Striving for Excellence: A Perfectionist’s Guide to Self-Compassion and Change

Are you the type of person who desires to do things well? Do you strive for high achievements in life? Do you worry and fret when there is a possibility you may make an error or mistake? Do you fear being unsuccessful or being recognized as a failure? Do these worries cause you to feel bad about yourself, agonize over all your past failures and mistakes, or even prevent you from engaging in activities in the first place? Has anyone in your life, including yourself, ever described you as a perfectionist because of some of these reasons or others like them? 

The purpose of this blog is to attend to some of the common features and experiences of perfectionism and some strategies to help manage this pattern of thinking that can sometimes be damaging to our self-perception.

For many, perfectionist tendencies can lead to ongoing anxiety and fear, lack of productivity, and overwhelm. When we find ourselves constantly worrying about making a mistake, experience ongoing fears about messing up or letting others down, or we regularly avoid taking risks due to concern of how it might turn out, perfectionism might be at play. 

These patterns can lead to less productivity for some and even connect to ongoing battles of procrastination. Often times, this type of avoidance is protecting you from feeling inadequate, which can in turn keep you safe from judgment and criticism; two things in life that terrify many of us. An overwhelming cycle can take place between longing to succeed and wanting to engage in novel activities, entangled with absolute terror of failing. 

If you think you might be personally struggling with some of these patterns, it is important to recognize what role they play in your life to learn ways to live with them in the healthiest way possible.

So, for starters in can be helpful to recognize the signs. The following are some thinking patterns that those who deal with perfectionism may find themselves thinking:

  • You do not believe it is acceptable to make mistakes. 
  • You find that there is no room for error in your life.
  • You follow the expectations of authority figures no matter what they might be. 
  • Your achievements indicate your value, and you believe you do not have any value if you are unsuccessful.
  • You believe you must do things to your level of perfection, and this is often more perfect than you expect from those around you in their own behaviors.
  • You avoid trying things or give up if you know you may not do them perfectly or someone in your life will do them better.
  • You keep your goals hidden so others do not see or know if you have failed if you do not achieve them.

Similarly, it can be helpful to recognize the function of the perfectionist behaviors. For example, taking the time to process how striving for perfection is helping you or has helped you historically. Perhaps these actions often come from a place of wanting approval, acceptance and a sense of belonging. You may believe that if you never make mistakes or fail, perhaps others will never leave or reject you. As human beings that are wired for connection, relationship, and attachment, it makes sense to adopt behaviors that protect these innate qualities within us. 

It can help to recognize the costs or losses that come from these patterns even though they may also be serving a function. For many who struggle with perfectionism, finding oneself experiencing depression, anxiety, procrastination and low motivation, shame and guilt, low self-esteem, negative thinking, exhaustion and burnout, anger and frustration, and even obsessive-compulsive behaviors and rigidity is quite common. Difficulty in interpersonal relationships can also present themselves, as well as habits of self-sabotaging behaviors both personally and interpersonally. 

So, what do we do with all of this? Are there ways to adapt these thinking patterns into healthier ones? Like any change we experience or desire, it can sometimes be a slow, tedious process. Allowing yourself the time and space to look at this holistically and make thoughtful adjustments to your thinking patterns and behaviors can be vital. One positive shift in thinking can be to work toward more process-oriented decisions and behaviors vs. product-oriented ones. 

Practically speaking, this can look like acknowledging our human limitations, accepting that we will make mistakes, and focusing on what we are learning along the journey more than the end result, accomplishment, or achievement. Another adjustment that can be made is from a lens of perfectionism to one of excellence. It is 100% okay and admirable to want to do things well. It is okay to set goals and desire achieving them. And it is also okay to strive for success. The key difference is to recognize it is impossible to do all of this perfectly, and that there will be times you do things well and times you don’t, times you set goals and achieve them and times you miss the mark, as well as times of success and times of failure. They are all a part of being human. And that is okay. 

Excellence can look like a continuous effort of giving your genuine best in situations. It can also make life a welcomed challenge, rather than something that is constantly feared. 

In adapting to this lens of excellence you will likely: 

  • Experience more of life and embrace increased opportunities.
  • Learn and grow from your mistakes.
  • Feel empowered and confident in the areas you do succeed in.
  • Be more accepting of reality and maintain reasonable expectations for yourself.
  • Be able to enjoy life more in the present, as compared to regretting or worrying about the past, or fretting about what will happen in the future. 
  • Have a more diverse overall life experience. 

If any of this has resonated with you as you have read it, I encourage you to explore any small shifts in thinking you can make in order to alter your expectations, increase your level of self-compassion, and experience a life more aligned with EXCELLENCE