There are numerous ways therapy can help you overcome perfectionism. In this article, you will learn three specific therapy skills to help you become less of a perfectionist over time.
You can use this article as a supplement to therapy. Or if you can’t attend therapy, for whatever reason, you can use this article to guide you to overcoming perfectionism on your own.
Overcoming Perfectionism is About Balance
When you are wanting to reduce perfectionism, it’s natural to have conflicting emotions. One part of you may feel excited to stop being so hard on yourself. At the same time, another part of you may be afraid that if you truly succeed at becoming less of a perfectionist you will, ironically, become a failure in life.
However, managing perfectionism well is about balance. This is finding the middle ground between working towards the things which matter to you while giving yourself grace and rest.
You Can’t Use These Skills Perfectly
Learning how to manage perfectionist tendencies well allows you to have more energy for a life you love rather than exhausting yourself trying to be perfect.
It’s worth the effort to use these therapy skills to reduce perfectionism. With commitment and practice, these skills truly will allow you to be less hard on yourself. Yet please know that with any self-development work, you cannot do this work perfectly. In other words, you can’t perfectly overcome being a perfectionist.
These skills are working when you remember it’s always about: Progress not perfection.
Therapy Skill #1 to Reduce Perfectionism: Reframe Failure
One of the greatest contributors to perfectionism are thinking mistakes. In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), these thinking mistakes are called “cognitive distortions.” The basics of this theory is that these mistaken ways of thinking always add to a person’s stress.
One such thinking mistake which feeds perfectionism is “all or nothing” or “black and white” thinking. This type of thinking is when a person believes that there are only two options for something while forgetting other options which may be more helpful for supportive. A sign of all or nothing thinking is believing someone is “wrong” and you’re “right” (or vice versa) or that something is “good” or “bad.”
This is the most common thinking mistake for all people so if you relate to this in your perfectionism please know you are not alone. In perfectionism, all or nothing thinking commonly manifests as believing you are either a success or a failure. To escape this trap, it’s important to reframe failure.
You Can Never Fail
When a perfectionist inevitably makes a mistake since they are human, they feel like a total failure. Sadly, this type of thinking distorts the truth.
In reality, you can’t fail. Whenever you don’t reach a goal you set, or make a mistake, this is simply information in truth. “Failure” is just an opportunity to revise and update your plan for the better.
How to Reframe Failure
The next time you think you “failed” (which will happen because you’re human and even more likely because as a perfectionist you’re probably hard on yourself), ask yourself:
- What did I learn?
- Does my heart (or gut) want me to try again integrating this new lesson?
- Or do I feel called to go in a new direction?
- What are the signs (the feedback I’m getting from others, things I’m reading or hearing, etc.) telling me?
Therapy Skill #2: Stop Thinking of the Worst-Case Scenario
Researchers discovered that perfectionists have a hard time being flexible in their thinking. This is completely understandable. Often perfectionists believe they must strive to be flawless because they fear what may happen if they make mistakes. Therefore, they can be quite rigid or controlling.
This type of thinking reveals another cognitive distortion common in perfectionism, catastrophizing. This is when you spend much of your time considering the worst-case scenario in a situation.
To personally highlight if you catastrophize, ask yourself: What am I afraid will happen if I make mistakes or fail?
Coping Well with Anxiety
Underneath catastrophic thinking is always anxiety or fear. There are many ways to cope well with this anxiety including self-soothing strategies such as using aromatherapy or deep breathing.
Another way to cope well with your fear is to look at its gift.
The Gift of Fear
The gift of fear is self-preservation as it allows you to assess for safety. Fear allows you to assess risk with wisdom. Some risks may personally not be worth taking for you such as being the passenger in a car with someone who is drunk. There are risks that are reckless and fear helps you know what these are clearly.
Other risks are worthwhile though because they don’t risk your literally life and they may add joy. For example, you won’t die even if it feels like you will if you apply for the job of your dreams and don’t get it. And the potential of having this dream job is worth the risk!
Planning for Other Outcomes
When you catastrophize, you tend to consider only extreme outcomes. To overcome this, you can ask yourself: What are other more likely or even possible outcomes?
For example, if you start a YouTube channel, you may notice you’re not destined for failure, but it is likely that it will take considerable time to learn how to build an audience. You can plan for this by reading articles or watching others’ videos on how to grow your YouTube channel. You can also plan for the need to be patient.
