I am a recovering perfectionist. Several years ago, I realized that I had spent so much time saving face, avoiding failure, and skirting mistakes that I'd become an expert at it. By extension, I had also become an expert at keeping myself small.
From my own journey of self-discovery, and from coaching people of all ages through theirs, I've found that bouncing back after mistakes and failures is one of the most crucial life skills that anyone can learn. When you learn how to do this, you open the door to not only a stronger sense of self-confidence but also to creativity, more intimate relationships, and the courage to pursue your dreams.
If you struggle with beating yourself up every time you stumble, here are five tips to help you transform mistakes into opportunities to overcome perfectionism and build self-confidence:
1. Look for the lesson.
Perspective is a powerful thing. If you set a goal and don't meet it, you might feel like you've failed. But instead of focusing on what you haven't achieved, you can ask yourself, "What can I learn from this? What is the lesson here?" For example, if you signed up for a fitness challenge and you did not complete it because you were too busy, maybe the lesson is that you need to take a serious look at your schedule and make more time for yourself. Like this, the "failure" actually becomes a valuable signal about something that needs to change in your life—something you have control over.
2. Practice unconditional self-acceptance.
One of the most common symptoms of perfectionism is using self-acceptance as an incentive. I've definitely been there—dangling my self-respect like a carrot in front of myself, telling myself that I'll get that reward if I'm "good." It doesn't work. Unconditional self-acceptance is the foundation of all self-improvement. Think of it as being a good parent to yourself—you may need to practice discipline, but your love must never waver. Be the pair of arms you can run to when things go awry.
3. Review your expectations.
Whether you've chosen them consciously or subconsciously, you have a very specific set of expectations for yourself. Do your expectations allow you to stumble? If your standards don't allow you to make mistakes, then making mistakes will always be a struggle. Luckily, you are the one in charge of your standards! Instead of expecting yourself to always be right, you could focus on doing your best. This way, you leave some room for the learning process. You may fail at a specific activity, but you will not fail your own value system.
4. Learn to encourage yourself.
All self-talk, including criticizing yourself after making a mistake, is a habit. How can you change it? First of all, realize that you cannot magically delete the self-judgment or ignore it. That's your automatic reaction. You cannot do anything about that, just like you cannot get rid of a sugar craving. Second, do not try to force generic positive self-talk statements onto yourself. What you can do is ask yourself, What could someone say to encourage me right now? Then, say those things to yourself.
The reason this works is that you're responding to an inner craving to be spoken to in a loving, encouraging way and you are responding with the words that you want to hear. You're learning to be the person who speaks these words. This might feel strange at first, but as you practice, you will not only get better; you will feel better too.
5. Channel your perfectionism.
For so long, I thought that perfectionism was a curse. It haunted me through every creative project and picked me apart after each social situation. What changed my life was realizing that judgment and criticism are just mental skills and, like all mental skills, there's a time and a place for them. When I'm editing a piece of writing, it actually helps to be extremely critical. When I'm looking at my face in the mirror or when I'm in a social situation, not so much.
Ask yourself—in which areas of my life is perfectionism actually helpful? In those areas, allow yourself to nitpick as much as you please. Allow yourself to experience the positive feelings of using this skill in a productive way. Then, next time you revert to perfectionism when you really need self-support, pay attention to the negative feelings. Over time, you will naturally calibrate to using your mental skills more effectively.
6. Reach out.
When I first began to teach self-awareness and self-love, I was surprised by how many people thought they were struggling alone, while their experiences were incredibly similar to the other dozen people who had messaged me that same day. From facilitating online support groups, I have seen the power of people coming together to heal and grow. As they say, "You're only as sick as your secrets." By reaching out to a community in which you feel safe, you can not only bounce back but help others do so as well.