Strategies for Working With Perfectionism

May 05, 2023

I’m Camille and I’m a proud perfectionist.

It hasn’t always been that way.

For as long as I can remember, my perfectionism was something I sought to root out of myself—like a sickness. 

Due, in large part, to mixed cultural messages about the value of perfectionism, I considered it as something to be eradicated rather than healed.

It’s no secret; perfectionism has a bad reputation. 

Perfectionism has long been tied to childhood trauma, but researchers are only beginning to understand the full impact that perfectionism has on one’s health and wellbeing. 

Experts have linked perfectionism to a number of chronic mental health issues and physical conditions, including stress, anxiety, high blood pressure, immune conditions, and chronic conditions such as MS.

Additionally, as mentioned in my recent blog post, socially prescribed perfectionism is on the rise. Now, more than ever, perfectionists are seeking help in droves for mental health problems.

With the advent of self-optimization culture, unrealistic standards for success, and socially prescribed perfectionism, the number of perfectionists is steadily increasing–and it’s having devastating effects, not only on our health, but on the wellbeing of our society as a whole. 

Because perfectionism is deeply tied to individualism—promoting self-optimization at the expense of collective action—-and in a society grounded on principles of individualism and exceptionalism--and the fear of failure-- it has quickly evolved into an epidemic.

The issue lies in our misunderstanding of perfectionism–what it is and what it isn’t. The problem with perfectionism isn’t the trait itself, but the manner in which social conditions have warped and exacerbated it. Perfectionism is simply a mechanism, and like any other mechanism, it can be adaptive or, as is so often the case, maladaptive.

To heal from perfectionism, you don’t have to change yourself—you only have to adapt. You don’t have to heal from your perfectionism but to heal with it. The following include some of the best tips to help you do just that—painlessly and sustainably. 

Overcoming Perfectionism

If you don’t think you’re a perfectionist, think again. We come in many different colors, and you might just find a place among our lot. 

Perfectionism refers to a person’s highly unrealistic and chronic expectation of perfection. There are many different types of perfectionists. 

In her incredible (and highly recommended) book, The Perfectionist's Guide to Losing Control, author and mental health professional Katherine Morgan Schafler details five main types of perfectionists. They are:

  • The Intense Perfectionist: This type is “effortlessly direct” and goal-oriented. They tend to have impossibly high standards for themselves and others. Their perfectionist tendencies extend in all directions.

  • The Classic Perfectionist: The classic perfectionist is highly detail-oriented and reliable. They are emotionally measured and struggle to adapt to spontaneity. They are constantly striving to achieve perfection in tasks.

  • The Parisian Perfectionist: This type of perfectionist thinking is relationship-oriented and tends to focus on maintaining “perfect” relationships with everyone. They can be easily hurt and open up too soon.

  • The Procrastinator Perfectionist: The procrastinator perfectionist is highly prepared and has excellent impulse control. They tend to be inflexible and to have high anxiety.

  • The Messy Perfectionist: This type typically is highly creative albeit disorganized. Messy perfectionists tend to have many goals at once and struggle to focus on one task at a time, taking on too many important tasks at once.

In today’s goal-oriented, highly competitive, capitalist society, most of us qualify for at least one of the above categories–if not more.

If so, that’s okay! Perfectionism is not something to be eradicated, but something to be healed. Your perfectionism is perfect the way it is–it’s just been damaged by modern life. Read on to learn more about how to heal it—and use it to your advantage. 

7 Best Strategies For Perfectionism

I’ve been researching how to manage perfectionistic thoughts for a long time. 

In fact, perfectionism and addiction are highly correlated, so it shows up a lot with my clients.

Additionally, since I’m a proud perfectionist myself, I’ve had a personal stake in this problem–and its many solutions.

The following list includes the best  industry-leading, research-backed tips for working with your perfectionism—all tested by yours truly. Read them carefully, practice them, and let me know what you think! 

1. Stop Working Against Yourself 

The first step to healing from perfectionism is to accept that you aren’t, in fact, sick. 

“Healing from perfectionism” is a misnomer. What we are doing is healing with our perfectionism.

Perfectionism is not an illness or a disease. It’s a habit, and like any habit, it veers easily into addiction. 

What we have is an addiction to perfection. Remember that it’s entirely possible to get addicted to something that is good for you in small amounts: food, for example, is necessary to survival but too much of it (or too little) veers easily into pathology. 

Perfectionism is like food. We’ve simply got to revise our relationship to it—not get rid of it entirely.

It is, in many ways,  an asset. That’s why it’s socially conditioned into us. And in order to heal our perfectionism, we have to recognize that.

