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5 habits of happy perfectionists

by Meghan Holohan /  / Updated  / Source: TODAY

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While it might seem being a perfectionist would make a person more successful, recent research suggests that isn’t always the case. Many people who are hard-wired for perfection often sabotage themselves.

young woman sitting at desk
Dear perfectionist, remember that you (and the people around you) are only human.Shutterstock

“They have to be absolutely perfect,” says Gordon Flett, the Canadian Research Chair in Personality and Health at York University. “It’s almost like a compulsion.”

That compulsion, researchers say, too often manifests in counter-productive ways. For some, the drive to be perfect causes them to stall when faced with an important task. Procrastination helps some perfectionists cope with a fear of failure.

For others, perfectionism forces them to do too much, resulting in OCD-like behavior.

Devon George of Pittsburgh falls into that category. Before hosting a party, George touches up all the paint in the house, assuring that no scuff or blemish remains visible. She also scours the bathroom and organizes the medicine cabinet, often alphabetically. She doesn’t throw parties often. And, there’s no way she could host a party without doing it.

“I would be very anxious. I would make a huge announcement. ‘If you want to just look around … the paint is chipped. If you want something in the powder room … I haven’t organized the Ace bandages,’” she says.

George admits to being a perfectionist. She uses spreadsheet to organize the family’s bills and income; she also uses spreadsheets exhaustively in her work as an administrator in a nursing program at a community college.

“It is completely self-driven,” she says.

Tal Ben-Shahar, author of “Being Happy: You Don’t Have to Be Perfect to Lead a Richer, Happier Life”, knows people like George are often frustrated by their own perfectionism.

“No one can manage to be perfect — which is part of the reason that a perfectionist is constantly disappointed,” Ben-Shahar tells TODAY via email.

Experts say perfectionism exists as a personality trait, not a disorder; however, it can certainly lead to mental health problems, such as anxiety. Also, because expectations are so high, goals often go unmet. As a result, many perfectionists suffer from low self-esteem.

“If you are perfectionistic [you think] ‘if I don’t do well and fail it means there is something wrong with me as a person,’” says Thomas Greenspon, a psychologist who wrote two books on perfectionism.

Of course, perfectionism isn’t only frustrating for the perfectionist.

“[It’s linked] with workaholisim and exhaustion and is also exhausting for people who are around them,” says Flett.

So what’s a perfectionist to do to be happy and healthy? While some extreme cases may require professional help, Flett, Greenspon, and Tal-Shahar provide several tips for anyone whose drive for excellence has become a stumbling block.

1. Be compassionate to yourself

Perfectionists need to be kind to themselves and realize that being perfect doesn’t have to be the ultimate goal.

“They are so busy criticizing themselves they don’t realize they can be kind to themselves,” says Flett. “I don’t think there is a focus on self-care.”

The bottom line is to remember you’re only human.

“Really embrace this notation that no one is perfect, everyone makes mistakes,” Flett says.

2. Ask for help

“Perfectionists are really bad at asking for help,” says Flett. “A huge problem that fuels the unhappiness is they are low in self acceptance and accepting others.”

Ironically, asking for help means perfectionists would have to admit that they are not perfect. The benefits to that are huge. Once perfectionists ask for help, they open themselves up to realizing that other people are either in the same boat, or able and willing to lend a hand. Either way, they learn they are not alone.

3. Look for cheerleaders

Greenspon says that perfectionism relates to self-esteem. People feel bad if the centerpiece doesn’t look exactly like the one on Pinterest, or the strategic plan has a typo.

“I look at perfectionism as a relationship [issue],” he says. “They are looking at others and wondering whether others think they are okay.”

This is where friends and family come in. They need to remind perfectionists that imperfection is normal.

He recommends that loved ones say something like: “When you make a mistake, I know you feel terrible but that doesn’t change how we feel. I still love you if you make a mistake.”

Remember party host Devon George’s instinct to announce all the flaws in her house to guests? Greenspon believes that is the right thing for perfectionists to do. Most guests would end up praising her house or tell her they didn’t care how it looked, which is exactly the kind of messages perfectionists need to hear.

4. Accept that you’re human

“Rather than beating yourself over the head for having perfectionist tendencies, accept yourself and your feelings,” says Ben-Shahar.

5. Use visualization

Perfectionists often hear criticisms when no critiques exist. Ben-Shahar suggests that people leverage their brainpower to counter that — or to consider what failure looks like and how to cope with it.

“Our brain is the most sophisticated simulator ever invented. Use it,” he says. “If perfectionism manifests itself in your being overly defensive, see yourself responding kindly to other people’s criticism.”

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