8 Ways to Overcome Perfectionism

Perfectionists struggle to get their work done on time, mainly because of the false belief that everything has to be done flawlessly.

Allan Mallinger’s addresses this in Too Perfect: When Being in Control Gets Out of Control by offering the following advice.

1. Instead of telling yourself “It’s got to be flawless,” tell yourself “No, it’s got to be completed!”

2. Focus on how good it feels to make progress on a task rather than continually judging whether the work is good enough.

3. Draw up a realistic schedule for the work, remembering that ideal performance and conditions will never happen.

4. As each checkpoint arrives on your schedule, move on to the next part of the task regardless of how good your work is to this point.

5. Each time you start getting sidetracked by details or with thoughts on how the work will be evaluated, stand up, take a deep breath, re-focus on the goal, and move forwards.

Imagine yourself swimming down a river, with the current, toward a goal. You have to arrive there before dark, or it will be too late. Whenever you get sidetracked by details or fine points, envision yourself losing the current and drifting slowly out of the main river into a stream, and from there into a never-ending maze of smaller and smaller streams. They are seductive and interesting, but you lose momentum when you investigate them. Get back into the main river and move into the central current again! (57)

6. Aim for average.

If certain tasks daunt you because you dread having to meet your own standards of perfection, it may help to imagine what a B-minus student, writer, attorney, or radiologist would accomplish. Force yourself to perform only that well, in the interests of accomplishing the task. You’ll be amazed not only by the amount of work you’ll produce, but also by its quality; it won’t suffer as much as you think. You’re not a B-minus worker, and that will show through, no matter what you do. And with fewer trivial details to obscure them, your main points will carry more force and be clearer. (58)

7. Practice for #6 by doing as many little B-minus exercises as you can — whether it’s writing an email, painting a room, cooking, mowing the lawn, etc.

8. Do your work in short, structured periods of time rather than long, open-ended sessions. Mallinger says that “Many of my patients accomplish more in a few two-hour blocks per day than in an unplanned eight-to-nine-hour workday. The quality of their work is every bit as good, and they have far more free time.” He concludes:

Do the finest piece of work you can, given the limitations of deadlines and the legitimate requirements of your health, family, social life, and leisure pursuits. Remember that all of these dimensions are crucial to your enjoyment of life.

Previous posts on Perfectionism and Control: Part 1Part 2Part 3,Part 4Part 5, Part 6.


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Making Mistakes Makes Friends

In Allan Mallinger’s book Too Perfect: When Being in Control Gets Out of Control, he zeroes in on the common core belief of perfectionists–that other people won’t like you as well if you make a mistake, or you don’t know things, or you allow your faults to show through.

Mallinger begins his takedown of perfectionism by insisting that the opposite is the case, that the need to be right all the time often repels friends and associates. 

Nobody will ever feel empathy for you, love you, or enjoy being close to you simply because you are right or because you hardly ever make mistakes. It’s true that people may admire your abilities or knowledge. Being competent, circumspect, and smart is a plus, but these qualities alone will never win you love. (53).

So how do we change this core falsehood of perfectionism? With two statements (that sound suspiciously Christian):

1. “I don’t know.”

Next time you are asked a question and don’t know the answer, say so. Just say, “I don’t know.” Don’t fudge; don’t reel off a dozen possibilities to avoid admitting ignorance; don’t offer something you do know but that doesn’t answer the question. Just “I don’t know.”

2. “I was wrong.”

Next time you’re wrong about something, just admit it. Don’t explain why you made the mistake. Don’t show how anyone would have made that mistake under the circumstances. Don’t insist that your answer actually was correct but was misunderstood.

Mallinger says that instead of repelling people such admissions of imperfection will draw them to you.

Why not make some mistakes this weekend. It could make you some friends.

Previous posts on Perfectionism and Control: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.


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The Difference Between Perfectionism and Excellence

What’s the difference between a healthy will to excel and perfectionism?

According to Allan Mallinger in Too Perfect: When Being in Control Gets Out of Controlthe perfectionist’s credo is:

1. If I always try my very best and if I’m alert and sharp enough, I can avoid error, everyday blunders, oversights, and poor decisions or choices.

 2. I must never make mistakes because they would show that I’m not as competent as I should be.

3. By being perfect, I can ensure my own security with others. They will admire me and will have no reason to criticize or reject me. 

4. My worth depends on how “good” I am, how smart I am, and how well I perform (pp. 37-38).

Based upon Mallinger’s explanation and many of my own observations, we can distinguish perfectionism from a healthy will to excel (excellence) in the following ways:

  • Perfectionism is rigid; excellence is flexible.
  • Perfectionism is self-defeating; excellence is health-giving.
  • Perfectionism never satisfies; excellence gives pleasure.
  • Perfectionism is impossible; the desire to excel is usually possible.
  • Perfectionism does not distinguish between performing heart-surgery and washing dishes; excellence recognizes that some activities require more attention than others.
  • Perfectionism cannot bear criticism; excellence seeks it and tries to grow through it.
  • Perfectionism views failure as catastrophic; excellence views it as part of learning.
  • Perfectionism procrastinates because of the fear of failing; excellence does what can be done each day.
  • Perfectionism prefers safety to risk and rarely moves out of the comfort zone; excellence is more prepared to try new jobs and accept new challenges.
  • A perfectionist must be right all the time; excellence accepts correction from others.
  • A perfectionist’s sense of worth depends on perfect performance; excellence does not tie their identity to performance.
  • A perfectionist can only see what’s lacking in a job or relationship; excellence sees what is good and enjoyable.
  • A perfectionist clutters their communications (and sermons?) with too much boring and unnecessary detail (for fear of leaving anything out); excellence communicates with less detail but with more clarity, color, and effectiveness.
  • A perfectionist might admit to general failings but refuses to be specific; excellence faces up to to both general and specific faults.
  • A perfectionist is hyper-defensive of self and hyper-critical of others; excellence is more tolerant of others failings, having accepted and faced up to their own.

It’s little wonder then that perfectionists are among the most anxious, stressed, and unhappy people on the planet (and so are those who have to live with them). Next time, we’ll begin to replace the perfectionist’s false and destructive credo with a true and constructive credo.

See previous posts on Too Perfect: When Being in Control Gets Out of Control here