04/12/2013 08:24 am ET Updated Jun 12, 2013

The Dark Side of Perfectionism

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Do you find that setting standards too high by trying to do things too perfectly is a source of stress for you? While doing your best is certainly a virtue, perfectionism -- that is, settling for nothing less than perfect -- has a major down side. The problem is that many people mistake perfectionism for working their hardest or trying to do their best. But these two things are really not the same at all. Perfectionism is a bad habit and one that you can quickly kick!

In the real world, perfection is an impossible standard to meet. It can potentially keep you in a perpetual state of dissatisfaction, because it's the demand that you do better than your best. Is this likely? Striving towards perfection is also like aiming for a moving target. And when you miss, it it's likely that you negate what you have accomplished and berate yourself for what you didn't.

Thus, it's not hard to see how to the extent that you're perfectionistic, you're probably setting yourself up for failure. The irony of perfectionism is that you usually end up performing worse, because you inevitably hit a wall, put yourself down, and then fail to do your best because of the self-generated negativity that follows. What do you tell yourself when you can't do something seamlessly? Maybe you think, "I must be flawless," or "If I don't do this perfectly it means I'm a failure and I can't stand failure." This type of black-and-white thinking can be quite consuming. For example, the public speaker that's concerned with executing a perfectly flawless presentation will usually be so self-conscious that he's unable to be as animated and engaging as he could be. Another classic example is in sexual performance. The anxiety that comes from being overly concerned about performing perfectly well is a leading psychological cause of erectile dysfunction. For you, a similar pattern might be evident in the work you do, in parenting or any important goal you set for yourself.

The best way to conquer perfectionism is prevention. When you see perfection for what it is, this cycle can be broken. If you're truly giving it all you have, that's the best you can do. Notice if you have a tendency toward black-and-white thinking. If so, see if you can move a few inches inside the grey area. For example, if you're telling yourself "if I mess up at all, I'm in idiot," try replacing this thought with, "as much as I'll try not to, everyone makes mistakes," or "I did everything I could and that's the best I can do."

I offer other examples of how negative self-talk can be hurting you and ways to conquer it in my book Stage Climbing: The Shortest Path to Your Highest Potential. Removing negative thoughts from your life will allow you to approach any obstacle from a place of fearlessness and empowerment, where you can truly perform at your highest potential!

For more by Michael S. Broder, Ph.D., click here.

For more on emotional wellness, click here.

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