A perfectionism disorder in the psychological sense occurs when an individual, because of certain childhood stressors, develops significant low self-esteem and a sense of shame regarding his very self. Then in order to redeem himself from this situation he or she adopts a fantasy as follows: “Right now I feel terrible about myself. In order to make myself feel better, I am going to be great! I am going to drive myself towards perfect performance, output and accomplishment. Then I will be so successful that automatically I will no longer feel this painful low self-esteem, and I will be beyond all of that punishing self-criticism.” The only problem is that this strategy can never work, because accomplishment cannot cure an emotional disorder like perfectionism, only treatment through psychotherapy can do that. So usually the budding perfectionist resolves to strive for an even higher level of perfection. This situation can generate significant anxiety, anger issues interpersonal conflict and even ADHD-like symptoms, not to mention significant misery.
Although generally I recommend a period of both cognitive and dynamic psychotherapy to treat perfectionism, there are many perfectionism treatment interventions you can do right now on your own to defuse the situation.
1. Shoot for 80 percent performance!
Perfectionists often are very self-critical if they perform even a little less than 100 percent, which by mathematical necessity, is almost all the time. Therefore a much healthier and ingenious technique is for the perfectionist to resolve, “From the start I am going to only shoot for 80 percent performance. That means I am going to completely expect 20 of my project to be flawed and messed up, and I am going to be Ok with that!” In order for this to work you must understand that in most fields, 80 percent success is considered a totally successful, admirable, acceptable rate! Most businesses would consider 80 percent a stellar success. Most bosses would be thrilled if all their employees performed consistently 80 percent. The idea to get through your head is that no reasonable person expects perfection out of you! They only expect decent performance. You will find that shooting for 80 percent will cause you to be so much more relaxed and you will have such a happier life! In addition paradoxically and amazingly it will actually increase your output! This is because when you pressure yourself to achieve 100 percent, that stress reduces productivity and makes you miserable, but shooting for 80 puts you into your sweet spot and you will perform great. The trick is to get it clear that, “I am totally fine making mistakes 20 percent of the time. Less than perfect is also good!” In some exacting fields such as architecture and medical surgery, the bar may have to be say, 93 percent, and in some fields like psychotherapy and teaching, 60 percent may be acceptable!
Perfectionism treatment intervention Number 2: Dealing with procrastination
Perfectionists are often paralyzed with procrastination, as their unhealthy need to get everything perfect makes them afraid to start anything. So a technique I’ve developed for this is when you’re faced with a lot of work and frozen with procrastination, don’t say, “I’m going to do all or most of my work right now.” Just say, “I’m going to do just a bit of work for 2-5 minutes, and then I’m going to take a break and see how I feel. Then after that I might work for just 10 minutes and accomplish one small task.” This strategy totally takes the pressure off you because after all, you’re just shooting for a tiny goal which won’t matter much, so the drive for perfection is unlikely to be engaged. Then usually after starting and working for a few minutes, you will get into your work and continue happily, as the procrastination will have been broken! If it still persists, continue breaking your work into tiny chunks.
Another great tip for when you can’t decide which task is the most important and deserves to be started first, is to purposely start on the least important task, and work up from there! This technique totally defuses perfectionistic tendencies!
3. Tyranny of the Shoulds
Psychoanalyst from the 50’s Karen Horney invented this concept. Anytime you use the word “I should,” such as “I should work harder, I should have done better, I should have done this instead of that,” it is coming from an emotionally unhealthy place! Therefore the technique is to abolish the word should from your vocabulary and thoughts! Who is so authoritative that he has the right to say you should be doing better! Instead adopt the idea, which is probably much more accurate, “I am doing just fine the way I am!”
4. Don’t write books, write chapters.
One time my mentor, Dr. Ben, was having a conversation with another therapist, Dr Mayer. He said, “Hey Dr. Mayer, I’m really enjoying reading several of your wonderful books!” Dr Mayer responded, “But I haven’t written any books!” Dr. Ben insisted, but I have several of your fascinating books on my shelf at home!” Dr Mayer clarified, “Oh those! Those are not books, those are chapters. I write only an individual chapter at a time, and then at the end I sometimes put them together into a book!” Do you see the genius? Having a goal of only one chapter at a time totally takes the pressure off you! That liberates you to focus on truly writing an excellent chapter without worrying about the big picture! You can even employ this technique on a smaller scale: Don’t write an article, write a paragraph, them decide if you want to write another one, then put them together. It works for chores as well, just have as your goal unpacking one box, and then reassess and take the next step from there.
5. Abandon the idea that you need to earn your right to exist.
Perfectionists often have the idea that they need to achieve and accomplish good things in order to earn the right to enjoy life and even to exist! But if you look at most perfectionists, they are extremely good, successful people and in all fairness, they usually have accomplished so much that up until now they have earned their right to exist many times over! But in addition you must challenge that belief. The truth is you are probably are a decent person, and why shouldn’t you deserve to enjoy life and exist just like everyone else? Who says you have to slave to earn your existence? Actually, going into your childhood to find out where these attitudes come from will be helpful, and I will talk about it later.
