How to move from perfectionism to “good enough”

May 02, 2016
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Do you like to get things right? Perhaps you spend so much time trying to perfect a uni assignment that you end up handing it in late. If so, you may be dealing with perfectionism.

Striving for perfection sounds like a positive quality, but it can be really crippling. The need to get things “just right” stops you from beginning a task, and the bad feelings you have about your work mean you struggle to finish it.

The good news is that you can work on changing your approach. Here’s how to switch from striving for perfection to accepting what’s “good enough”.

Recognise the problem

As students we should aim for perfection, right? Actually, no. The goal of perfection is more likely to sabotage rather than motivate your efforts. This is because, as psychologist Lynley Yeo explains, “the standard of perfection is simply too high to meet”.

Perfectionists set themselves impossible targets and then take it very personally when they don’t succeed. They see their mistakes as confirmation that they’re not really worth much.

“When you link your performance to your personal self-worth, there are likely to be negative repercussions because nobody is perfect,” says Lynley. “Everyone experiences failure at some point.”  

Try aiming for “excellence” rather than perfection, Lynley suggests. Learn to recognise the difference between healthy striving and seeking the unachievable goal of perfection.  

Set limits

Perfectionists often put off starting a task, fearing it’s not the “perfect” time to begin. We also find it difficult to finish. “This is the sort of scenario that sees you either repeatedly typing out your first sentence only to delete it, or endlessly tweaking a paper right up until the 12am submission deadline,” Lynley explains.

Sound familiar? If so, you may need to set yourself some limits about how much time you spend on tasks. For example, decide you will only edit your essay twice before submitting it. And stick to your limits! It’s better to hand in “good enough” work on time than never submit at all.

Move the goalposts

Rather than telling yourself, “I must produce a perfect essay,” try, “I want to present a clear argument.” Instead of “I need to get 100 per cent on this test,” say, “I will use my time more effectively than last time I took an exam.”

When you make your goals specific and achievable, you set yourself up for success. Even if you don’t get a perfect score, you can still achieve some growth.

Pay attention to your inner voice

Being a perfectionist is like having a harsh and critical voice constantly berating you inside your head. This negative self-talk makes you feel bad about the work you produce, but also about yourself.

To shift your approach, pay close attention to the words you use to talk to yourself. Would you speak like that to a friend? “If you wouldn't talk to someone you care about that way,” Lynley says, “then it's not OK to direct it at yourself either.”

In particular, notice how you speak to yourself when you make a mistake. Do you add to your suffering by being judgmental and harsh, or do you show yourself kindness and understanding?

Get help

Perfectionism is often closely linked to fear and anxiety, Lynley explains. If you find yourself facing symptoms like loss of sleep, changes in appetite, or difficulties in close relationships, then it may be time to seek some professional help. Chat with your GP about getting a referral to a psychologist. Also look for workshops run by your campus counselling service on dealing with perfectionism.

Remember to remind yourself: no matter how great the quality of your work, or how much room there is for improvement, you, baby, are definitely good enough

Melinda Cooper

Melinda loves reading on rainy days, drinking cups of tea and making things. She is doing a PhD in English at the University of Sydney. 

Image: Black Swan official Facebook page

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