Ten Ways to Overcome Guilt and Perfectionism
The following practices can help you get started building new habits and brain pathways. Learning new ways of doing things is often challenging and takes time. So be patient with yourself and with the process. It takes months, not days, to really change your brain.
- If you feel guilty because you’re not doing enough for your kids, partner, or family, list all the things that you regularly do for them. Then make another list, of all the things you do to take care of yourself when you’re stressed. Which list is longer? If the “do for others” list is as long as or longer than the “do for myself” list, take this as objective proof that you are doing enough for others and don’t have reason to feel guilty. If the “do for myself” list is longer, think about whether the self-care activities help you be a better parent, partner, or family member. If they do, then you still have no reason to feel guilty.
- Instead of feeling guilty, take a direct approach to the problem. Ask the people you think you’re neglecting whether they actually feel neglected. Consider whether they have a tendency to expect too much and not take enough responsibility for themselves. Then think about how an outside observer would view the situation. If you conclude that you really aren’t doing enough, then sit down with the other person and try to come up with some solutions or compromises that balance everyone’s needs.
- Write a “self-gratitude” diary at the end of every day, noting at least three things you did that day that furthered your goals or helped someone you care about. At the end of the week, read what you’ve written. Guilt and perfectionism have a negative bias. They make you pay attention to what you’re not doing right. By writing down what you actually did, you can overcome this bias and force yourself to focus on your accomplishments.
- To combat guilt, think about how you’d feel if the tables were turned. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Would you think that the other person wasn’t doing enough to help you or meet your needs, given how much he or she has going on? We often find it easy to be compassionate and understanding with others but are too harsh on ourselves. By deliberately taking an “observer” perspective, you’ll likely see your situation in a new light.
- If you’re a perfectionist, begin setting limits with yourself. Give yourself a set amount of time to work on each task (whether cleaning the house, planning a party, writing a paper, or completing a work assignment). Don’t work for more than forty- five minutes without taking a break to stretch or sit down. Set an alarm to give you a ten- minute warning at the end of the planned time frame. Force yourself to get up and move on to the next task, even if you’re not finished. At the end of the day, you can schedule a “catch- up” hour for high- priority tasks that you didn’t finish. Notice how much more efficiently you work when you don’t allow yourself to take all day.
- Don’t allow yourself to proofread or check your work more than once. Stop reading and rereading that e-mail, trying to come up with the perfect response. It’s just not worth it! The same goes for cleaning—after one or two wipes, you need to move on to the next area. Notice how much time you save.
- Many perfectionists overestimate the negative consequences of making a mistake. They assume it’ll be a disaster or that they’ll lose money, lose their job, or lose their relationships. The antidote to this is to use the behavioral strategy of “exposure.” Decide what mistake you’re going to make deliberately. Before you make the mistake, write down what you think will happen as a result. Then notice what actually happens, and compare this to your prediction. Were the consequences as dire as you predicted? If not, what does that teach you?
- If you’re procrastinating because you don’t think you’ll do a good enough job, just get started. If you want to write a book, set yourself a small goal, such as writing one page every day. Or write without worrying about spelling or grammar. When you’ve finished your goal, check in with how you feel and decide whether you want to do more. Once you have something written down or a first draft, it’s much easier to keep going. Or you can do what my friend did when she was writing her doctoral thesis. She woke up an hour earlier than usual, got a cup of coffee, and wrote while in her pajamas before she had time to realize that she didn’t feel like doing it!
- When you evaluate your own work, take a step back and imagine someone you love, such as your grandma, best friend, or favorite teacher. What would that person say about your efforts? Then switch roles and imagine what you’d think and say if that person had done this work. By looking at your own work through “loving eyes,” you can learn to tone down your rigid standards and self- criticism.
- If you feel self-critical, notice if you’re thinking about the situation in a “black and white” way. Perfectionists often see things in all or- nothing terms: if it’s not the best, it must be the worst. Try to find the gray. Consider other ways of seeing the situation. Factor in the situational constraints and barriers you faced; given these challenges, how well did you do? Try to judge your efforts in context, rather than always expecting perfection.