Perfectionism is defined as the “refusal to accept any standard short of perfection.” It is a personality disposition that may pervade all areas of one’s life, including those where performance plays a major role. Thus, it is no surprise that perfectionism is a common characteristic of competitive athletes.
While this intention of wanting to do one’s best is well meant, the result often leads to self-doubt, impaired performance, feelings of inadequacy, depression, and anxiety (Ashby, 2006; Kilbert, 2014). The need to be perfect in everything can be so high that it has the potential to prevent us from experiencing new opportunities and growth. A researcher at Yale University concluded that “perfectionistic individuals experience depression that is focused primarily on self-worth and self-criticism; they berate, criticize, and attack themselves, and experience intense feelings of guilt, shame, failure, and worthlessness” (Blatt, 1995).
Sellars et al. (2016) identified common characteristics of maladaptive perfectionism, including:
- An intense need to avoid failure
- Dissatisfaction with one’s accomplishments
- Inability to “let go”
- Fear of disappointing others
- Overwhelmed by pressures
- Self-doubt and overthinking
Other examples of maladaptive perfectionistic thinking patterns are:
- Black-and-white thinking
- Should statements
- Highly critical
Maladaptive perfectionism creates a strong aversion to failure and persistent pursuit of unrealistic goals (Blatt, 1995). When perfectionism is this high, the person does not derive pleasure from their accomplishments and instead dwell on what went wrong in the experience. Talk about killjoy!
Also, if by chance anyone reading this is thinking “to be honest, the risk of experiencing depression, or less pleasure from my accomplishments is worth perfectionism to me, because that’s what it takes to perform at a high level”, just know you’re not alone in that sentiment. Many athletes feel that way, however, research on this topic actually suggests that athletes who report more of these maladaptive perfectionist concerns perceive their performance as worse, are more likely to experience overtraining, and more likely to experience burnout (Květon, 2021). Thus, it’s quite possible that these attitudes harm performance, or at the very least could lead to early burnout in your career before you reach your peak.
So, if any of these traits resonate with you, it’s ok. These are common traits and thoughts, and there are things you can do to change them. While knowing the why behind something can be useful, it doesn’t in and of itself create change. The question then becomes – what can we do about it? How can this trait can become a strength to generate greater happiness?
Making Gains with Perfectionism
Let’s explore the lighter side of perfectionism. A healthy, adaptive level of perfectionism can help develop a more satisfying and realistic approach to life. It can also allow acceptance towards setbacks and limitations and help us maintain high energy as we create something of quality. When applied to athletic or fitness pursuits, a positive take on perfectionism can motivate people to reach their goals. A study in 2015 concluded that because of this positive trait in strength athletes, perseverance and commitment to excellence often leads to success. Further, elite athletes that strive for perfection are more organized, have high standards, higher levels of self-esteem, and feel more pride and accomplished (Sellars et al., 2016). While I mentioned earlier that Květon and colleagues (2021) found perfectionist concerns (the fears and emotions related to being imperfect) were related to poorer perceived performance, overtraining, and burnout, perfectionist striving (focusing more on high personal standards and planning, without fear of failure or self-judgement) on the other hand had the opposite relationships.
I’ll share some things that can help decrease your experience of maladaptive perfectionism. Please keep in mind that this is not an absolute approach to eliminating perfectionism. These are suggestions that may be helpful, because when one has a deep need to be perfect, the process will not be quick or linear. A more helpful approach is to look for gradual change in thinking, which can soften undesired behaviors.
Awareness of the Pattern
The first step towards overcoming perfectionism is increasing your awareness of your thought patterns and tendencies. Create some time to pause and pay attention to how you may allow perfectionism to control your life. Do certain situations bring it out more strongly than others? By becoming aware of the behavior, it is easier to change it.
If you are unsure whether you are challenged with perfectionism, here are some questions that could be helpful:
- Have others said to me that my standards are too high?
- Do I struggle meeting my own standards?
- Have I been feeling frustration, depression, anxiety, or anger throughout the process of trying to meet my standards?
- Are my standards getting in my own way? (ex. unable to finish tasks, meet deadlines, be spontaneous, or trust others)
Challenge the Inner Critic
After some self-reflection, you might notice that there is a tendency towards fixating on the negative aspects of your work or yourself. It is important that we make an intentional effort to acknowledge the positive aspects. When we reframe, or shift our focus from negative (detrimental/unproductive) thinking to positive (constructive) thinking, we can eventually change our feelings and actions (Stoeber & Janssen, 2011).
Rather than holding the perception of yourself as just an unhealthy or healthy perfectionist, view yourself to be somewhere along the spectrum. All of us have some characteristics that lean towards “healthy” and others that lean more towards “unhealthy”. Wherever you are within the range, you can always make progress towards increasing the beneficial aspects of your perfectionism, while also decreasing the detrimental effects of the unhelpful aspects. Try this: for everything you are dissatisfied with, challenge yourself to identify at least three things that you appreciate.
