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How to Be a Better Perfectionist

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Seth Gillihgan, PhD - Blogs
By Seth J. Gillihan, PhDClinical psychologistNovember 2, 2018

If you’re a perfectionist, “good enough” just isn’t good enough—it has to be perfect. I tend toward perfectionism myself (correct email punctuation, for example), so I understand the appeal of precision.

It’s easy to criticize perfectionism, but careful attention to detail does have advantages. For example, you’d probably be happy to learn that your surgeon is a perfectionist: You want them to be very careful about hygiene, location of the incision, and how they sew you up.

The problem with perfectionism is that it can lead to exactly what it’s trying to prevent. In the surgery example, the goal is to have a safe, successful surgery. If a surgeon is excessively focused on perfection, the procedure may take so long that the patient spends a dangerous amount of time under general anesthesia.

Similarly, students who are perfectionists often delay submitting a paper because they’re not sure it’s perfect yet and don’t want to make a bad impression on their teacher, but they end up doing exactly that when they continually miss deadlines. So we need to think carefully about whether excessively high standards are actually helping us to meet our goals.

It’s unlikely we’ll abandon our perfectionism entirely, nor is that necessarily a good goal. Instead, follow these guidelines to make the most of your tendencies.

  • Broaden your lens. It’s easy to miss the forest for the trees when perfectionism has us focused single-mindedly on the tree in front of us. For example, let’s say you’re on a tight budget; in an effort to avoid wasting money on groceries that you don’t end up using, you switch from doing a big weekly shop to going to the store every day and buying only what you need that day. While you may save a little money on food, the daily trips could end up costing you more in gas and vehicle wear-and-tear than you save (as I discuss with fellow blogger Dr. Alice Boyes here). Expand your focus to use your time and money more efficiently.
  • Question your assumptions about making mistakes. The number one driver of perfectionistic behavior is fear of making a mistake, which is based in rigid beliefs about how awful it would be to make an error. In reality, those fears are almost certainly overblown. Work toward accepting that everyone—everyone—makes mistakes, and they’re typically less costly than failing to act.
  • Be aware of lost opportunities. Perfectionism can make tasks take an excessive amount of time—for example, doing endless research before making a purchase. An acquaintance of mine described how he endlessly analyzed the housing market for years as he looked for the “perfect deal”; much to his regret he missed out on countless solid investments, and didn’t buy until just before the market collapsed. Notice times in your own life when perfectionism is causing you to miss out.
  • Plan your attack. Once we start a task, it’s easy to get mired in the details and lose track of time, which can lead to missing deadlines. Plan in advance how long you have for each task, and set alarms for when time is up.

Perfectionism isn’t an easy habit to break, so go easy on yourself as you work to shift your tendencies. And don’t hesitate to seek out professional help if needed as you experiment with new behaviors.

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About the Author
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and clinical assistant professor of psychology in the Psychiatry Department at the University of Pennsylvania. He is co-author with Janet Singer of Overcoming OCD: A Journey to Recovery and author of Retrain Your Brain: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in 7 Weeks and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple. Dr. Gillihan maintains a private practice in Haverford, PA, where he specializes in treating OCD, depression, anxiety, and insomnia.

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