6. Avoid being critical of others
Perfectionists, in addition to being self-critical, are often critical of others. Therefore this technique is to purposely try and cut others slack, view their performance positively and give them the benefit of the doubt. Some people are not doing well, but many are, and you will find it beneficial if you can give them some consideration. Then after practicing being non-critical on others, turn the same lens onto yourself! Be generous with yourself and realize that you are probably a fine person, and it is not kind to criticize yourself.
7. Brainstorm without severity
Often perfectionists are paralyzed from doing work by their constant criticism of every detail. Therefore a great technique when starting a project is to first spend a period of time brainstorming without any severity at all. That means give your ideas a period of complete immunity from evaluation or criticism. Entertain even outlandish ideas and be expansive. Just let your inspiration flow, and zealously guard it from any critical voice. Only then afterwards after your ideas have run out, go through them one by one and use severity, rejecting inferior ones and using a critical eye.
This technique can also be used on a macro level on your therapeutic journey. In other words, spend 3 full weeks not criticizing yourself or being severe in any form, even when you make real mistakes; just accept everything with love. Then at the end check for results: was it really such a disaster that you didn’t criticize yourself? Did your productivity really suffer without that critical eye? I am convinced that the answer will almost always be no! You will see that it is totally counter-productive to be self-critical!
8. Call attention to all the wonderful things you do!
This technique was developed by Dr. Mayer Wickler of Brooklyn. Since perfectionism is driven by low self-esteem, raising your self-esteem helps the situation tremendously. How do we do this cognitively? You get a journal and record in it 2 good things you did each day. Not grandiose achievements, just simple everyday good deeds in kindness to others and personal growth. Then at the end of the month you will have 60 wonderful things that you did. When you review them, alone or in therapy, you will be amazed at how special you are! Look at all those fine things you did! Is it logical that someone who does so much good deserves to feel bad about himself? In this way month after month your self-esteem will begin to bubble back up.
Perfectionism treatment intervention Number 9: Don’t evaluate your accomplishments, describe them
It is a terrible burden to be constantly evaluated, and evaluation drives perfectionism. Therefore instead of judging and evaluating yourself, describe what you did in a matter-of-fact way like a sportscaster describing a game, without any judgements, negative or positive, such as, “I did a good job,” or “That one could have been better.” Just describe, “I developed a relationship with a customer on the phone with a customer for 20 minutes,” without declaring your performance as good or bad, acceptable or unacceptable. Describe, “I wrote and email that made the sale,” but don’t praise or criticize yourself. Describe, I cleared the table for wife tonight and she found it very helpful,” without judging your performance. You will find it extremely liberating after a while to be freed from constant evaluation, and instead you will be thrilled with describing, because it gives you the true, neutral facts, that you are probably doing just fine the way you are! Evaluation causes you to constantly think, “How far did I fall from perfection,” but describing completely frees you from that punishing yardstick and allows you to be content with each particular moment.
10. Compare yourself to average regular people
If you are feeling self-criticism in a certain area, assess your accomplishments in terms of whether or not the average guy on the street would be pleased if he accomplished what you did. How many people would be happy to be in your shoes in that area? Most perfectionists would have to admit that they have accomplished a lot and many would love to trade places with them. So therefore if most people find you to be acceptable, why is it logical to hold yourself to a higher standard? If the average person would be happy with what you’ve done, that is a strong and convincing sign that you are doing good enough!
11. The value of kindness
Most people would agree that it is good to be kind to others. But what about yourself? Don’t you deserve kindness too? The answer is a resounding yes! In fact, the most efficient way to be kind to others is to first be kind to yourself, until you are filled up to overflowing and then your kindness pours out onto others. But we must understand that criticism of others or yourself is a great unkindness! It is almost always cruel, demoralizing and unfair. Even so-called constructive criticism usually does more harm than good. So inspire yourself to bestow endless acts of kindness back onto your very own self.
12. The beauty of the mundane
One cognitive shift that recovering perfectionists need to make is as follows. They need to appreciate the sublimity of the mundane, the freedom of being average the beauty of the mediocre, the liberation of being ordinary. 99 percent of people live almost their entire lives in that range and many of them find great happiness! It is so relaxing and relieving to free yourself to just be a regular guy who is not going to save the world, who doesn’t need endless grandiose achievements to redeem his low self-esteem. Paradoxically and amazingly, adopting these attitudes will relax and gladden you making you in the end actually much more successful!
Generally in addition to the above tips I recommend a course of 1 year of both psychodynamic and cognitive-behavioral therapy to really cure perfectionism,
as I have written about in my blog. That means going through your childhood and processing traumatic events and feelings, and changing your thoughts, beliefs, attitudes and values.
Feel free to peruse the rest of my fascinating blog or view my videos. If you live in NYC and are searching for a therapist with Perfectionism treatment interventions, and feel I may be the right one for you, you may chat with me in the chat box, send me and email, or call me directly at 646-681-1707 for a complementary 15-minute consultation. I look forward to speaking with you!