Perfectionism is when someone strives for flawlessness, setting standards that are impossibly high and only achievable through great effort or not at all. Perfectionism leads to frustration, self-criticism, and procrastination (to avoid the discomfort inevitable in the perfectionist ideal).
Below are some tips on how to be a high achiever without falling into the perfectionist trap. One way to frame this is skillful striving. Skillful striving involves being present and allowing for discomfort as you flexibly move toward your values. Three helpful skills with healthy striving are fierce self-compassion (protecting yourself, drawing boundaries or standing up for yourself), values and committed action (deciding on behaviors driven by values even in the face of emotional discomfort or difficult thoughts).
Below are tips to help guide skillful striving.
- Pay attention to what stressful striving/perfectionism versus values-based hard work feels like in your body. Notice when striving has become unhealthy for you. Are you neglecting important areas of your life? Do you avoid certain activities or experiences? Is there tension in your body?
- Look at what is driving your striving/perfectionism. Is there something uncomfortable that you are trying to avoid (like feelings of unworthiness or thoughts of not good enough)?
- Notice how your behavior does not have to be dictated by avoiding emotional discomfort. Make a choice to turn toward your values, even if it is uncomfortable.
- Say no, even to good things, to say yes to your values.
- Notice when you are spinning the “wheels” of the mind. Notice “thinking traps” or the way thoughts seems to promise something, but it never happens- “once I get this perfect, I will feel good about myself”. This is a fleeting state based on not being good enough and inevitably the feelings of inadequacy will return.
Below are checklists of unhealthy striving (perfectionism) and healthy striving (working hard to achieve). These checklists can help bring awareness to perfectionist tendencies and offer alternatives to perfectionism. We can work hard, and achieve, in a balanced way taking care of ourselves.
Unhealthy striving checklist
Do you use work/schoolwork to avoid feeling you aren’t good enough?
Do you keep doing more but never feel like you are doing enough?
Do you neglect important areas of your life (health, friendship)?
Do you see your inner critic as helpful?
Do you avoid taking risks outside your comfort zone?
Do you compete with people who don’t have the same goals as you?
Do you avoid taking time off because you feel guilty?
Do you reach a big achievement only to quickly move to the next one?
Skillful striving checklist
Are you present and engaged in your work/schoolwork?
Do you set goals based on your values?
Do you prioritize important domains in your life?
Do you pause to take in the good of your achievements?
Are you encouraging, kind and motivating when you make mistakes?
Are you courageous and take risks outside your comfort zone?
Do you feel meaning, purpose and belonging to your work/schoolwork?
Do you set boundaries and take time off even if you feel guilty?
Hill, Diana. “How ACT can help you be a high achiever without losing yourself”. Your life in Process Blog. Spotify, January 10, 2022.
Blog Post by Registered Psychologist, Alison Campbell