The perfectionist trap: Why we’re attracted to it, how it makes us miserable, and how to get out of it

April 21, 2022
Filipe Bastos

Do you often find yourself paralysed by the need for perfection? Are you the type of person who is never quite satisfied with your work, no matter how hard you try? If so, you may be sabotaging your own success without even realising it.

The modern world is rife with dissatisfaction. Whatever we do, and whatever we achieve, we’re never happy; sometimes, these perfectionistic tendencies might even seem like an inherent part of the human condition. However, that’s not true. While striving for the best can lead to amazing triumphs, it can also cause damage — we call this “the perfectionist trap”. Thankfully, however, there are things we can do to counter the negative effects of neurotic perfectionism.

In this blog post, we’ll explain the meaning of the term “the perfectionist trap”, and explore how it can be harmful to your career and life. We will also provide tips on how to overcome this destructive habit and achieve greater success. If you feel like you could benefit from a less self-critical and more open-minded perspective on life, read on.

What is The Perfectionist Trap?

We often sculpt our own ambitions and dreams based on the most successful people within our chosen field, whether it be a world-famous architect, an incredible musician, or a super-successful politician. While it’s good to aim high, the problem with this is that when compared with the genius work of our heroes, our own early creative or professional endeavours will pale in comparison and seem deeply underwhelming. We then start to define ourselves as inept or incapable — this is the essence of the perfectionist trap.

Popular culture and media shine a light on extreme successes while ignoring the years of failure, finetuning, and progress that led to those points. Because we haven’t seen the early drafts of those we admire, we can’t forgive ourselves for the lack of quality in our own early drafts. To develop a healthier relationship between success and failure, we should seek out the unpolished first books of esteemed authors, or research the various failed investments suffered by famous entrepreneurs before they got their big break. Doing this can help us gain a bit of perspective and shift away from perfectionist tendencies.

The School of Life sums this idea up perfectly in the statement “We who are so aware of excellence end up the least able to tolerate mediocrity”. Ultimately, we’re setting ourselves up for failure when we get too wrapped up in other people’s successes, particularly when we start comparing them to our own. This process of comparison is one of the hallmarks of negative perfectionism. Let’s spend some time looking into how you can recognise the perfectionist trap within your own life.

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Common Types of Perfectionism

When we set the bar high, we leave ourselves with a long way to “fall” if our goals aren’t met. This attitude doesn’t have to be seen as pessimistic, rather it’s about being realistic and ensuring that you’re resilient enough to deal with failure. This resilience is one of the main things that the perfection trap tends to test. So what kind of thought patterns are typical of negative perfectionism?

  • Self-perfectionism – This locks people into the mindset of “I cannot make mistakes” or “I must have the approval of others”, which can lead to intense feelings of shame, guilt, or self-punishment when something goes wrong.
  • Social perfectionism – Thinking that other people should comply with your rules, or that you have control over the behaviour of others, is another dangerous form of perfectionism.
  • Educational perfectionism – Learning new things can be frustrating, to the point that we begin to be overly self-critical. Educational perfectionism refers to this process, which can actually hinder our learning even further.
  • The comparative trap – This is when we relentlessly compare our own achievements (or perceived lack of achievements) to others. Constant comparison can lead to anxiety, depression, and fear of failure.

There are several other ways that perfectionism can manifest, but most people would benefit from keeping an eye on these key signs of the perfectionist trap.

But what if you enjoy being a perfectionist? Many people believe that this kind of thinking is what helps them accomplish tasks and drive themselves forward, and in many cases, that’s true. How do you manage idealistic thinking without being too hard on yourself?

Isn’t Perfectionism a Good Thing?

Perfectionism can be healthy. Striving for realistic, reasonable standards and ambitions can help you increase your sense of self-esteem and satisfaction with life. However, there’s a fine line between this kind of healthy perfectionism and neurotic perfectionism, in which you’re driven to set excessively high standards by a fear of failure or disappointing others. In this state, you can become overly self-critical, focusing on flaws rather than noticing successes, feeling shame or guilt when you make a mistake, and getting stuck on tasks due to endless procrastination.

The impact of the perfectionism trap on personal well-being and mental health can be substantial. Developing unhealthy perfectionistic tendencies can lead to increased feelings of anxiety, distress, and depression, and it can also cause low self-esteem when you fail to live up to the unrealistic standard you set for yourself. One study conducted with Iranian students found that negative perfectionism is a risk factor for both depression and anxiety. So how do we find the right balance?

In the next section of this article, we’ll give you an arsenal of top tips and suggestions for how to maintain balance and equanimity by dealing with the perfectionism trap and rewiring your brain in a positive way.

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“there’s a fine line between this kind of healthy perfectionism and neurotic perfectionism, in which you’re driven to set excessively high standards by a fear of failure or disappointing others.”

7 Tips For Dealing With The Perfectionist Trap

Getting out of the perfectionist trap is all about retraining your brain. And when it comes to this process, one of the best methods available to us is the art of mindfulness. But how can mindful thinking alter your approach to life? Here are 7 top tips for dealing with the perfectionist trap and switching up your thinking.