Here we want to accept that we are not an actual superhero. This means taking inventory of our strengths and limitations and recognize we cannot do it all, let alone all at the same time. We want to accept our humanity to help push back on the tendency to want to do more. We also want to remind ourselves that mistakes are part of the process. They do not mean that you are a “bad” person or a “failure”.
Prioritize Mindful Self-Care & Accept Help
Like the flight safety videos say, put your mask on before helping the person next to you. This can help reduce perfectionism because it orients our mindset back into the here and now instead of the future. Mindful self-care means making a conscious choice to create time for yourself, such as eating well, spending time with loved ones, pursuing an interest (in and outside of the gym), or meditating.
Tendencies towards perfectionism sometimes develop when early experiences teach us that we are not supported, especially when we are in distress. This can lead to a negative core belief that we are a burden for having emotions and needs, or even that we are not worthy of care. If you find that you are still challenged, seeking therapy may be a great option to develop more tools and strategies to overcome perfectionism.
Focus on Meaning
Focus on finding meaning and purpose to what you are doing instead of attempting to do it perfectly. When something creates joy in our life, we want to let go of whether or not it is done perfectly. This brings us more fulfillment throughout our process. Setting intentions can help you find meaning and even improve performance in training and other areas of your life. Read more on setting intentions here.
Pattern Interruption & Exposure
One of the most powerful ways to overcome perfectionism is pattern interruption and exposure. With pattern interruption, one deliberately stops themselves from performing rituals or activities that normally work toward perfection. With exposure, one would deliberately do something imperfectly and combat the urge to try to fix it. Here we want to start with imperfections that are not very difficult to tolerate and then gradually increase the difficulty until you can approach more challenging ones that you’ve tried to avoid or prevent. This will initially provoke anxiety; however, the key here is to recognize a decrease in anxiety over time despite having done things imperfectly. Future experiences with imperfection will become easier and easier as you gain more experience with allowing things to be less than perfect and learning that there are not serious consequences for it.
Some things to keep in mind throughout this process are:
- Ensure the exposures are planned and predictable
- Remain in the situation until the discomfort has decreased
- Practice frequently
- Expect to feel uncomfortable
Any area of your life can be a platform to practice exposure to imperfection. For example:
- Deliberately include typos in a text message or e-mail
- Arrive to an appointment a little late
- Communicate to others you are tired or any other feeling you may consider a weakness
- Go to a restaurant without researching what is on the menu
- Wear mismatched socks
- Leave a visible area of the house unorganized/messy
Ironically, those that have traits of perfectionism do not adopt it to hurt themselves or get in their own way, but if left unchecked, it can quickly derail them. By recognizing it in your own behavior and exploring ways that work best for you, you can redirect the tendency towards perfectionism to work for you. Finally, the positive aspects of perfectionism have much to offer (a great sense of accomplishment, motivation, and strong work ethic), so let’s embrace it while still being mindful to reduce the more unhelpful side of it.
Other helpful resources for more information on overcoming perfectionism:
The ACT Workbook for Perfectionism: Build Your Best (Imperfect) Life Using Powerful Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Commitment Therapy and Self-Compassion Skills by Jennifer Kemp & Lisa W. Coyne (New Harbinger Publications)
I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) by Brené Brown
Never Good Enough: How to Use Perfectionism to Your Advantage without Letting It Ruin Your Life by M.R. Basco (Simon & Schuster)
Perfectionism: What’s Bad about Being Too Good? By M. Adderholdt-Elliott, M. Elliott, & J. Goldberg (Monarch Books)
When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough: Strategies for Coping with Perfectionism by M. M. Antony & R. P. Swinson (New Harbinger Publications)
Ashby, J.S., Rice, K.G., & Martin, J.L. (2006). Perfectionism, shame, and depressive symptoms. Journal of Counseling & Development, 84, 148-156. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/j.1556-6678.2006.tb00390.x/abstract
Blatt, S.J. (1995). The destructiveness of perfectionism: Implications for the treatment of depression. American Psychologist, 50, 1003- 1020. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8561378
Hill, A. P., Witcher, C. S. G., Gotwals, J. K., & Leyland, A. F. (2015). A qualitative study of perfectionism among self-identified perfectionists in sport and the performing arts. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 4(4), 237–253. https://doi.org/10.1037/spy0000041
Kilbert, J., et al. (2014). Resilience mediates the relations between perfectionism and college student distress. Journal of Counseling and Development, 92, 75-82. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/wol1/doi/10.1002/j.1556-6676.2014.00132.x/abstract
Květon, P., Jelínek, M., & Burešová, I. (2021). The role of perfectionism in predicting athlete burnout, training distress, and sports performance: A short-term and long-term longitudinal perspective. Journal of Sports Sciences, 1-11. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33818303/
Sellars, P.A., Evans, L, & Thomas, O. (2016). The effects of perfectionism in elite sport: Experiences of unhealthy perfectionists. The Sport Psychologist, 30, 219-230. http://journals.humankinetics.com/doi/abs/10.1123/tsp.2014-0072
Stoeber, J. & Janssen, D.P. (2011). Perfectionism and coping with daily failures: positive reframing helps achieve satisfaction at the end of the day. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping, 24, 477-497. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10615806.2011.562977