Many Americans consider themselves to be perfectionists.
But striving for perfection often leads to frustration, procrastination and stress-related symptoms, such as anxiety, anger and depression. And because perfectionists can be hard on others when they fail to measure up, perfectionism can also lead to loneliness.
"A perfectionist is someone who demands of himself or herself and others a higher quality of performance than is required by the situation," says Steven Hendlin, Ph.D., a clinical and sports psychologist in Irvine, Calif. "Anything short of perfection in their performance becomes unacceptable."
Some perfectionists don't require perfection in every aspect of their lives. Some people are perfectionists only in their personal live—for example, striving to raise perfect children or find the perfect mate. Others are perfectionists in the workplace and often are regarded as supercompetitive, poor team players and unable to handle constructive criticism.
Because being the best is a part of the collective consciousness, "to some degree, perfectionism affects everyone," Dr. Hendlin says. With this in mind, the following suggestions can help you escape the perfectionism trap.
Lower your expectations
As a first step, stop making perfectionism a virtue. "Understand it's impossible to achieve perfection," Dr. Hendlin says. "Just because you can conceive it doesn't mean you can achieve it."
Instead, tell yourself you'll vie for excellence by setting attainable goals.
For example: You've been assigned to write a report. The person who strives for excellence works within the limitations of a deadline and aims to write a good report that is accepted. The perfectionist, on the other hand, attempts to turn in a flawless report, then misses the deadline after obsessing over the report's thoroughness and eloquence.
Face your fear
To disarm the fear that motivates perfectionism, ask yourself: "If I don't do a perfect job, who's going to get angry? Who's going to disapprove?"
Then dig deeper by asking: "Will my supervisor really dislike me because I didn't do a project perfectly?" And: "How much am I substituting my supervisor for the parent I'm really trying to please?"
"Most perfectionists can trace their underlying chronic apprehension to critical parents who had unrealistically high expectations," Dr. Hendlin says. "They have the unconscious hope that performing perfectly will finally win their parents' approval and then, indirectly, everyone else's."
Collect your due
At the heart of a perfectionist's credo is the idea that the better you do something, the better you'll feel. Yet perfectionists derive little satisfaction from their accomplishments. Rarely are they able to feel pleased with what they have done, because nothing is ever really perfect. "They're in a hurry to get to the next challenge," Dr. Hendlin says.
People who strive for excellence, on the other hand, are "motivated by success and the good feelings related to it," he says. To loosen the grip of perfectionism, take a break after you've completed a difficult task; enjoy the rewards of a job adequately done. Congratulating yourself and giving yourself much-needed downtime serve as psychological nourishment.
Adopt an affirmation
Perfectionism is a learned behavior. "It's not genetic," Dr. Hendlin says. Still, to shake the habit, it pays to adopt an affirmation that can keep you on track.
Dr. Hendlin suggests two: "My performance isn't who I am," and "A fallible human being is a normal human being." Say either one to yourself when the going gets tough, or post one at your desk or somewhere you'll see it often.