Mindfulness - an antidote for perfectionism?

Discovering mindfulness has helped me transform my life in many ways and as someone with perfectionist tendencies myself, I was keen to explore and share how a more mindful approach can help those working in busy organisations to minimise its potential stressful effects and impacts on confidence.

What is a perfectionist?

Perfectionists set excessively high goals for themselves, and when they perceive they have failed to deliver, they engage in major self-criticism.

Perfectionists can, also by their own admission, also be 'control freaks', feeling that if they want something done right, they have to do it themselves. Success is rarely satisfying, because perfectionists always feel they could’ve done better.

On a positive note:

  • they are driven to succeed and are tenacious
  • they work hard to avoid mistakes
  • they are always striving to improve

On the less positive side:

  • they sometimes get caught up in detail, which may not deliver the required results
  • they work incredibly hard but input effort often exceeds output value 
  • the feedback they hear can be interpreted as overly negative; even positive feedback tends to be discounted choosing to believe it’s not valid as 'it’s my job'
  • the perfectionist has a harder time staying upbeat when they have an bad day; maybe a less than 'perfect' review, or if they make a mistake

Perfectionists can also tend to over-analyse, over plan and procrastinate in search of perfection. A wise colleague of mine once said 'if you wait for all the stars to be aligned, you will never achieve anything'.

The impacts on well-being and performance

Research has shown that, while this trait does have some perceived organisational positives in terms of working long hours and doing whatever it takes to reach a deadline, overall performance is not generally higher, and it’s neither productive or healthy.

A Harvard’s business review from December 2018 found that results also indicate that perfectionism is strongly and consistently related to higher levels of burnout, stress, anxiety, workaholism, and depression.

How mindfulness can help

Mindfulness is the practice of focusing the brain to become aware in the present moment without judgement, letting go of the past and not catastrophising about the future.

Mindfulness practice can help perfectionists become attuned their actual present moment experience and respond calmly, rather than reverting to default work styles and encountering stressful trigger points. It can help to move those with perfectionist tendencies to be able to develop internal validation, rather than seeking praise from other people as their source of confidence (known as needing positive strokes).

Continued mindfulness practice can help build up resilience, which will help the perfectionist deal with their personal stress triggers.

However, accepting that mindfulness practice in itself is not perfect could be another challenge - a helpful one.

Mindful tips for the perfectionist 

Learn to 'press pause' when you recognise your desire to be perfect is pushing your buttons.

Move away from what you are doing if possible, and take a few slow breaths and/or feel the feet on the floor to help ground you.

Get in touch with your thoughts and emotions, observing the body to act as a guide. You may not have even noticed how stressed you are until you learn to listen to your body. It will find a way to tell you what is out of line before you consciously recognise it. For example, clenched hands, shoulder up near the ears, a tight jaw.

Use this insight to help to shift your default thinking and start to try new thoughts - is 80% good enough? How are my current actions serving me? What other action could I take?

More questions to try for yourself;

  • Why does (x) need to be perfect?
  • What triggers my need to be 'perfect'?
  • What emotion(s) does this trigger?
  • Where do I feel that in my body?
  • What am I thinking when I seek perfection?
  • Who am I trying to please?
  • What am I looking for?
  • Why is this important to me?
  • Are these actions working for me?
  • What else could I choose to do?

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