You want a brain surgeon to be a perfectionist. But if you are not performing brain surgery, will the world really fall apart if you do something that isn’t perfect?

Many people act that way…and it’s hurting them! It keeps them from achieving their goals and makes them unhappy even when they do. They don’t know how to loosen up and break out of perfectionism. But we have a novel way to do it—it’s even fun.


Perfectionism is on the rise in our culture, and Deborah Serani, PsyD, a psychologist in private practice in Smithtown, New York, attributes some of the increase to social media, where it’s too easy to compare ourselves with others and feel that we fall short. Genes also play a part—some people are hard-wired to be detail-oriented, overly conscientious and rigid in their thinking, all perfectionist traits. And learned behavior reinforces those traits. We tend to prefer doing the things we do well because doing something well feels good.

The problem comes when someone with perfectionist tendencies can’t stop behaviors that grow and morph from tendency to trap.

Most people acknowledge life’s flaws and failures and move on. But perfectionists have a hard time letting anything roll off their backs. An inconsequential blip to others becomes a problem for them because perfectionists catastrophize—or “awfulize”—everything, which leads to a vicious cycle of obsessive thinking.

One way this plays out: You mess up. In reality, it’s not a big deal. But rather than just acknowledge that it happened and move on, you can’t let yourself off the hook. You start thinking that because you messed up, you’re a faulty person…so you put even more pressure on yourself for future endeavors…raising the bar higher for what you expect yourself to achieve and increasing the likelihood that you’ll foul up again. And when you do (even though everyone makes mistakes), it just proves that you were right: There’s something very wrong with you.

In contrast, some perfectionists don’t have low opinions of themselves, but they still can’t break free of the drive to do things perfectly or not at all—and that gets in their way, big time.

Does either type of perfectionist seem to describe you, or someone you know? Here are some other clues that perfectionism could be stealing your happiness…

  • You tend toward black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking. You assess your outcomes as either perfect or failures. There’s rarely any in-between, and almost never a “good enough.”
  • You overestimate the value of your performance to others. Not only do you believe that you must get things right for your own sake—but also that you’ll let others down in a serious way if you don’t get things right. For example, if you make a mistake at a piano performance, or are late on a noncritical deadline at work, you believe that everyone is focused on that and will hold it against you.
  • You’re your own worst critic. No one else in your life can make you feel as bad about a mistake as you make yourself feel.


You don’t have to let perfectionism strangle the pleasure out of the full, happy life you deserve. While you can’t change your genes, you can retrain learned thought processes to cut off catastrophic thinking at the start and break loose from the self-defeating cycle. Here are some techniques that work…

  • Stop…look…listen. As soon as you notice that you’re berating yourself for “failing”—stop! Then look inward and do some self-reflection…and listen to what you’re saying to yourself. Pay attention to how it feels to hear yourself say “This isn’t perfect” or “You never get it right.” Then ask yourself: Would you say such things to someone else who had made a mistake? Almost certainly not! Try being gentler to yourself. Let your inner voice say “You tried your best”…or “Rather than trying for ‘perfect,’ try for ‘very good.’”
  • Find the funny in failure. Maybe you can’t laugh at your own failings (yet!), but how about other people’s? Search Pinterest, Instagram and other social websites using hashtags such #epicfail. People post photos and videos of things they try that go terribly wrong—such as a child’s birthday cake that was supposed to look like Elmo but, well, doesn’t…or a marriage proposal that was supposed to be romantic but, well, wasn’t—and they find the humor in these failures. Such online snafus will remind you that the world doesn’t come crashing down from life’s many minor failures.
  • Try improv! A performance that isn’t scripted has failure built into it—deliberately. There are theater classes all over the country that focus on improvisation, and these are a surprisingly effective way to have fun with spontaneity and “failure” that helps you put life failures in perspective as well. Not only is it okay to mess up, sometimes it’s better!
  • Indulge your creative side. Painting, sculpting, collage, photography and even handicrafts such as sewing, knitting and woodworking have no one “right” way to do them. You’re free to interpret your art or craft any way you like. True, most people with perfectionistic tendencies aren’t drawn to such free-form activities because there isn’t a known “perfect” goal. But that’s why they can help you. Even just trying something can be beneficial and can help you see that things turning out not as planned is far more common than otherwise.

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