who’s been promoted at your job for your outstanding contributions, but you stay up late into the night to get that very work done. Perhaps you’re the attorney who has an almost perfect trial record, and now you’re attracting more and more difficult, time-consuming cases.
The pressure is intense. Yet not meeting these high expectations is something you cannot imagine – or you even fear.
Years ago, my at-the-time very perfectionistic self told a therapist, “If I don’t keep my thumb at my back, pushing myself every minute, I”m afraid that I’ll become a slug.”
Your belief is it’s the pressure that brings with it success. You don’t believe that innately you have what it takes. And you fear that others will see your vulnerabilities.
Fear is what keeps perfectionism alive. Fear of not being on top, of looking like you don’t have it all together, of making mistakes that will be noticed, of rejection or judgment. Fear that you won’t be as good as you were last time. And the list goes on.
5 Steps To Take If You’re Caught Up In A Perfectionist Spiral
1. Become conscious or aware that your perfectionism is a problem.
You likely created this perfect-looking persona to emotionally survive and perhaps even thrive as a child. No matter what the reason, it became the way you shielded and protected yourself. Giving it up or tweaking it a bit can lead to even greater fear, but remember that staying the way you are can feel intensely lonely.
Here’s an example to illustrate the difference. You’re holding a pen in your hand, gently but firmly. There’s little chance that it will fall. But what if you grasp it as hard as you can? You’re still holding the pencil but in a way that will only lead to exhaustion.
2. Commit to change at a reasonable pace.
Your fear of change can become so significant that you’ll put up barriers, justifying your frenzied life by saying, “It won’t get done if I don’t do it.” Or, “I’m the breadwinner in the family. We can’t get along on less money.” Or you’ll set perfectionistic standards for change, and sabotage yourself before you even get started. “I’ll lose ten pounds in two weeks.” Or, “I’ll give up all my responsibilities.”
Way too much, way too soon. Change needs to be gradual and gentle.
3. Confront the rigid rules that you’re still following — that no longer truly help.
We all learned rules to follow when we were young. You could probably sit down and write them out. “Don’t chew with your mouth full.” Or, “Always be kind.”
But are there rules that are keeping your more authentic self from being revealed? “I can never show anger.” Or, “I can’t quit until the job’s done.” Look for rules that are the “shoulds” and “oughts” in your life.