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How To Succeed Without Falling Into Perfectionism: 3 Tips From A Psychologist

Chloe Carmichael, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist By Chloe Carmichael, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
Chloe Carmichael, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist. She heads a successful private practice in New York City that focuses primarily on relationship issues and stress to help high achievers.
3 Ways To Avoid Falling Into The Trap Of Perfectionism, From A Psychologist
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Many driven, intelligent people who want to "live their best life" are very interested in self-improvement. Their drive for excellence has a lot of positive aspects, but this healthy drive can also go into overdrive—making them vulnerable to perfectionism. Getting stuck in perfectionism can be demotivating and, ironically, become a barrier to creating the life they actually want.

As a clinical psychologist and author working with clients who want to increase their well-being and reach their goals, I've encountered a lot of people who struggle to find the balance between striving for personal growth and getting lost in perfectionism. Here are a few quick tips that can help people embrace their drive to succeed, without getting stuck in the pitfall of perfectionism:

1. Understand what self-discipline really means.

Recognize the difference between self-discipline and self-flagellation: Self-discipline is when you are truthful with yourself about areas for improvement, but you take a balanced, measured approach when evaluating them. Self-flagellation, on the other hand, is beating yourself up endlessly to the point where your self-talk becomes overly critical—the focus becomes more on how "bad" you are than on how you can actually improve.

It's the difference between I skipped the gym today, I'm such a lazy failure and I skipped the gym today because I was short on sleep—it's normal to have a hard time building a new gym habit, but I've done hard things before. 

The key is to make sure your self-talk feels like something you would feel comfortable saying to a good friend who wanted your honest feedback—if it feels too harsh to say to a friend, it's probably too harsh to say to yourself.

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2. Focus on progress vs. perfection.

We actually master skills better by focusing on how we can make small improvements in the present moment versus constantly comparing ourselves to a paradigm of perfection. Yes, it's good to be clear-eyed about areas for improvement, but we'll have more success if we keep our focus on how to improve rather than just getting stuck on the awareness of imperfections. 

A simple way to stay focused on progress vs. perfection is to notice when you feel stuck in desiring improvement, then ask yourself: How can I make progress toward my goal?

In the example above about the gym, you might answer this with Next time, I'll set an evening alarm to remind myself to go to bed earlier, or maybe I'll just choose a later class. This keeps you in a proactive mindset and helps nudge you toward constructive behaviors rather than getting you mired in frustration.

3. Recognize what's driving your goals.

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Make sure you understand the root of your goals. Sometimes a desire to perfect certain areas of life can seem like it's coming from a good place but actually be a cover for deeper issues.

For example, if your quest to faithfully adhere to a gym schedule comes from a sincere desire to nurture your physical and mental well-being (often called intuitive exercise), that's great. But if it connects to a deeper belief that you won't be lovable until your body reaches a certain point of "perfection," then you deserve support to take a deeper look at what's driving you.

An easy way to check this is to add "so that" after your goal. (You may need to do this a few times to get to the root of your motivation.) For example, "I want to go to the gym regularly so that..." If you fill in the last blank with "...so that I can stay mobile and active throughout my life," that's a healthy motivation. If you fill it in with "...so that I can be the thinnest person at the office," that's not constructive. 

Not all examples will be so black and white of course, but taking the time to explore your reasons for improvement can help increase motivation around healthy goal and help stimulate you to reconsider goals that may not truly serve you.

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Bottom line.

Remember, there's nothing wrong with a drive for excellence—the trick is to make sure you're using it to your benefit rather than letting it hold you back. One final tip: When you find yourself aware of mistakes, even perhaps mistakes as you try to apply the tips above, start by congratulating yourself for the awareness of the mistake. This highlights the strength and insight shown by your willingness to acknowledge the issue and encourages you to consider it openly and constructively—which is actually the first step toward any self-improvement goals.

Give yourself plenty of latitude as you try these techniques, and remember: You don't have to do them perfectly! To go deeper into how you can convert your perfectionist tendencies into action, check out my book Nervous Energy: Harness the Power of Your Anxiety.

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