Escaping Perfectionism’s Trap

Are you haunted by a perfectionistic inner voice? Do you tend to set unrealistic goals or find yourself frozen—procrastinating on tasks for fear of not getting them just right? Are you highly self-critical? If so, then you are likely being undermined by perfectionism.

You might believe that perfectionism helps you succeed; in truth, however, it is more likely to hamper your efforts. High achievers are motivated by excitement about their goals and enjoy the process of setting and achieving them, whereas those plagued by perfectionism over-focus on outcomes and are hampered by fear of failure. Perfection’s voice urges you to avoid risks and mistakes, and leads to defensiveness in the face of constructive feedback. In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown explores how perfectionism can act as an emotional shield, trying to buffer you from judgment, blame and shame.

To break free from perfection’s grasp, avoid referring to yourself as “a perfectionist.” Instead, notice the internal debate between your perfectionistic inner voice and the part of you that embraces a growth mindset. Try conjuring this scene in your imagination: Perfectionism stands at one debate podium. What does s/he look like? At the other podium stands Growth, the part of you that is self-compassionate and knows that meeting your goals requires you to take risks, learn from your mistakes and keep trying. What does Growth look like? Write down what each of these parts of you says. Use this exercise to increase your awareness of your inner perfectionist and to amplify the voice of your growth mindset.

Research by psychologist Carol Dweck illuminates the destructiveness of perfectionism (the fixed mindset) and shares insight about the power of the growth mindset in her TED Talk “The Power of Yet”—as in I haven’t learned that yet, accomplished that yet, or solved that problem yet. “Yet” invites us to keep trying, to keep learning. Plus, Growth knows when your work is good enough, empowering you to let go of the current task and move on to what’s next.

Perfectionism insists that you’ve failed, so you should give up; or even worse: you’re going to fail, so you shouldn’t even try. But Growth knows that by noticing and then ignoring the pressures of perfectionism, you’ll discover how to enjoy the bumpy journey and will find more success along the way.

photo credit: Brett Jordan

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