Perfectionism is like jet fuel for my anxiety. But what if HSPs can turn it into something that’s actually healthy?
As a highly sensitive person (HSP) and writer, I personally deal with battling perfectionism at work and in my spare time. I’ve often told myself, “If this article/poem/story comes out just right with no errors, I’ll be worthy of the success and praise I get from others.”
When I do this, I’m putting loads of pressure on myself and setting my expectations to dizzying heights that can never be reached. This weighs on my anxiety and becomes exhausting, doing more harm than good.
So why do I rely so heavily on being perfect?
Perfectionism is a predetermined expectation that we can never make mistakes or be imperfect.
On the contrary, while striving for excellence can help you achieve goals and keep you motivated, perfectionism is the opposite of this. It’s an unhealthy coping mechanism that only holds you back from producing your best work.
HSPs often find pseudo-comfort in perfectionism as a way to control feelings of anxiety and fear. By not allowing mistakes to happen and only striving for perfection, it’s easy to feel protected against those unwanted, negative emotions that come with letting ourselves or others down. (And since we’re so empathic, we do not like to let others down!)
In this article, we’ll discuss how — and why — perfectionism affects us, and how a simple reframing toward striving for excellence can help us move past mistakes and imperfections and accomplish great things.
What Perfectionism Is Like as an HSP
HSPs are hardwired to feel deeply. We experience emotions in a more profound way, whether they’re good or bad.
It’s no wonder HSPs tend to avoid negative emotions at all cost. And aiming for perfection seems to help us do so. In reality, the root of perfectionism is in fear.
As perfectionists, we convince ourselves that anything less than perfect isn’t good enough and that failing isn’t an option. And if we fail, we quickly identify ourselves as failures — by proxy, others will be disappointed in us.
HSPs not only feel deeply, but we care deeply in the work we do — our sense of purpose is important to us. That’s why it’s easy for us to link our self-worth to our jobs, the amount of work we produce, and our level of capability. Therefore comes the belief that any mistakes made along the way is a result of our “unworthiness.”
Here are some signs that you might be a perfectionist HSP:
- Obsessing over mistakes
- Setting unrealistic standards
- Fearing failure
- Constantly worrying about letting others down
- Trying to control the outcome
- Overthinking and procrastination
Fortunately, when we name the “why” behind the driving force of our perfectionism, we have a greater understanding of how to cope with the emotions it brings to the surface. To help us understand our personal relationship with perfectionism, let’s look at two different types of perfectionism.
2 Different Types of Perfectionism
What is the root cause of your perfectionism?
It is important to know where you find yourself on this “perfectionism spectrum,” as it creates a line between striving for perfection to please others or because we strive to do our best work.
Here, we break down perfectionism into two different types:
- Social-driven perfectionists can be very self-critical. They place pressure on themselves in fear of letting others (family, friends, colleagues, etc.) down, and worry that if they fail to meet certain expectations, they will be rejected. Their driven goals rely heavily on gaining others’ approval.
- Self-driven perfectionists are conscious of the high standards they set for themselves. Their actions are based on personal drive — with realistic goals — that leave room to be flexible and adaptive. They are positively motivated, organized, and assertive in what they want.
While striving for perfectionism as the ultimate goal is unhealthy, having high standards is completely reasonable. By understanding the root motivator for your perfectionism, you can decide whether your need for perfectionism is working for, or against, you.
When perfectionism is caused by our need to please others or hide behind negative beliefs about ourselves, perfectionism can do more than damage good. So how can we, as HSPs, reframe perfectionism in a way that helps us strive for excellence, so we can feel more motivated and confident to accomplish big things — while letting go of the mistakes we make along the way?
Below are some helpful tips on how to recognize, and combat, perfectionism.
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5 Tips to Combat Perfectionism and Strive for Excellence
1. Look at mistakes in a different light.
Instead of beating yourself up over mistakes and imperfections, look at them as opportunities and teaching moments. They are a part of the journey toward your success and goals.
For example, you can try saying the following affirmation to yourself: “I am excited to make mistakes!” This helps you reframe mistakes as signs that you’re doing the hard work and getting closer to achieving excellence, rather than a sign of failure.
When you allow yourself to courageously create, produce work, and have a bias toward action — despite the possibility of making a mistake — you move yourself one step closer toward achieving something you’re truly proud of.
By embracing mistakes along the way, they become nothing more than a sign that you’re doing the necessary work. After all, the easiest way to not make a mistake is to not do anything at all.
2. Don’t fear failure — embrace it.
Yes, failure is scary — but we shouldn’t fear it.
Failure doesn’t make us any less than the person we are. One way to be less fearful of failure is to be proactive by taking control of what you can control, and letting go of what’s outside your control.
For example, at work, you could proactively ask a work colleague, or your manager, for their input on your latest project to see how you can improve it — rather than waiting for your performance review to receive feedback.
By proactively asking for feedback, you’re allowing yourself room to be proactive in improving your work, rather than waiting for others’ approval.
3. Set realistic goals and break them into microsteps.
If you’re a high-achieving HSP (as many of us are), you can still shoot for the moon — but don’t be afraid to linger among the stars on your way.
When we think about the big picture, we tend to overwhelm ourselves by wanting the end result to be perfect. Instead, try taking smaller, realistic steps toward your end game, which can help you achieve your goal in a more healthy, practical way.
Another great approach to achieving bigger goals is to break them down into microsteps — which can help reduce the feeling of overwhelm as you work at achieving big(ger) goals. HSPs tend to prefer single-tasking anyway, and this is a similar idea.
For example, if you have a writing assignment due by the end of the month, create a weekly outline so you know when to have each section done by. Then, work on each section without focusing your attention on the final due date. This is also a wonderful approach to take in other areas of your life, like learning a new skill.
4. Be kind to yourself and allow yourself grace.
As we experience new things, create meaningful work, and take steps toward achieving great things, we will always make mistakes. It is important to allow yourself grace and forgiveness whenever mistakes happen — remember, they are learning lessons, not a sign of failure.
Be kind and give yourself room to learn, grow, and live in these experiences. You’re human, after all. You can even write down what you learned from the failures and journal about how you will proceed. Additionally, sometimes stepping away from the project can give us the perspective we’re looking for when we return to it.
5. Remember: There’s no such thing as “perfect.”
In Japanese, the word “kintsukuroi” refers to repairing broken cracks in pottery with gold, and understanding that the object is more beautiful because of its imperfection.
Similarly, we have to remember that things are never going to be perfect. And that’s okay! Nothing grows from the boring nature of perfectionism. We are unique because of the mistakes we make and how we evolve from them. So see your cracks and embrace them!
By Reframing Perfectionism, You Can Better Achieve Excellence
Accepting and loving the person you are can help you combat perfectionism by striving for excellence instead. By reframing perfectionism, we open ourselves up to achieving excellence.
Where perfectionism tends to hold ourselves back from our greatest potential thanks to fear, striving for excellence grants us the flexibility to make mistakes, and fail, and the courage to get up and try again.
Embrace the beauty of imperfections as the unique person you are, and I guarantee you’ll watch yourself flourish in unimaginable ways, using your HSP traits to your advantage along the way.
Want to learn more about yourself as a sensitive person? Tonia Moon Coaching offers 1:1 coaching for highly sensitive people through greater self-awareness. For more resources, subscribe to Valid Feelings.