The role of self-compassion in healing has been well documented. Author Kristin Neff argues, in her book on self-compassion, that it is lays the foundation for all progress and behavioral change. 

It’s the world’s most inconvenient paradox: in order to change, you have to accept yourself as you are.

Easier said than done. But here are several strategies I recommend:

  • Try Self-compassion meditations (look them up on Insight Timer or Headspace) 

  • Say I love you in the mirror. Trust me, I know, but often the cheesiest things are the most helpful. 

  • Maintain Your boundaries. A boundary only works when it’s upheld. Protect your space. 

  • Try self-affirmations. When you're feeling anxious, boost your self-worth with positive messages. Look at the bigger picture I resisted this one for a long time, but they really work. No one has to know. 

  • Set Realistic goal. Self-doubt often emerges from unrealistic expectations and impossible standards--and perfectionists tend to set unrealistic goals. Remember that making mistakes is part and parcel of learning. Look at the big picture rather than the small details. Keep this in mind when engaging in goal setting .

2. Reframe 

The human brain has a tendency to focus on the negative. We fixate on our mistakes at the expense of our well-being.

We all do it–it’s a protective mechanism. The problem is that perfectionists are all about being protected. As a result, we can be particularly prone to negativity--and averse to making mistakes.

Although negativity in itself is perfectly fine, chronic negativity can have a detrimental impact on one’s mental health. Plus, it isn’t so fun for loved ones to be around.

Thankfully, we don’t need to get rid of our negativity or even force ourselves to feel differently. Instead, we try a reframe. Reframing, or adjusting our thinking about a situation, is a therapeutic technique that allows us to focus on alternatives instead of ruminating in discomfort. 

In order to reframe, you have to recognize you are suffering first. We are remarkably bad at knowing when we're uncomfortable. I recommend using meditation to cultivate mindfulness. Then, follow these steps, drawn from the practice of cognitive behavioral therapy:

  1. Recognize the thought: First, you need to recognize the thought. Accept it. Allow it to be there. 

  2. Introduce Curiosity: Greet your thought with curiosity. Find out what it’s trying to teach you or to accomplish. Odds are, it will say something along the lines of “protecting us.”

  3. Introduce a Better Option: If what you want is to be protected, what will actually make you feel that way? What can you think of instead? How can you reshape the thought to be more productive to your wellbeing?

  4. Set a Commitment: Often, worries go away when we commit to addressing them. Commit to doing something to resolve the situation—or pencil it into your planner.

  5. Choose the Better Option: The key here is to stick to your choice. If, for example, your original thought was “Sally hates me” and you chose to go with “Sally was busy, tomorrow I’ll text her” you have to consistently redirect yourself when you revert back to “she hates me.” You cannot allow yourself to live there.

Ultimately, you will make mistakes, and life will continue to bring stress. But by using reframing you can curb your perfectionist thoughts and maintain smart goals.

3. Leverage Your Strengths 

Whenever I tell anyone I’m a perfectionist, they invariably say something like “I wish.”

It’s frustrating, but I understand where they’re coming from. We have many enviable strengths. 

Not only is it important to remember that, but it’s useful to remind yourself as well. Healing is born out of positive momentum. You start getting better when you practice being better. 

Negative self talk and self criticism inhibit our ability to handle criticism and cope with perfectionistic tendencies. Positive psychology maintains that maintaining focus on the positive promotes self-efficacy and improves thought patterns.

To that end, make a list of your attributes–namely, those that are related to your perfectionism. If you can’t think of any, here are a few:

  • Passionate

  • Driven 

  • Charismatic 

  • Reflective 

  • Intelligent 

  • Responsible 

Write them on a Post-It note and keep it somewhere you’ll see it often—or keep a bunch of Post It notes all around your house! 

As perfectionists, we tend to resist anything cheesy or “un-serious” but keep in mind that the cheesiest things are often the most useful. 

4. Ask for Support (Seriously, Like Yesterday) 

I know what you’re thinking–or at least, I think I do.

I’ll speak for myself here but as a perfectionist, I can be very resistant to asking for help. I like to do everything myself–that’s a big part of what makes achieving feel good

But asking for support is essential. Human beings are social creatures. We are not designed for this much distance.

Additionally, asking for help benefits those you seek support from. There is a well-documented causal link between altruism and happiness. In other words, when we let other people help us, we’re benefiting them too! If it sounds outrageous, just ask for help from the person who’s been dying to be there for you. Do it. Then, watch their reaction. 

There are many different types of support you can ask for. Former clinical psychologist Katherine Morgan Schafler recommends these five categories:

  • Tangible Support is practical aid or mutual aid. When someone asks what they can do for you in a difficult moment, ask for something practical like cleaning or cooking.