1. Become more mindful of perfectionist thoughts

Throughout your daily life, reflect on the challenges, obstacles, and setbacks that you face in the present moment. Think about your mental responses and whether they are helpful or constructive — are your thoughts going to help you out of that difficult situation? If not, try to let go of them and re-centre yourself in the present.

2. Challenge your thoughts

This is really an extension of the last point — after noticing certain thoughts and perfectionist tendencies in the mind, try to get into a habit of challenging yourself. For instance, if you start judging yourself and jumping to conclusions too quickly, ask yourself “Is that really the reality of the situation?” or “Are things really as bad as they seem?” Consider whether you’re exaggerating negative aspects of your circumstances, and think about ways in which you could re-frame your perspective.

3. Try to generate more constructive thoughts

Think about how you could change a negative thought to make it more useful. Are there any distortions or mistruths you could take out of it? Instead of viewing something as a failure, try to see it as a learning experience that will allow you to succeed in the future. The ancient Stoic philosophy of “the obstacle is the way” teaches that only by embracing obstacles as a necessary part of our path towards success can we begin to overcome them. For more on this game-changing concept, check out our article on the subject.

4. Practise gratitude and appreciate life’s simple pleasures

One of the best ways to fight back against negative perfectionist tendencies is to be more grateful for the positive things in life. Our article on how gratitude changes your brain highlights the impact gratitude-based practices can have on emotional well-being, mental resilience, and cognitive function. Practise saying “thank you” more regularly and more mindfully, and try out techniques like self-inquiry and gratitude journaling. For more guidance on how to experience more gratitude, read our article on seeking out the simple pleasures in life.

5. Set realistic goals

While it can be beneficial to stretch ourselves and test the limits of what we can achieve, setting realistic goals is also important for maintaining productivity and looking after our mental health. To make bigger ambitions more achievable, try breaking them down into mini-goals and setting action plans that will help you progress towards your larger target. At the same time, try to be flexible, and remain open to the idea of your goals changing and adapting along the way.

6. Celebrate your successes

This is such an important step towards real happiness, but one that we often neglect. Celebrating our own successes is incredibly good for us; it can boost our levels of self-esteem, self-satisfaction, confidence, and contentment. By simply writing down everything you’ve achieved in a day, whether it’s replying to an email, cooking a nice meal, or completing a project that’s taken months, celebrating the things you do well can combat unhealthy perfectionism and have a super positive effect on your mental health.

7. Practise mindfulness meditation

Mindfulness meditation is proven to reduce feelings of anxiety and stress, decrease heart rate and blood pressure, and boost concentration and focus levels. But perhaps the biggest benefit mindful meditation provides is an enhanced ability to observe thoughts and feelings in the present moment, and deal with them calmly instead of reacting emotionally (respond, don’t react, in other words). Find out everything you need to know about the subject by reading our comprehensive guide to mindfulness meditation.

Switch Up Your Standards of Perfection

Practising those 7 steps regularly can help you build new habits and move away from the problematic perfectionist trap. Ultimately, happiness comes not from being perfect, but from accepting yourself the way you are. Practising radical acceptance and gratitude-based exercises can have a hugely positive impact on the way you approach the world. Supplementing these kinds of techniques with formal mindfulness meditation practices will leave you in an even better position.

A lot of people live under the false assumption that in order to be accomplished, you’ve got to be a perfectionist. The truth is, that perfectionism can sometimes cause problems; it can lead to anxiety, stress, low self-esteem, and a reduced sense of satisfaction. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strive for your goals. Finding a healthy balance between goal-setting, task accomplishment, and mental well-being is the recipe for success. Embrace the values and suggestions laid out in this article, and you can learn how to be productive while maintaining a peaceful mind.

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Frequently Asked Questions:

How does meditation help with common perfectionism traps?

Meditation is a broad spectrum, and different people embrace it for different reasons. However, one of the most common motivations is to gain better control of negative thoughts, feelings, and emotions — this aspect of the practice relates closely to perfectionism. Check out our article on the purpose of meditation for more on this.

What is the key to happiness?

There are lots of misconceptions about how to find happiness. At MindOwl, we believe that happiness comes not from striving to accomplish tasks and goals, but from understanding and accepting yourself without judgement. One of the best ways to cultivate this mindset is by practising some quick daily mindfulness exercises.

What are the 9 attitudes of mindfulness?

Mindfulness exercises can channel all sorts of different qualities and behaviours, but they’re all linked by 9 core attitudes. These are non-judging, acceptance, patience, beginner’s mind, trust, non-striving, letting go, gratitude, and generosity. Cultivating these attitudes can have all sorts of benefits – find out more in our article on the 9 attitudes of mindfulness.

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In times like this, mindfulness and self-awareness can be crucial in your ability to cope with fear. Here are 3 tips to help manage your climate anxiety:

🌍 Practice acceptance, not denial - accept you can't change the world on your own, only your tiny role within it
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