Loosening your Grip on Perfectionism

People with perfectionistic tendencies are usually aware of the fact that their perfectionism contributes to their suffering, that their stringent rules create experiences of failure almost by definition. But something happens when perfectionism and anxiety have always been accompanied by goal striving. The two get conflated. You might think you need that merciless perfectionism to be productive. Some feel that if they were to loosen their grasp on their perfectionism, they’d never have a worthwhile achievement again. The perfectionism seems like the engine of every success, and as a result, it grows.

Comparing ourselves to others can maintain perfectionism. Perceptions of others are at best an incomplete story. We know everything about ourselves, including the less shiny stuff. We then compare ourselves to what we can see about others whom we admire at a distance, seeing all of their shiny stuff and none of their struggle. There is an even bigger problem with perfectionism: you’ve lost before you’ve even begun. My work brings me into contact with individuals who are accomplished and even exceptional, and not once has that exceptionality and excellence translated into perfection. That’s because perfection is an impossibility.

Perfectionism may have fueled goal striving, but it’s also costly in every sense of the word. Practicing a talk for five hours will lead to improved performance, but will that performance be significantly better than if you practiced for one hour?  Accomplishments can feel less triumphant because it seems the effort required is so much more effort than others need to put forth. Things that could be completed in half the time take twice as long. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy talks about the “bigger, faster, better, harder” mentality that fuels our chasing an impossibility. We can lose touch with what we care about. Sometimes, we are aware of the futility of the struggle for perfectionism. In these cases, perfectionism can fuel behavioral avoidance. We won’t engage in an activity that would potentially bring us vitality because we know if the goal is perfection, we’ve already failed. Instead, our repertoire narrows to areas of clear mastery, and we further shrink what we are allowed to do and be.

You can be exceptional at whatever it is that you care to do and you will always be imperfect at it. In that imperfection is every satisfaction you’ve ever had. Imperfection not only facilitates growth, it is necessary for growth. Your sense of meaning  and creativity lives there, in that place of challenge between what comes easily now and what you are working towards.

Here are some suggestions to address perfectionism:

-Select an area that feels relatively low-stakes for you and play with letting your imperfect self shine through. Make small mistakes on purpose in the service of growing as a person, teaching you that they are survivable, or saving your time or energy.

-Try something you do not have a natural talent for, something novel that would appeal to you except for the fact that you’re not great  at it. For instance, think bowling if spatial reasoning is not your strong suit, improv if you expend a lot of energy coming across  “just right” in interactions, or painting if you can barely manage drawing a stick figure.

-Reduce checking behaviors & stop overdoing it. Send an email after proofing it quickly and only once. Make small decisions quickly. Choose a meal at a restaurant in under 5 minutes.  Don’t check your appearance after getting ready; just leave the house.

-Remember, what we see on social media is highly curated and is not the whole story. Also, passive social media use, or just scrolling through people’s posts without commenting, is tied to lower well-being, likely because we end up focusing on how we compare to others (Verduyn et al., 2017). If you’re not actively checking in on friends and commenting on their posts, it might be better to take a social media break.

-Be compassionate towards yourself.   To experiment with a different perspective, ask yourself, “If someone I love and respect were in my shoes, what would I say to them about this?” (Greenberger & Padesky, 1995).

-Our minds often engage in misguided attempts to protect us from discomfort. Treat the judgements and discomfort that arrive when trying a novel strategy as an expected and temporary part of creating the positive change you’d like to see. If it were easy, it would already be done (Harris, 2013).

- Consider your goals in a given situation.  Consider whether a "perfect" outcome is actually what you needwant in the situation. Would a "good enough" effort lead to the same outcome and save time?

-Remind yourself what you could access if you weren’t beholden to perfectionism. Maybe it’s more time, a greater sense of self-worth, increased spontaneity, or trying new things.

-Be patient with yourself. Implementing these strategies will get easier over time.

 Nehjla Mashal, PhD



Egan, S. J., Wade, T. D., & Shafran, R. (2011). Perfectionism as a transdiagnostic process: A clinical review. Clinical psychology review, 31(2), 203-212.

Greenberger, D., & Padesky, C. A. (1995). Mind over Mood: a cognitive therapy treatment manual for clients. Guilford press.

Harris, R. (2013). Getting unstuck in ACT: A clinician's guide to overcoming common obstacles in acceptance and commitment therapy. New Harbinger Publications.

Harris, R. The happiness trap: how to stop struggling and start living. 2008. Trumpeter, Boston, 27.

Shafran, R., Egan, S., & Wade, T. (2018). Overcoming Perfectionism: A self-help guide using scientifically supported cognitive behavioural techniques. Robinson.

Verduyn, P., Ybarra, O., Résibois, M., Jonides, J., & Kross, E. (2017). Do social network sites enhance or undermine subjective well‐being? A critical review. Social Issues and Policy Review, 11(1), 274-302.


Embracing the Concerted Chaos of Your Life

I had one of those mornings. Hectic, moving at breakneck speed, all to get us all out the door well before 7:00 a.m. As I was trying to tear one packet of Ponzu sauce for my lunch from an accordion of packets, I inadvertently tore one packet wide open. It exploded all over my freshly dressed toddler. Being a toddler, she was, of course, deeply offended and began crying almost immediately. I had to make a quick decision about whether we were going to wash her hair or let her go to day care smelling of Ponzu sauce. My husband looked at me, waiting for my lead on this. Afterall, I had done it so that was only fair. I remember the frenetic energy of that led to this exact place in time; I could feel the tension building in my body (mindfulness of current emotion skill; Linehan, 2014). In that moment, I felt almost overwhelming frustration at the fact that our elegant and tightly paced morning routine was shattered. Ten seconds later, I've made the choice to rinse out her hair. She's definitely a bath baby. She doesn't get the mechanics of showering yet. She's caterwauling at a pitch I've seldom heard before. We sing at high volume to soothe her over her cries and dry her off. Her hair is now sauce-free and clean. Her wardrobe change is complete. A tense then earnest bout of laughter at the mundane absurdity of the situation and we say our goodbyes. Everybody gets where they're needing to go, and only a few minutes late to boot. No major catastrophe occurred. 

One aspect of my work is helping other people to relax, savor, and find some tranquility even amid the stress and churn of their lives. But Ponzu-gate felt like the opposite of serenity. It's also my real life. More importantly, it's part of my value-driven life. In that stress, which sometimes feels very costly, there was room for so much more, like how lucky I am to parent and share my life with someone I respect and love, how my love for my daughter has made me stronger and bolder than I could have ever imagined possible.  Nothing is free and I am willing to pay the cost of the relationships that make my heart sing. Continually reminding myself that all of the banal rigamarole, the spilt things, the mess, and the time pressure are all part of the gift has expanded my capacity for patience in difficult situations and makes them, in Acceptance and Commitment therapy terms, “workable” (Hayes et al, 2006). The concerted chaos is my chaos; I hold it lovingly.  

Nehjla Mashal, PhD

Edited by Jordan Jones, LICSW


Hayes, S. C. (2005). Get out of your mind and into your life: The new acceptance and commitment therapy. New Harbinger Publications.

Hayes, S. C., Luoma, J. B., Bond, F. W., Masuda, A., & Lillis, J. (2006). Acceptance and commitment therapy: Model, processes and outcomes. Behaviour research and therapy44(1), 1-25.

Linehan, M. M. (2014). DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets. Guilford Publications.

Swain, J., Hancock, K., Hainsworth, C., & Bowman, J. (2013). Acceptance and commitment therapy in the treatment of anxiety: a systematic review. Clinical psychology review33(8), 965-978.