Huh? What do you mean: A positive approach to perfectionism?

I used to think that perfectionism was something to overcome.

I don’t think that anymore.

Now, I think of it as something to be mindful of, to be(come) at peace with, and as a characteristic to leverage.

I don’t want to wish my (or your) perfectionism away because doing that is contradictory to taking a strengths-based approach. A strengths-based approach builds on what’s working (e.g., individually, in partnerships, in a team) and puts forth that growth ascends faster when we focus on our strengths rather than trying to “fix” our weaknesses (Soria & Stubblefield, 2015). I am deeply committed to the strengths-based approach — even if sometimes it feels more like an aspiration than a practice in my own day-to-day!

Being at peace with perfectionism is core to my coaching approach and to my way of being.

What does this look like in practice?

Until a few years ago, I spent most of my life shackled by my perfectionist tendencies: the need to control, fear of making the wrong decision, concerns about not being good enough etc. It’s taken me a long while to get to the point of making peace with my perfectionism, being able to call it out (gently), and see how I can shift my natural characteristics so they work better for me and others.

Below, I share some practical ways to take a positive approach to perfectionism. Specifically, I outline ways to leverage “self-oriented” perfectionism, which is the kind of perfectionism where you hold yourself to high standards.

Though there are many traits associated with this type of perfectionism, here are the ones we perfectionists can use to our advantage:

  • strong drive to accomplish
  • set high standards (for self)
  • engage in stringent self-evaluation

Given the above, here are some ways we can harness our perfectionism:

1. Tap into your ambition and start!

Perfectionists hesitate to start things because they worry they won’t excel. They’ll procrastinate or even talk themselves out of trying something when they think they won’t succeed. For example, I used to decline certain teaching opportunities because I didn’t think I was expert enough. I dismissed my experience and self-determined I wasn’t qualified for certain opportunities instead of seeing what I could contribute. Another example might be that someone won’t try a new type of class (fitness, art, whatever) because they worry they’ll look like a fool.

Perfectionists, however, are ambitious by nature. So, here’s an opportunity to reframe the situation as a challenge-to-self. Instead of worrying about the fool-factor, or trying to preserve your self image (?!), see the situation as a challenge. Challenge yourself and start already!

2. Be firm with yourself – about stopping.

Once you start, you may have trouble wrapping something up because you’ve set such high standards for yourself. You could find yourself tweaking endlessly (that’s me), looking up one more source (also me), or whatever your favourite ‘prolonging’ approach may be.

Perfectionists are good at setting rules for themselves and have a strong drive to achieve and accomplish. If we accept the Cambridge Dictionary definition of ‘achieve’, then it means “to succeed in finishing something or reaching an aim, especially after a lot of work or effort”. The appealing words here are “finishing something”.

Use your drive to force yourself to stop! Think of the feeling of accomplishment when you consider something done (yay!). And, harness your tendency to be strict with yourself to stick to your “stop” rule.

Unlike the challenge in #1 which is about challenging yourself to start, this opportunity is about challenging yourself to STOP working on something within a certain time or by a set point in time.

You might even want to find an accountability partner and make a public commitment to them about finishing ‘the thing’. Self-oriented perfectionists don’t like to disappoint other people. Maybe this is a chance to leverage your people-pleasing skills to be softer on yourself?

3. Focus your perfectionism.

When I was doing my PhD, my mother wisely suggested that I couldn’t have multiple priorities if I wanted to stay mentally healthy.

Though my tendency at that time was to immediately reject my mother’s advice (the teen — or toddler?!– in me was still dominating), this one hit home.

Anyone with a drive to accomplish needs to focus their energy. That can mean a lot of things, but to me it’s about setting priorities. And, when I’m unsure what my priorities are, I go back to my values.

Setting priorities is about being intentional about what you want to get done AND about what you’ll put aside. It’s also about making decisions (and sticking to them) about what’s important, valuable, and meaningful at this time.

Are the three strategies above tough? Yes. And, from experience, I know they’re doable.


Are you ready to shift the way you’ve been dealing with your perfectionism? Imagine all that would be made possible by that: projects finished or moved ahead, decisions made, clarity and more! Woohoo, let’s do this together:) Find out how I can support you through coaching.


Soria, K. M., & Stubblefield, R. (2015). Knowing me, knowing you: Building strengths awareness, belonging, and persistence in higher education. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice17(3), 351-372.

Photo credit: Pixabay

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