“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people.” This is a famous quote from Anne Lamott in her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Intuitively, we know that perfectionism is unrealistic and restrictive, a tyrant that steals success. In fact, there are many sayings and experts that stress the importance of making mistakes for creating and achieving great things.
But still there are many people who fear making mistakes. According to Martin Antony, Ph.D, professor of psychology at Ryerson University and co-author of When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough, “Generally, fears are influenced by both our biological and genetic makeup, as well as our experiences.”
We model what we see, Antony said. He gave the example of parents expressing their fears over making mistakes, which a child, like a sponge, soaks up.
The messages we receive from others, including friends, employers and the media, also play a role. “The constant pressure to improve performance can have the effect of triggering fears of underperforming and of making mistakes,” Antony said. He added that constant criticism has a similar impact.
Having some fear of mistakes can be a good thing, Antony said — it can help to improve your performance. But excessive fear causes problems. For instance, you might start avoiding fear-provoking situations. “[People] may avoid social situations (meetings, dating, presentations), for fear of making some sort of blunder, and they may procrastinate for fear of not being able to complete a task perfectly,” Antony said.
Or you might engage in “safety behaviors” to prevent making mistakes. Antony defined safety behaviors as “small behaviors to protect oneself from perceived dangers.” So you might spend hours pouring over your work to make sure it’s mistake-free.
Overcoming the Fear of Making Mistakes
“Overcoming any fear involves confronting the feared stimulus directly,” Antony said. For instance, he and other perfectionism experts recommend people practice making small mistakes with mild consequences – and stop engaging in safety behaviors.
Changing perfectionistic thinking also is important since it’s our thoughts, our interpretations of what’s occurring around us, that perpetuate perfectionism. As Antony and co-author Richard Swinson, M.D., write in When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough, we actually don’t fear making mistakes. We fear what we believe about making mistakes. That’s what’s upsetting or anxiety-producing for us.
“Perhaps you assume that making mistakes will lead to some terrible consequence that can’t be corrected or undone (such as being fired or ridiculed by others). Or you may believe that making mistakes is a sign of weakness or incompetence,” they write.
Perfectionists tend to take such distorted thoughts as gospel. In their book, Antony and Swinson explain how readers can alter their perfectionistic thinking with these four steps:
- identify the perfectionistic thought;
- list alternative thoughts;
- think about the pros and cons of both your thoughts and the alternative thoughts; and
- pick a more realistic or helpful way to view the situation.
They give the example of a man who feels embarrassed and anxious after making a joke that others didn’t seem to find funny. Initially, he thinks that others see him as awkward and boring, and won’t like him if he’s not entertaining.
His alternative thoughts are that people won’t judge him based on one measly uncomfortable situation; and they find him interesting, anyway. When evaluating these thoughts, he realizes that his friends know him well, and even though they make bad jokes, he still enjoys their company. Plus, people invite him to functions, so they must find him entertaining.
In the end, he picks this more realistic and helpful perspective: “Perhaps I need to give myself permission to make mistakes when I am talking to other people. I don’t judge other people when they say something unusual or awkward. Perhaps they are not judging me when I make mistakes.”
Instead of assuming your thoughts are facts, Antony also asks people to test their beliefs with small experiments. “For example, if someone is convinced that mispronouncing a word would be a disaster, we might encourage him or her to mispronounce a word and see what happens.”
Examining the evidence for your perfectionistic assumptions is another way to alter distorted thoughts. For instance, let’s say you believe that getting less than an A on your research paper is terrible and unacceptable. According to Antony and Swinson, “you could try to recall what happened in the past when you received a lower grade on a paper or exam. Did you survive the experience? What happens when other people receive grades that are lower than an A? Do terrible things occur as a result?”
While it might feel like your fear of mistakes is unshakeable, fortunately, there are many effective, practical strategies to overcome perfectionism. If your fear seems excessive and impairs your functioning, don’t hesitate to see a mental health professional.