How To Overcome Perfectionism, From A Recovering Perfectionist

"Learning to see your own efforts in gray can be tough, but it definitely pays off."

As a psychotherapist, I spend a lot of time dealing with perfectionism in its many forms. I've helped aspiring writers to overcome creative blocks, germaphobes to stop washing their hands for hours on end, and overprotective parents win some freedom from their parental anxiety. I also have a confession to make: the reason I've become so good at helping others with this particular hurdle is that I'm a recovering perfectionist myself.  

I recently heard a tagline on a TV commercial: "The best or nothing."  That's also the slogan of the perfectionist brain, and I used to apply it to every area of my life. As a writer, each sentence had to be flawless. I needed to be every teacher's favorite student, and every meal I ordered had to be a beacon of health or I considered it, and myself, a disaster. If you've ever struggled with perfectionism, you probably can relate to my old mantra: if I'm not a complete success, I'm a complete failure.      


Here's what I've learned from my experience as a perfectionist and as a therapist: black and white thinking is the heart of perfectionism, and it can prevent progress.

 Yuganov Konstantin / Shutterstock

I used to obsess over one paragraph at a time, rewriting it over and over and over again. Spending half a day getting 100 words just right may be worthwhile in some contexts (if you are writing an important international treaty, take your time!). When the deadline for an entire book is looming, it becomes a problem. The same dynamic applied to my meals: the kale needed to be organic, the salmon needed to be wild-caught, the presentation just so. 

If I didn't get every single detail perfect, I'd consider the whole project a disaster and beat myself up for it. Then, I'd beat myself up for not producing fast enough — a double bind. Because I believed any imperfection meant failure, I became paralyzed. When fear of making a mistake stopped me from moving forward, this led to a spiral of negativity and anxiety. 

What helped me most in overcoming my own perfectionism is breaking down my "black and white" thought patterns, and learning to see in shades of gray. Instead of rating everything in terms of either/or, I try to rate how I'm doing on a continuum that acknowledges my successes as much as my failures. Almost nothing that we do (or anyone does, for that matter) is either a complete failure or a complete success. Even works of staggering genius or meals that can change your life have flaws. Even a beginner's efforts usually show some promise. Usually perfectionists have no problem seeing other people in this light. I've never dismissed a friend's home-cooked dinner because the kale was not organic. I'm not a monster. But we perfectionists can have a hard time applying the same standards to ourselves. 

Learning to see your own efforts in gray can be tough, but it definitely pays off.

pkchai / Shutterstock

When I look at my last book I definitely see things I would improve.  But I never would have finished it if I let the flaws trip up the overall goals. Because the threat of TOTAL FAILURE wasn't hanging over every sentence, I was able to press forward and finish something that, in the end, I'm proud of. I see the same dynamic in my patients: seeing in gray allows the recovering perfectionist to move forward. 

Seeing things in this more nuanced way is also a great tool for improving performance. When you can acknowledge and accept some mistakes as inevitable, they go from being stop-you-in-your-tracks roadblocks to opportunities to improve. The more you just press ahead, the more experience you'll have to learn from. When you inevitably start to notice improvements, this will motivate you to keep pressing. 

This is how I learned to turn a negative spiral of perfectionism and paralysis into a positive spiral of improvement. Step one: practice seeing in shades of gray. Think about the area of life in which perfectionism is holding you back and consider the different elements involved. 

Consider the things you already do well and the parts that could need improvement. Resist imposing a black/white judgement. Step two: commit to doing that something a little less perfectly. Repeat. 

I've used this technique on myself and with patients—all recovering perfectionists. My new book, Chicken Soup for the Soul's Think, Act, & Be Happy helps you to use this brain-training strategy at home. Spoiler alert: none of us became perfect. That's because perfect is impossible. By learning to see shades of gray, we started a process that helped us change unhelpful perfectionism into a positive and productive attitude towards ourselves and our achievements. The best thing is that as we stick with it, things keep improving. That may not be perfect, but it's pretty darn great! 

Dr. Mike Dow, Psy.D., Ph.D., is New York Times bestselling author and America's go-to therapist. His books have been published in several different languages and are bestsellers around the world. As a brain health, addiction, and relationship expert, Dr. Mike has hosted shows on TLC, VH1, E!, Investigation Discovery, and Logo. He is part of Dr. Oz's core team of experts, a recurring guest cohost on The Doctors, and has made regular appearances on Today, Rachael Ray, Wendy Williams, Meredith Vieira, Ricki Lake, Nancy Grace, and Dr. Drew on Call. You've also seen him as LaToya Jackson's therapist on OWN's My Life with LaToya and as The Bachelor's therapist on Freeform's Ben and Lauren.

Inspired by his brother who suffered a massive stroke when he was just 10 years old, Dr. Mike made it his personal mission to help people heal their brains. In his most recent book with Chicken Soup for the Soul editor-in-chief Amy Newmark, he helps people train their brains with the power of cognitive behavioral therapy. It's called Chicken Soup for the Soul's Think, Act & Be Happy: How to Use Chicken Soup for the Soul Stories to Train Your Brain to Be Your Own Therapist. 

Dr. Mike's other books include Your Subconscious Brain Can Change Your Life, Heal Your Drained Brain, The Brain Fog Fix, Healing the Broken Brain, and Diet Rehab. Dr. Mike began his career working with adolescent survivors of abuse for the Los Angeles Department of Mental Health. He has a M.S. in Marriage and Family Therapy, a Doctorate (Psy.D.) in Psychology, and a second Doctorate (Ph.D.) in Clinical Sexology. He also has post-doctoral education in neurofeedback, psychopharmacology, and clinical hypnosis. Dr. Mike is a graduate of USC where he was a Presidential Scholar.

You'll usually see him walking two very cute rescue dogs around Los Angeles. When his partner Dr. Chris isn't on the night shift in the emergency room, he's there, too. Dr. Mike hangs out a lot on Facebook and Instagram @drmikedow.

Cover image via I Shutterstock


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