Perfectionism can be good! But you need the right one because there are two different types: Adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism. As an adaptive perfectionist (the better type of perfectionism) you have high achievement expectations but allow yourself small mistakes for the greater good. You have high standards and you are more critical about your work so you can achieve good results. The best part about adaptive perfectionism ist, that creativity is maximized by persons with moderately high levels of this type of perfectionism.
Maladaptive perfectionists (the perfectionism to avoid) are more likely to procrastinate because they try to avoid mistakes. They are more concerned with making mistakes and with reaching high levels of standard. They think that they are not allowed to do mistakes or do bad work, because they want perfect results. Because of this, maladaptive perfectionism harms your performance!
You can have both types in different situations and different intensities. The goal here is to try to use the adaptive one to your advantage and avoid maladaptive perfectionism. I’ll show you four steps, how to get from maladaptive to adaptive perfectionism.
How to go from a maladaptive to an adaptive perfectionism in 4 steps.
➡ Step 1: Identify your type of perfectionism and when it occurs
If you struggle with perfectionism you probably have already the maladaptive type in the area where you experience those negative perfectionism. You probably wouldn’t count it as bad, if it is the adaptive type. Try to find out why. Is there an area of your creative life, where you allow yourself mistakes? If yes, why? Find out where you struggle the most and where you want to be perfect but struggle less. The better you identify your own problems, when it occurs and how you dealt with them in the past, the better you can change yourself.
If you have determined that, then we try in the next steps to change your maladaptive perfectionism to an adaptive one.
➡ Step 2: Be aware of the challenging process and obstacles.
Fixing perfectionism itself is difficult, even impossible. But we can change how we react to these stressful experiences to alleviate negative effects. Therefore we need to change the self-critic in ourselves. We need to start to allow us to do mistakes.
There will be obstacles and setbacks that will come in this process of change. If you already tried to change, you will know that. A bad day, something not working, not seeing progress, and much more can set you back to zero. Try to visualize those risks that could come in your way to free yourself from your bad perfectionism. Lay down, close your eyes, and envision how you can (and probably will) fail. Figure in your imagination already out, how you get over those failures. If you do that, you will be ready when the adverse environment in the future is trying to stop you!
To allow mistakes and get better over obstacles and setbacks we need to change our mindset as well. It is also not easy and takes time, but it works. Therefore be aware of the challenging process that awaits you.
➡ Step 3: Change your mindset.
There is a fixed and a growth mindset. With a fixed mindset, you think you can’t change. A growth mindset on the other hand is a belief that abilities are qualities that can be developed. A person with a growth mindset allows him- or herself mistakes to get better.
Position yourself in this growth mindset. Just knowing that this exists will put you there. Then allow yourself to do mistakes. Try it actively. Do something where you have a bad case of maladaptive perfectionism and just do mistakes. Allow it and do a lot of mistakes! Learn it, train your mindset. Figure out what you will learn from the mistakes you make. How can you improve? Remember that you will get much better with every mistake you make than if you do none at all.
Know that you can change this mindset and always remember this when it comes to problems with your perfectionism.
➡ Step 4: Set a goal and see the benefits.
You need clear goals with a detailed plan of how you want to change. Write it down, and put it where you can see it. Write down your “Why“! Why do you want to change? What will be better, when you change? Visualize how you succeed and what benefits you will have if you change! Envision this exactly like the bad stuff from step 2. How will you feel, when you succeed? How does it look like? Do this regularly and it will motivate you to change yourself for the better.
If you don’t write your goals down, you will either forget them or just not take them seriously. So don’t skip this step! It is one of the easiest things to do and won’t take that much time although it has a big impact.
➡ Step 5: Build a habit!
This one right here is the boiler of the whole process. The most important step! If you don’t let this stuff cook every day, nothing will happen. Building habits is such a good way to change yourself. Yes, the process is long and it will take time. But you will get older anyway. So why not change while you are on the way? To build a habit we use the way Charles Duhigg writes in his book “The Power of Habit“. A habit consists of these three things: Cue ➡ Routine ➡ Reward. We break them down in our case of perfectionism.
The cue is the moment your perfectionism strikes and hinders you to be productive. You don’t have to do anything if it is adaptive perfectionism. Remember, this is the good type! Just let it be. If you just can’t work, then it is the bad type of perfectionism and we use this as a cue for our new habit.
Normally your routine was different. You gave up or got emotional about your creative work. Now, we use the stuff we learned in the previous steps: Why did maladaptive perfectionism strike? Why isn’t it the adaptive kind? Can I change that? Did I do a mistake? Can I learn from that? Convince yourself, that it is ok how you feel right now. That what you are doing is good. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Small mistakes are ok to achieve good results! Here comes the growth mindset into play that we talked about at step 3!
The reward will be, that you feel better. That you can finish your work even if you had this feeling where you just couldn’t finish it. Maybe you reward yourself with the feeling that you conquered your maladaptive perfectionism and changed it to an adaptive one. You can even experiment with other rewards, like taking a break or getting a nice cup of coffee or tea. Try to figure out what works for you the best.
Something more: Craving
Oh before I forget, there is also the craving, what drives the habit. You will have a craving for the rewards and therefore you will do this habit automatically. So if you reward yourself with good stuff (feeling better for example), then you will use this habit without hesitation, when maladaptive perfectionism strikes!
If you use these steps, there will be a chance that you will figure out a way out of the deep hole of maladaptive perfectionism. But remember: It will take a long time to fix this. If you are afraid that it will take too long, here’s a tip: It will always take a long time. There is no way around it. No shortcut. That’s why it is important to start NOW!
Wigert, B., Reiter-Palmon, R., Kaufman, J. C., & Silvia, P. J. (2012). Perfectionism: The good, the bad, and the creative. Journal of Research in Personality, 46(6), 775–779. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2012.08.007
Yeager, D. S., & Dweck, C. S. (2012). Mindsets That Promote Resilience: When Students Believe That Personal Characteristics Can Be Developed. Educational Psychologist, 47(4), 302–314. https://doi.org/10.1080/00461520.2012.722805
Duhigg, C. (2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (1 edition). Random House.
This is an updated blog post (first published on April 16, 2021).