03/19/2013 04:00 pm ET Updated May 19, 2013

Fighting Perfectionism Fearlessly

Many of my patients are highly educated, leaders in their industries, and among the best and the brightest. They're also perfectionists, and this can be a real problem for them as it can lead to feelings of anxiety and depression, and often wreaks havoc on relationships.

Early on, a perfectionist may have been given mixed messages from parents: "Good job, Johnny... but you can do better," or "Getting a B is good, but an A is better." This simultaneous criticism and praise sends a mixed message to the child, creating a drive to satisfy the parent: to do better, even when things by most standards are fine. Fear underlies the thinking of the perfectionist as he or she wonders, "Am I good enough?" "Will my project succeed?" "What if I don't get it right?" And so on. Fast forward 25 years, and you have your stressed-out, run-of-the-mill executive.

Ultimately a perfectionist needs to embrace the concept that there's no such thing as perfect and things can be just good or even just okay. Below is the case of "David," with whom I recently worked.

David, 40 years old, is a senior vice president at a Wall Street financial firm. When he came to see me he was depressed and highly anxious, and it was affecting his job performance at work. The problem stemmed from his perfectionism, a trait that had been instilled in him at an early age. His parents had expected him to be perfect -- to get A's in school, excel in sports, study several languages, and more. Now he was in constant fear of making a mistake and the self-imposed pressure was unbearable.

The Goal: David wanted to feel more relaxed, especially at work and to feel less stressed in general.

The Payoff: If he could reduce his stress, David knew he'd have more energy and be able to think more clearly. He'd make better decisions at the office, excel in his career, and feel happier.

The Program: In his mind, David was either perfect or not. I told him he needed to loosen up his thinking and become comfortable with being messy, making mistakes, and being less than perfect. I gave him a paradoxical prescription. I asked him for one week to face his fear of screwing up by actually screwing up on purpose. I suggested he arrive late to work, insert grammatical errors into emails, wear mismatched clothes, and mess up his perfectly-folded towels.

He, of course, pushed back, saying, "I can't do that."

I asked, "Why not? You can always go back to the way you were before."

He said, "I'll get in trouble. I won't get any work done. I'll have to work late to make up the time."

I pushed further. I later learned that they had a flexible start time between 9 and 9:30 a.m., but that he usually arrived at work by 8:30 a.m.

"So even if you arrive at work late at 8:45 a.m., you'll still technically be early," I coaxed.

By the end of the appointment, he reluctantly agreed to give "being messy" a try.

The following week, he told me that being messy was "anxiety provoking, but I could do it."

The Outcome: Week after week, we continued to shift the norm and help David ease into the idea of being "messy." Over the course of six sessions, he developed a new standard: Less was more. He had found a new range of comfort. He'd loosened up his thinking, was no longer stressed, and had more energy and clarity as a result. He had successful transformed from being a perfectionist to being fearless.

Check out my book, BE FEARLESS: Change Your Life in 28 Days to learn how you can make fearless changes in your life.

For more by Jonathan Alpert, click here.

For more on emotional wellness, click here.

Subscribe to the Lifestyle email.
Life hacks and juicy stories to get you through the week.