I now steer clear of Black Swan because I enjoy sleeping at night, but I do feel for Nina Sayers (played by Natalie Portman) as she whispers lines about how she just “wants to be perfect.” That’s quite the tall order, though—especially when you’re forced to share screen time Winona “Flawless Goddess” Ryder, you know? (Don’t @ me—I’m entitled to my opinions.) And even if you aren’t a disturbed ballerina, chances are you’ve experienced some sort of flirtation with perfectionism that could drive you off the deep end. It’s how we’re wired. So, knowing how to stop being a perfectionist is pretty important.
As many of us are hightailing it to burnout land in the midst of our current culture of competitive success, being “perfect” can sometimes feel like the only mode of survival. One recent study published by the American Psychological Association posits that’s because we live in a more “individualistic, materialistic, and socially antagonistic” society. Also we have (as Black Swan showcases) “competitive environments, more unrealistic expectations, and more anxious and controlling parents.” Moreover, an obsession with perfection can be detrimental to your mental health, working as a cause and symptom of anxiety and depression. Fun!
So is there any advice to be gleaned and implemented regarding how to stop being a perfectionist? I mean, a leopard can’t change its spots and a swan can only rip out so many feathers, but if you feel as though your perfectionist tendencies are driving you (or your friends) up the wall, there are strategies you can use to take a break and be more present. This commitment to mindfulness can help shift any trait or inclination, including a propensity for perfectionism.
And to be clear, perfectionism isn’t alway a markedly a bad thing—there’s a reason so many people name it as their (faux) “biggest challenge” in job interviews. That said, framing it as even a fake negative quality does show that we understand that perfectionism skews toward the not-ideal of all possible traits and habits. Unless, of course, the task at hand really requires you to be on your A-game.
“If you’re a brain surgeon, Olympic figure skater, or planning a moon launch, you’re not aiming to be ‘pretty good,'” says psychologist Helene Brenner, PhD. “You’re trying to be as close to perfect as a human could possibly be. Nothing less would be good enough. If your perfectionism is something you do to yourself, though, then you’re simply holding yourself to a very high standard.”
“Sometimes it’s good to hand in B-quality work in order to save your energy to give your absolute best when it really counts,” —psychologist Helene Brenner, PhD
So to be clear, if perfectionism is required of your job, keep getting that perfect score. But if the tendency is taking control of your life in a negative way, ask yourself the following four questions before demanding the world of yourself.
Curious about how to stop being a perfectionist? Ask yourself the following 4 questions whenever you might be demanding too much.
1. “Is this worth it?”
Let’s say you’re dealing with a toxic narcissist boss, and you’re trying to submit A+ work in order to win them over. Of course you want to do a great job, but if you know your above-and-beyond time and efforts won’t be recognized, maybe you can cut the 12 hour days down to a cool 9. Or just focus on getting little tasks at hand done well, and then spend your spare energy on things that matter, like impressing someone in another department who might be able to save you from this hell. “Sometimes it’s good to hand in B-quality work in order to save your energy to give your absolute best when it really counts,” Dr. Brenner says.
2. “Am I being effective?”
I often get involved in planning other people’s parties—but not in the best ways. At all. I’ll spend many hours on decorations that nobody notices, yet will completely forget about little details like, oh, I don’t know, having utensils. For a dinner party. Basically, being a perfectionist can mean getting hung up on less important, more show-y details.
“No one’s going to praise you when you hand them an exquisitely designed and handcrafted steering wheel after they asked for a car,” Dr. Brenner says.
3. “Am I overthinking this?”
You know how sometimes you get all dolled up for an after-work event, but that whisper of coffee you spilled on your skirt or wrinkle in your dress is really throwing you for a loop? So, when you get to your happy hour or dinner or whatever, you feel the need to announce what a mess you feel like. Well, most of the time nobody will notice the tiny blemishes instead of focusing on the big picture. Furthermore, they won’t care, so all you’re doing is announcing something no one would have seen.
“Paralysis can set in when you obsess so much about every single detail, thinking that each and every one is a life-and-death matter, that you either don’t do it at all or you drive yourself and everyone around you crazy,” says Dr. Brenner. “A month from now, will people really remember that one single detail, or will they remember the whole wonderful thing you created?”
C’mon, you know the answer here.
4. “Am I afraid of being criticized?”
We all are, on some level, afraid of criticism. Sometimes we finesse and finesse and finesse in order to create something people can’t slam. But the reality is, if it exists, people will find fault with it.
“Sometimes perfectionism comes from a terror of having someone point out your faults and flaws, so you try to be so impeccable that no one can ever find fault with you,” Dr. Brenner says. “But fear of all criticism is a paralyzing way to live. Nothing truly new, original, and great can be created without making many mistakes along the way.”
Let’s say you’re good on how to stop being a perfectionist, and are more of a Hermione Granger type; here’s how to calm your know-it-all tendencies. Or if you have a sticky mind, here’s how to stop catastrophizing the situation at hand.
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