Therapy Skill #3 to Reduce Perfectionism: Cultivate Self-Compassion
Self-compassion is the practice of giving yourself grace. There are 3 components to self-compassion which include the need to accept your humanity. In other words, when you give yourself grace, you accept the fact that you are human and thereby, inherently imperfect.
All human beings are imperfect. We all have gifts and talents, and we all have challenges. This is true for every human being including you.
Related: What is self-compassion?
Accepting the Learning Process
Perfectionists often put a lot of pressure on themselves to do things “right” immediately. Commonly, perfectionists will only do things that come easily to them based on their natural talents. They will then avoid anything that challenges them out of fear of failure. (This goes back to all or nothing thinking and catastrophizing mentioned earlier in the article).
This pressure to do things perfectly right away is incredibly stressful. Plus, it sucks the joy out of life. Finally, it’s just not how we learn as human beings. To highlight this, consider when you learned to ride a bike. Of course, you fell down before you learned – and that’s ok. The true success is you stuck with it!
Self-compassion allows you to be kind with yourself as you honor the fact that as an imperfect human being you will make mistakes and you can learn!
You Don’t Have to Be Good at Everything
Self-compassion also helps you honor that you don’t need to be good at things to allow yourself to enjoy your life. You have the right to a full, fun life even as you are imperfect! Just by being alive, there are so many pleasurable, fun, and relaxing activities available to you.
When you are compassionate with yourself, you let yourself enjoy life’s gifts more fully without pressuring yourself to perform perfectly. As Kurt Vonnegut explains beautifully,
“When I was 15, I spent a month working on an archeological dig. I was talking to one of the archeologists one day during our lunch break and he asked those kinds of ‘getting to know you’ questions you ask young people: Do you play sports? What’s your favorite subject? And I told him, no I don’t play any sports. I do theater, I’m in choir, I play the violin and piano, I used to take art classes.
And he went wow. That’s amazing! And I said, ‘Oh no, but I’m not any good at any of them.’
And he said something then that I will never forget and which absolutely blew my mind because no one had ever said anything like it to me before: ‘I don’t think being good at things is the point of doing them. I think you’ve got all these wonderful experiences with different skills, and that all teaches you things and makes you an interesting person, no matter how well you do them.’
And that honestly changed my life. Because I went from a failure, someone who hadn’t been talented enough at anything to excel, to someone who did things because I enjoyed them. I had been raised in such an achievement-oriented environment, so inundated with the myth of Talent, that I thought it was only worth doing things if you could ‘win’ at them.”Kurt Vonnegut
Finding a Therapist to Support You
Managing your thinking mistakes – all or nothing and catastrophizing – will support you well in overcoming perfectionism. The same is true for learning how to be kinder with yourself through a self-compassion practice.
But if you find yourself wanting more support to reduce perfectionistic traits, there are therapists who can help. It is recommended you look for a therapist who utilizes either Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) to reduce perfectionism. These two types of therapy greatly help you change your mindset which is essential to become less perfectionistic.
You can search for a CBT and/or DBT therapist in your area with the Psychology Today directory.
Whether you choose to find a therapist or can’t attend therapy right now, these 3 skills will help you reduce your perfectionism.
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About The Author
Krystal Mazzola Wood, LMFT is a practicing relationship therapist with over a decade of experience. Currently, Krystal sees clients at her private practice, The Healthy Relationship Foundation. She has dedicated her entire career to empowering people to heal from unhealthy relationship processes. She does this by teaching the skills and tools necessary to have a life filled with healthy and loving relationships.
This passion led her to write her best-selling books and create courses. Her books, The Codependency Recovery Plan: A 5-Step Guide to Understand, Accept, and Break Free from the Codependent Cycle and The Codependency Workbook: Simple Practices for Developing and Maintaining Your Independence have helped many people heal.
Her third book, Therapy Within Reach: Setting Boundaries, will be released September, 2023.
If you have any personal dating or relationship questions, Krystal is happy to provide advice using her expertise and compassion. If you feel comfortable, feel free to leave any questions in the comments of this post. Otherwise, you may send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or DM her on Instagram. Your name and any other identifying information will always be kept confidential.