This Is How to Overcome Perfectionism: 14 Approaches

Do you struggle with perfectionism? It’s a big problem today for many, including ambitious professionals and leaders. It’s also widely misunderstood, and even misappropriated as a badge of honor.

Perfectionism is a personal standard that demands or expects flawlessness. It typically includes overly critical self-evaluations and excessive concerns about harsh judgments from others.

Perfectionism entails striving for unrealistic or even unattainable goals. What follows, of course, is disappointment when you fail to achieve them. If you’re a perfectionist, you translate low performance into low self-worth.

The assumption behind it is that perfection is the only route to self-acceptance. Some people praise perfectionism as a desire for self-improvement, but in reality it’s much more about seeking acceptance and approval. It’s about conflating your identity and worth with your performance and accomplishments.

Here are signs that you have perfectionistic tendencies:

fixating on your mistakes
being overly critical of yourself
striving to be flawless
being overly cautious
seeking to control situations
getting defensive about feedback

Researcher Brené Brown suggests that perfectionism isn’t binary. Instead, she notes that we all fall on a continuum of perfectionistic tendencies, ranging from occasional and situational bouts of it to “compulsive, chronic, and debilitating” versions of it.

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The Downsides of Perfectionism

How does perfectionism affect you? In sum, it lowers achievement while bringing stress. Perfectionism inhibits your work, harms your relationships, and causes needless suffering, degrading your mental health.

It can fuel fear and frustration, as well as disappointment and discontent. It even takes away from your enjoyment of accomplishments because you’re focusing on the things you could’ve done better.

According to the research, it’s linked with psychological distress and low self-esteem, as well as with fear of failure and workaholism. By tapping into your fear, perfectionism can divert you away from your creativity and deeper wisdom.

You may feel like your perfectionism can help motivate you to do a great job on things but, at the same time, you suspect that it can invite anxiety into your life and turn people off around you.

It can get confusing, so you’re wise to distinguish between perfection (which is impossible in human pursuits) and perfectionism, and between the pursuit of excellence (which is positive) and perfectionism (which can be quite harmful).

Perfectionism isn’t the same as the pursuit of excellence or striving to be your best.
Instead, it’s a self-destructive expectation that you can be perfect.


What to Do About It: 14 Approaches

Thankfully, there are many things you can do to address your perfectionistic tendencies. Here are 14 practical approaches:

1. Distinguish between tasks that warrant perfection, or at least a very high standard of performance, and those that don’t. If you’re involved in brain surgery, airline repairs, or financial reporting, you need to get things right. But if you’re responding to an email or taking notes on a meeting, you don’t need to agonize over every word or phrase. A simple example: do your colleagues need a verbatim meeting transcript that’s beautifully formatted, or do they need short summaries with helpful headlines and bullet points for the key action items?

2. Think about the ratio of inputs to outputs. Consider things like your effort and time on the front end and then estimate how much they translate into real value for others on the back end.

3. Factor in the opportunity cost of your perfectionistic behavior. Recall that there are diminishing returns to continued work on something after a certain point. Think about better uses of your time. You can make a greater impact on more things if you use your time intentionally instead of slavishly giving in to your perfectionistic impulses.

4. Force yourself to get started on important things right away. That way, you’ll sidestep the avoidance problem that comes with perfectionism. Many perfectionists don’t get started on something unless they know precisely how they’ll do it and they can convince themselves it will be flawless.

5. Show early drafts of your work to others and request quick feedback. Mention that it’s just a draft and you’re looking for high-level feedback, not fine-tuned edits as if it were a final version. Ask them if it’s good enough. And if not, how close to being done is it, and what would make it so? Often, you’ll discover that your early draft is either good enough or close to it, and that it would be wasteful to spend many more hours honing it.

6. Reach out to a trusted friend when you’re having trouble getting started. Talk through your initial ideas. This will often help put things in perspective, organize your thoughts, and help you realize you do have something valuable to contribute. And often, they’ll provide not only ideas or input but also encouragement and inspiration.

7. Remind yourself that most things involve a process of getting a rough start, making improvements, and then making final tweaks. Don’t let the perfectionist in you fail to start because the first draft won’t be perfect. Take a page out of the lean startup methodology common in the startup world in which they start with a “minimum viable product” and release it out to the world so they can get early customer feedback and learn from it before spending too much time and effort on something.

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8. Give yourself a deadline. That way, you’ll avoid getting caught in an infinite loop of fixes.

9. Remind yourself that getting something done is more important than making it perfect. Recall the old saying, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

10. Flip the switch from negative self-talk to positive self-talk. Change the channel on your inner voice so that it focuses more on potential and growth and less on deficit and critique.

11. Focus more on process and not just results. Recognize that results aren’t always fully in your control. When you focus on the process, you’re more likely to get lost in your work and not freeze up due to fear of failure.

12. Adopt a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset. In a growth mindset, you recognize that you can develop your intelligence, abilities, and talents—that they’re not static. Our mindset, according to the research, shapes our enjoyment of challenging tasks, ideas about what we will strive for, and performance on tasks.

13. Change your focus from perfection to progress. Use a checklist and regular reviews so you can see your advances (and celebrate them).

14. Remember that you matter and have worth regardless of how you perform on the specific task in front of you. Don’t fall into the trap of conflating your performance on everything with your self-worth. Recall that many great achievers got that way by stretching themselves, failing often, learning from their mistakes, and persevering through adversity.

Choose progress, not perfection.
Done is better than perfect.


Reflection Questions

  1. Are you falling into the trap of perfectionism?
  2. How is it affecting you?
  3. Which of the approaches noted above will you try?


Tools for You

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.


Recommended Books

  • Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
  • Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha
  • Jennifer Breheny Wallace, Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic—And What We Can Do About It
  • Shirzad Chamine, Positive Intelligence: Why Only 20% of Teams and Individuals Achieve Their True Potential—And How You Can Achieve Yours


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Postscript: Inspirations on Overcoming Perfectionism

  • “Perfectionism isn’t about high standards. It’s about unrealistic standards.” -Professor Andrew Hill, York St. John University
  • “At its root, perfectionism isn’t really about a deep love of being meticulous. It’s about fear. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of disappointing others. Fear of failure. Fear of success.” -Michael Law, author
  • “Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.” -Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
  • “The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.” -Anna Quindlen, writer

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, and TEDx speaker on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!