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  • Writer's pictureKatarina Ament, PsyD, MS

Embracing Imperfection & Overcoming Perfectionism

Perfectionism gets a bad rap. We tend to think of perfectionists as neurotic control freaks who drive themselves and others crazy with unrealistic expectations. But the truth is, perfectionism has its strengths, as well as weaknesses. In moderation, high standards can fuel achievement and self-improvement. The key is balance—learning to leverage the upsides of perfectionism while minimizing the downsides.

This article explores how to embrace imperfection and overcome perfectionism by harnessing its strengths while ditching the parts that hold you back.

The Upsides of Perfectionism

Let's start with the positives. Perfectionism may have earned a nasty reputation, but it comes from a well-intended place. High standards often translate to high levels of motivation and effort. Perfectionists are willing to work harder and longer than others to achieve lofty goals. They tend to be conscientious, organized, and detail-oriented.

In school and the workplace, perfectionists are diligent students and reliable employees focused on producing top-notch work. They hold themselves accountable and don't need much external policing to stay on track. Perfectionists take pride in their work and feel intrinsically rewarded by a job well done. Their determination earns accolades and opportunities.

Perfectionism can also fuel self-improvement. Constructive discontent—that nagging sense that things could always be better—drives growth. Since perfectionists are always striving, they're always learning. Definitely an admirable trait!

The Downsides of Perfectionism

Perfectionism turns destructive when healthy striving morphs into self-punishing rumination. They tend to fall into the trap of focusing on flaws or mistakes more than their accomplishments. No matter how well they do, it's never quite good enough in their own eyes.

Making mistakes can send perfectionists into a self-critical spiral, rather than viewing new experiences and mistakes as learning opportunities. They drill themselves relentlessly over small errors and see each misstep as a reflection of fundamental flaws, which can erode their self-esteem and lead to anxiety and depression.

Perfectionists also have a tendency to apply rigid standards to parts of life that don’t lend themselves well to such high standards, like relationships and recreation. Planning is great, but there has to be room for flexibility. Fun isn't really fun anymore when it needs to be done flawlessly. The standards perfectionists have for themselves often bleed into their relationships. Their high expectations can be difficult for others to meet and may even be unrealistic, leaving the perfectionist disappointed and others annoyed or exasperated. They may even decide enough is enough and walk away.

In the quest to do everything faultlessly, perfectionists also take on too much. Overcommitment leads to overwhelm and neglecting health and happiness. Perfectionists often struggle with work-life balance, getting adequate rest, and self-care because there's always more that could be done.

The insatiable drive for self-improvement can also obscure gratitude. They are too focused on inadequacies, personally and experientially, to appreciate how far they've come, what they have accomplished, and the present moment.

Tips for Overcoming Perfectionism

The keys to keeping perfectionism healthy are:

  1. Prioritize What Matters. Reserve perfectionist tendencies for high-stakes goals that warrant the extra effort. Pursue progress, rather than perfection, especially in lower priority areas. Ask yourself: Is this really worth the time, attention, and effort I’m putting in?

  2. Celebrate Wins. Make a habit of relishing achievements along the way, not just at the finish line. Even small progress deserves congratulations. Recognize each step forward. If it’s hard to recognize your accomplishments when you’re in a self-critical spiral, try keeping a journal of your achievements to use as a reminder during periods of doubt.

  3. Practice Self-Compassion. Be as kind to yourself as you would a friend when you make a mistake or fall short. Getting better means accepting missteps as part of the process. Progress requires patience and practice, not punishment. Successful people aren’t successful because they have never failed. Successful people are successful because they have allowed themselves to experience failures and kept going.

  4. Embrace Imperfection. We all have flaws and limitations—accept these with grace. Let go of the need for meticulous control; life is messy and unpredictable. Allow things to be good enough sometimes. That’s often all you need.

  5. Give Reasonable Effort, Then Stop. Have you ever been working on something for several hours and noticed that you hardly made any progress in the last hour, or even two? That’s because your brain is probably fried. Sometimes we need space from something to refuel or be able to view problems in a different way. Avoid burnout by calling it quits when further effort yields diminishing returns. Sure, you want to strive reasonably hard, but you also need rest and relaxation. Try to focus on balance and consistency rather than giving 100% to every aspect of your life. It’s unsustainable.

  6. Ask For Help. Many perfectionists have the “if you want it done right, do it yourself” mentality, but the reality is that you can’t do everything. Delegate, collaborate, and outsource when you can. Sharing the load allows you to work smarter and more efficiently. And you may even learn something new by seeing how someone else approaches a task.

  7. Practice Gratitude. Regularly reflect on how far you've come and what you do well. Take time to appreciate abilities you may take for granted, as well as things others bring to your life. Practicing gratitude helps offset perfectionism's critical lens, improving your overall happiness, as well as your relationships.

Perfectionism can be a source of achievement and satisfaction when kept in check. By embracing imperfection, celebrating incremental gains, knowing when to stop, and sharing the effort, you can overcome perfectionism’s hold and reap the upsides while minimizing the downsides. Making this mental shift is difficult and takes time, and you’ll probably slip into those self-critical tendencies at points. But you can help keep things in perspective by practicing self-compassion and gratitude for yourself and others. With balance, the strengths of perfectionism can be a powerful asset.

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