Perfectionism is defined as refusing to accept anything except flawlessness. At first glance, this may seem like an admirable trait that will lead to, if not perfection, at least much higher quality in everything we do. However, perfectionism doesn’t work that way, it makes sufferers fearful of attempting anything that may turn out to have flaws. Human life being what it is, we already know that nothing is, in reality, perfect, and if we fear errors and imperfections too much, we can find our whole lives paralyzed by fear and indecision.
A recent study1 on the treatment of perfectionism noted that there are various facets to the experience of perfectionism, including, unrealistically high personal standards, self-doubt, and an unnecessarily high emphasis on precision. However, the study authors took concern over making mistakes as a central motivation, and looked for a way to break the fear of mistakes that easily translates into a fear of doing anything at all.
In their study of mistake-making, the researchers took university-student volunteers and gave them a series of difficult tasks, such as math problems to solve under time pressure, where the correct answer might not be found to be one of the available responses. Participants completed one session of tasks every three days for a total of five sessions over a three week period. At the end, the participants completed the same assessment for perfectionism and showed a considerable drop as well as a lessened fear of making mistakes.
While quite small and preliminary, the study results do point the way towards an online “treatment” for perfectionism that could be easily replicated. If you find yourself continually battling the urge to do nothing for fear of not being perfect, you might want to try incorporating this approach into your life. Turn off the spell checker when you are typing, and then later do a check on your own. Mistake-making turns out to be a common experience!
Or try inviting some friends over for a meal and deliberately serving an overcooked or under-spiced dish and see if anyone complains. People turn out to have a high tolerance for imperfection in everyday life, and we can learn greater acceptance of ourselves by observing that others give us that acceptance. Simple exercises like these can be helpful in learning to overlook your own and others’ imperfections, and in learning to move ahead with doing fun and creative things without fear of failure.
- Redden, S. A., Patel, T. A., & Cougle, J. R. (2022). Computerized treatment of perfectionism through mistake making: A preliminary study. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 77, 1–8. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbtep.2022.101771