How to Stop Being a Perfectionist

Perfectionism can really put a wrench in your ability to achieve your goals. When things don't go as planned give these strategies a try before your inner critic kicks in, and you'll be back in the game in no time. Always remember that you don't have to be perfect in order to be amazing!
05/11/2015 10:20 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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Have you ever allowed your desire to do something perfectly keep you from doing it at all? Shortly after joining Toastmasters two years ago, I had the worst perfectionism -- induced, ego-bashing experience of my life.

I had written an awesome second speech and practiced and polished it until it was absolutely perfect. On the day that I was to present it, I stood up in front of a room full of people and promptly forgot everything that I was going to say. It was horrible.

I finally managed to struggle my way through it and everyone was very nice in the evaluations, pointing out all the things that they liked about the speech, but I was devastated. The perfectionist in me was so focused on how badly I had screwed up on something that I had worked so hard on that I was completely unable to see anything good about my performance at all.

The problem with perfectionism

Perfectionists are people who strive for flawlessness in everything they do. They set exceedingly high performance standards for themselves and tend to be extremely critical when evaluating their own efforts and results.

In my experience, the problem with perfectionism is that if you never feel like you measure up to your own standards, you're constantly focused on negativity and always in a state of stress. Perfectionism can also lead to a habit of avoiding situations that could help you to expand your skills and accomplish your goals, if the fear of failure overshadows the desire for growth.

After my disastrous speech I decided I had two choices: I could either slink away from the public speaking world with my cheeks burning and my head down, or I could pick myself up and try it again. I decided to take the second approach.

In order to do that, though, I realized that I needed to find ways to let go of my perfectionism so that I could focus on what I wanted to achieve rather than wasting time and energy wallowing in my mistakes. I needed to stop focusing so much on what I thought I was doing wrong and start thinking about what I was doing right. In short, I needed a complete mindset-makeover.

Strategies for getting over perfectionism

At first, the thought of such a mental shift was daunting -- how do you get rid of an ingrained pattern of thinking? But then I realized that perfectionism is really just another habit... and habits can be changed. So I started small, with simple little strategies to slowly shift the way I looked at myself and my speaking performances. Over time, these little techniques helped me to overcome my perfectionism habit and become a better and far more confident speaker.

Here are the five strategies I found most helpful; if you're struggling with perfectionism in your own life, give them a try and get yourself back on track to accomplishing your own goals, too!

Strategy #1: Look for the Positive. While you may think that your performance was awful in every way, there is always at least one thing that you did well. Focus on that thing and see if there's a way that you can use that strength to improve your next attempt.

Strategy #2: Reframe Your Thoughts. When you find yourself slipping into self-criticism mode, actually tell yourself: "Stop!" Reframe your thought into something more positive, such as: "It's OK; everybody has a bad performance once in a while. You'll do better next time!"

Strategy #3: Be Your Own Friend. If your friends talked to you the same way you talk to yourself, you wouldn't keep them as friends. Think about what you'd say to your best friend if he or she was in your shoes and give yourself some encouragement, instead!

Strategy #4: Adjust Your Standards. Do you have higher standards for yourself than you do for anyone else in your life? If so, then perhaps your standards are unrealistic. What would you expect from someone else in your situation? If you'd be happy with your performance if it had come from someone else, then give yourself the recognition you deserve.

Strategy #5: Focus on Action. Subjecting yourself to constant negative self-talk isn't going to improve your abilities and will just make you feel bad about yourself, so do something useful instead and ask yourself what one thing you can improve on for your next performance. Focus on taking positive, constructive action to work on that one thing.

Perfectionism can really put a wrench in your ability to achieve your goals. When things don't go as planned give these strategies a try before your inner critic kicks in, and you'll be back in the game in no time. Always remember that you don't have to be perfect in order to be amazing!

photo credit: (c) Nathalie Thompson