While perfectionism at face value may sound great (“Who doesn’t want to be the best versions of themselves?”), it can lead to difficulties in your life that can be hard to acknowledge. It sounds counter-intuitive, but perfectionism can lead to this toxic cycle where the more you try to live up to your high expectations, the more likely you are to engage in behaviors such as procrastination that can lead to you failing to achieve the goals that are important to you.
For example, maybe it’s really difficult for you to get enough sleep at night, so you decide to set yourself an early (for you) bedtime of 10PM. One night, you’re out with your friends, and you don’t get home until 11PM. You also had an incredibly long day at work, and you’re exhausted, but you want to give yourself some freedom to watch some bad TV or scroll through social media on your phone. “Oh well,” you think, “If I can’t do it right tonight, I guess I’ll try tomorrow,” and then you stay up until 2AM engaging in “revenge bedtime procrastination,” a phrase that originated in Chinese culture as 報復性熬夜. The next night, you’re ready to go to bed at 10PM. You get into bed, turn off the lights, but then… you can’t fall asleep. “Well, this night is not going perfectly, so I guess I’ll just stay up a little later and try tomorrow,” and the cycle repeats itself.
It’s actually your perfectionism that is getting in the way of you accomplishing your goal of going to bed at 10PM: Because it never “feels right” or you can’t accomplish this goal “perfectly,” you keep putting it off. The same thing can happen when we have a big deadline at work, or we want to reach out to a friend we haven’t spoken to in awhile. Our fear of not doing it perfectly causes us to avoid doing the thing that actually matters to us, and the more we avoid it, the more we feel like we won’t be able to do it perfectly, and the harder it becomes to actually achieve our goals.
So how can we break free of our perfectionism? Well, we have to stop waiting for things to feel “perfect” in order to make changes in our lives. We have to be willing to feel the incredibly uncomfortable feeling that we are “messing up” or “doing things wrong” in order to pursue our goals. This is incredibly challenging – if it was easy, we would never procrastinate! Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) are two types of therapy that can be helpful for providing you skills to stop the toxic cycle of perfectionism and to accomplish what you want in your life.
Jasmine Mote, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist at Cambridge Psychology Group and Research Assistant Professor at Boston University. As part of the Approach Motivation and Participation Lab, she is interested in understanding the social and emotional difficulties of people living with serious mental illness. If you like her writing, you can subscribe to her newsletter Mental Healthy, where she discusses mental health research related to pregnancy and parenting.