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Practice Makes Progress

Growing up I heard the phrase, “Practice makes perfect,” more times than I could count. Perfection was always the goal. I strived to be perfect in every way: academics, extracurriculars, appearance, personality, and achievements. Yet, no matter how hard I tried, it never felt like enough. Perfectionism thrives on comparing to others and you can always find ways in which you don’t add up.

Does this sound like you?

I see perfectionism show up in my practice in different ways. Some are teenagers trying to earn the approval of their parents. Others are successful adults with a seemingly stable life. Perfectionism does not discriminate on race, gender, socioeconomic status, or age. 

Ways to Evaluate Your Perfectionism

Is the perfectionism helpful?

    • The answer is usually unsatisfying. For most, trying to be perfect leads to procrastination and feelings of inadequacy rather than true perfection. More often than not, seeking perfection becomes a way to find all of our flaws. 
    • Now what do I do with this information?
      • Realizing that trying to be perfect may not be all that it was cracked up to be can be a life-altering concept. This can be especially true when we feel like our identity is intertwined with appearing, or even being, perfect.

Who am I if I am not a perfectionist?

    • Many of us become attached to the identity of being a perfectionist. Maybe our parents began to tell us about our perfectionistic qualities or a teacher mentioned that we are perfectionists. After months, years, even decades, of being defined by this quality we begin to believe that this is what is most important. 

What now?

    • Change the statement. Here are a few examples to try:
      • I am human and that is ok.
      • I did my best. That’s all I can do.
      • This outcome was not what I hoped for and I would like to change it moving forward.
      • Mistakes are uncomfortable but I know I acted on the knowledge I had at the time

How we talk to ourselves is just as important as how other people talk to us. Perfectionism can lead to negative self-talk that results in feelings of sadness, anxiety, and worthlessness. Perfectionism can convince you of a great deal of things, many of which your logical mind tells you are ridiculous. Give yourself the grace to grow and learn. You can’t know everything, and being human can be a great gift in accepting your flaws. We are all together, doing what we can with what we have in each moment. 


Challenging Perfection

Perfection is unattainable and yet many of us, myself included, will nevertheless try to attain perfection. It can be easy to trick yourself into believing that perfection is the ideal. Unfortunately, it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. So let’s slow it down and walk through ways to challenge perfectionism after you have evaluated your perfectionism.

How rare you feeling? How is your body reacting?

    • When these moments happen you may notice that your thoughts speed up. It might feel like someone yelling the same thing over and over again at you in your head: “You failed! You failed! You failed!” Maybe it becomes harder to sit/stand still. Your shoulders or hands might tense up as well. Or maybe you will feel anxious and out of control.

What judgment do you place on this experience?

  • Odds are, you probably don’t enjoy the feeling and want it to go away as quickly as possible. Before trying to immediately push the feeling away, label the emotion or sensation. Take a moment to check in with yourself.
  • Are you feeling uncomfortable? Are you guilty? Are you embarrassed? No answer is wrong or incorrect. 


What will make you feel better about this situation?

  • This could be as simple as deep breathing or going on a walk. Other times you might feel the need to talk about it and verbally process the situation with a friend or supervisor. When the feeling is incredibly intense to the point of feeling unbearable, temporary, intentional distraction can be the best course of action. While distraction can feel like avoidance, there is an important distinction: you must return to the distressing situation when you feel more able to deal with it. This can look like setting a phone reminder or placing a Post-It note in a visible place that will get in the way (such as on your computer or phone) until the situation is addressed and the note can be thrown away.

How can I accept and improve?

  • Accepting a mistake can feel like a paper cut doused in lemon juice. With perfectionists, this acceptance is difficult because it brings up uncomfortable feelings. Reaching this point of the process is neither quick nor easy. It takes practice and intentionality. It takes a willingness to be your best rather than the best. 

What does my perfect look like?

    • Take a look at what you view as perfection. Perfection is highly subjective and changes based on experience, age, race, gender, etc. Look at the aspects of perfection that matter to you. Start to think more critically about who told you how to be “perfect.” Sometimes we get messages of perfection from broad, ambiguous sources such as social media. If this is the case, start asking yourself if you are willing to give someone who has never met you that much control over your life. It can also be helpful to make a pro/con list (Rory Gilmore style) to evaluate how these ideas of perfection influence your well-being.
    • Consider the things about perfectionism that are assets to your life. Examples of perfectionism acting as an asset might include being driven or devoted. Now, think about ways in which you feel hindered by trying to be “perfect.” These are the things that bring up feelings of inadequacy, worthlessness, and shame. Evaluate what you would like to keep and what you would like to phase out of your life. 

This is a simplified version of how to challenge your perfectionism, but it is a place to begin a journey of healing from harmful habits. It takes intentionality and daily practice to push back against perfectionistic ideals. It takes using those perfectionistic qualities of attention to detail or accuracy and accountability to practice daily forgiveness for your humanity. There will be days in which you “relapse” into perfectionism, but with practice, you can progress beyond debilitating perfectionism. 



Stoeber, J., & Otto, K. (2006). Positive conceptions of perfectionism: Approaches, evidence, challenges. Personality and social psychology review, 10(4), 295-319.

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