  • Financial Support looks like asking for money in times of financial stress. It’s a tough one, but your parent or friend may be more than happy to help you out—especially if you’ve been trustworthy.

  • Community Support looks like asking for company and being honest about your vulnerability.

  • Informational Support looks like asking someone for advice or feedback.

  • Emotional Support looks like empathy. You’re allowed to ask for it too.

  • Physical Support looks like asking for physical touch or sex with a consenting partner. 

5. Cultivate Your Intuition—and Learn to Listen to It 

As perfectionists, we learn to discredit our intuition. After all, it hasn’t always helped us. Most of us have some trauma related to trust–which is why we aim to be so prepared.

On some level, we don’t trust ourselves, which is why we set up so many rigid guidelines. We don’t trust that we’ll do what we’re supposed to do without the threat of a deadline or high standard.

Thankfully, that’s not true.

Kristen Neff maintains that trust in oneself is one of the core components of healing with self-compassion—and it’s a crucial component in recovery as well.

Trusting yourself looks like:

  • Recognizing Your Feelings: If you don’t listen to what your body is telling you, it’s not going to be encouraged to speak next time. 

  • Setting Clear Boundaries: Once you have some sense of what you do and don’t want, you need to set clear boundaries with others. 

  • Maintaining Those Boundaries: Boundaries are nothing without enforcement. In fact, boundaries happen in the enforcing. People will test you. Stand your ground. 

  • Having Alone Time: You probably know this, but alone time is necessary. And I don’t just mean being alone, I mean spending time with yourself in reflection or meditation. It’s a necessary component of healing of any kind. 

6. Develop a Spiritual Path 

Many people nowadays are resistant to organized religion–with good reason. 

However, religious beliefs are deeply tied to happiness and fulfillment—and belief in a higher power is a core foundation of 12-step programs. 

So, how do we reconcile the two?

Easy (sort of). 

Religion and spirituality are two different things. Religion is adherence to a given tradition, while spirituality is, essentially, finding meaning in life. You don’t have to believe in anything in particular—you just have to believe in something. It can be nature, the power of community, or a deity. It can be your own potential. It can be anything.

The key here is that it has to be something you can rely on for support, something that makes you feel empowered when you connect to it. 

Whenever I feel overwhelmed, for example, I think of nature and her cycles. I remember that nothing is permanent, that nature always wins and she will bring me back to neutral (eventually). 

The key to spirituality is understanding that it’s a practice not a belief system. To that end, you need to actually practice it. Commune with the people or places that make you feel that sensation of timelessness and surrender. Keep in mind that surrender is simply a synonym for trust. And spend some time each day doing something that fulfills you—in that vast, indescribable way. 

For me, it’s writing. And sharing that with you is what makes me feel most alive.

7. Structure Your Time

I know, it sounds counterintuitive.

After all, if you’re a perfectionist, you may be highly structured—or you may not be. The beauty of this community is that we come in all shapes and sizes. 

We tend to resist the idea of structure because we feel like we already have so much. After all, we go to work, where most things are structured, we go home, where we tend to impose structure, and we sleep, which imposes its own structure upon us.

But structure is important to a perfectionist, and like perfectionism, it is just a tool—a tool we’ve been using wrong.

Instead of simply structuring work, structure your self-care time. Leverage your strengths to your advantage—use your tendency for structure to pencil in an hour each day to do something you want to do.

Here’s the secret: stop trying to make yourself do things that look like self-care but don’t feel like it. So many of us don’t know what makes us feel good, so we just do what everyone else is doing (I’m so sick of baths with candles, don’t even get me started). 

The key here is to find what makes YOU feel restored. Experiment with different activities. Check in with yourself. Then implement the ones that make you feel rested and energized, ready to take on the work part of your schedule.

In Conclusion: Think of the Possibilities 

When you heal your perfectionism, you will find that it actually wants to serve you. You will keep striving for excellence without the risk harming you as it once did. You will meet your own standards--reasonable standards. You will curb negative thoughts and perfectionistic thinking. You will accept only achievable goals and know how to manage stress.

You will learn to dance with it rather than fight against it, to work collaboratively rather than toiling away on your own. Most importantly, you’ll stop trying to be someone you’re not. 

We aren’t sick—we’re maladapted to a world that isn’t suited to accommodate our needs. Often, our solution is to compulsively seek to meet those needs ourselves.

Thankfully, we’ve been given a better solution, one that doesn’t require us to abandon those needs—only to meet them in a more sustainable way.


If you’re a perfectionist in need of some guidance, please feel free to reach out to me directly for a free consultation.


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