Perfecting the Art of Imperfection: How to Combat Perfectionism

Gabrielle Bossart, Editor

What is perfectionism and why is it so damaging? You have likely heard the term perfectionism before, but you may not understand exactly what it means. As a society we tend to praise perfection. We experience joy when something is perfectly done, and we value competition for its motivating power. Everyone can agree that first place is better than last. Sometimes, however, this desire for achievement and success can spiral out of control and become a pattern of behavior that does more harm than good.  

Perfectionism is, at the root, a refusal to accept anything short of perfection. It is a desire to maintain nearly impossible standards and includes harsh self-criticism when those standards are not met. Perfectionism can come out in many forms, but it typically stems from an internal sense of fear and insecurity. It is our natural tendency to want to do well in life. We want to appear skilled, strong, and intelligent to others. To fail is a necessary part of life, but the embarrassment and shame associated with failure is so undesirable that some develop perfectionism as a way to fight the uncomfortable feelings. The idea is that if we are perfect, then we never have to deal with the pain of messing up. This idea can be crippling however, when it becomes impossible to start tasks out of fear of messing them up. When a minor mistake seems unforgiveable. When the pressure to consistently perform at an exceptionally high level becomes crushing. If you find yourself suffering under the weight of perfectionism, take your power back by changing your mindset.  

Perfectionism is time-consuming, exhausting, and ultimately pointless. There is no way to avoid making mistakes in life. As human beings, we are naturally imperfect; we get tired and frustrated and then we mess up. The first step to fighting perfectionism is to acknowledge this universal fact. The sooner you accept your own humanity, the easier it is to have compassion for yourself. Humble yourself and realize that you cannot be perfect all the time, it simply is not possible. Try to rationalize and see the big picture. Mistakes and failure are how we learn what works and what does not work, what is for us and what is not for us. The concept of failure is unattractive until you shift your mindset. When you start to view mistakes as valuable lessons, you realize what a blessing they are. Not all mistakes are lessons, but if you cannot find a deeper meaning in your mistake, then it probably was not a big deal in the first place.  

Another trick to combatting perfectionism is to ask yourself questions about what you are doing. When you find yourself spiraling, bring it back to the present by asking yourself, how important is it? Oftentimes we find ourselves overwhelmed by a series of tasks that do not need to be done right away or even in a short time frame. Sometimes, they do not really need to be done at all and are simply self-imposed chores. If you have determined that the task really is important, then focus on its impact. You could spend several hours focusing on minor details in a project, but do those details honestly make a difference to the content of your project? Try not to waste time on something that ultimately does not change the overall impact of your project.  

Switch your mindset instead to focus on the quality of your content rather than the aesthetics, and your efficiency will improve. If you have a hard time with this, give yourself a time limit. Tell yourself you only have so much time, say twenty minutes, to complete a task and see if you can get it done in that time. This will force you to focus on what is really important in the project and help you complete tasks in a timely manner. If you need more time, then take it, but this exercise will help you to see that you can get things done well and efficiently if you concentrate and use your time wisely.  

Perfectionism naturally wastes time. It can often come with bouts of seemingly unconquerable procrastination. You may find yourself putting off a task because you think it will take a lot of time or you anticipate it being difficult. The truth of the matter is that most tasks are easy enough to complete once you start them. One foot in front of the other and all that. I myself often find that I have put off a task for days that ends up only taking me ten minutes. Afterwards I wonder why it took me so long to do such a painless thing and the answer is always because I thought it would be much worse than it was. The anticipation is almost always worse than the actual task at hand. To combat this, set another timer. Tell yourself that you will work on it for five minutes and then you can take a break. Often you will find that after that five minutes you do not want to stop working on it because now you are focused and engaged. If you still feel gross about it after those five minutes, then take a break and come back to it later. The important thing is to just start.  

If you start writing a paper or working on a project and you feel paralyzed by the desire for perfection, tell yourself that it is just a draft, because it is. You can always go back to it and make it better later. Your first draft of anything is probably not going to be perfect, that is why they call it rough. Editing is much easier than creating, so get something down to start with, even if it is the worst thing, you feel you have ever written. It can always be edited later, but unfortunately it does need to exist in order for that to happen. If it is done, even if it is bad, that is a win. Learn to take the win and move on. If you are a perfectionist, odds are that your standards are higher than what others are expecting from you anyway. Remember, something is better than nothing. Start, get a draft, and move on.  

A big part of overcoming perfectionism is gaining confidence and learning to trust yourself. Letting go of other people’s expectations of you can help bring your own expectations back down to earth. If you find that you are constantly hard on yourself, check how you speak to yourself. Talk to yourself as you would to your most cherished friend. You probably would not belittle and punish someone you love if they made a minor mistake, would you? You might tell them that it happens to everyone and that it is not a big deal at the end of the day. Think for a second about why you do not allow yourself the same grace. You are human, just like everyone else, so why should you be held to a higher standard? When you catch yourself engaging in negative thoughts, imagine saying it to your best friend, and then take it back. Gaining confidence in yourself and your abilities will help you overcome the fear of failure that may linger beneath your desire for perfection. 

There is a quote from John Steinback’s “East of Eden” that says, “And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” Think of it this way, if you are not constantly striving for perfection, you are free to make the mistakes that will inform your work in the future. Each time you mess up, you make your next attempt better so why worry about getting it right the first time. How do you know what is right until you have discovered what is wrong? Stop focusing on making everything work the first time around and start focusing on learning from your experiences.  

It is easy to be hard on ourselves, it is more difficult to have self-compassion. But constant self-criticism does not serve you in the long run. Hating yourself for your flaws will not get you anywhere constructive and is a quick path to wasting your life. When you mess up, get up, dust yourself off and learn from it. Combat perfectionism with timers, self-compassion, positive self-talk, drafts, and hard looks at the big picture. Perfectionism can be daunting, but it only has power if you let it. Take care of yourself first and when you feel the desire for perfection start creeping into your life, simply stomp on it, recognize your worth is not tied to your work, and then keep going.  


Gabrielle Bossart is a Dakota Student Section Editor. She can be reached at [email protected].