How to Shift Away from Perfectionistic Tendencies During Stressful Times

Carolyn Rubenstein, PhD

Licensed psychologist and wellness consultant

Bear witness to the unexpected parental perfectionism that arose while packing for my son’s summer camp…

“Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life.” – Dr. Brene Brown

If you often find yourself aiming for perfection, you might not always be aware of when and how these tendencies are influencing your actions. This habitual drive for perfection can become so ingrained that it feels like a natural part of you, particularly under stress. This form of coping, while familiar, may not always serve us best. I was reminded of this very recently.

In the past weeks, I found myself embroiled in a seemingly endless task: preparing my son for his first summer at sleepaway camp. At the beginning, it was just another item on my to-do list, but it quickly ballooned into a significant project. I meticulously researched every possible item he might need, cross-referencing various comprehensive lists, and even diving into forums to glean what past campers had actually used. I started using CAMP as the first name on shipping labels (to streamline my packing mission).  Yet, as I continued to prepare, my focus narrowed. I was ensuring that everything was perfect, ignoring all the signs that my perfectionism was not just at play, but fully in control.

Packing for son's summer camp
camp trunk prepared to be packed…

Now, sitting before a blank screen, overwhelmed by the dual tasks of writing this letter and managing the camp packing, I see the parallel between my own behavior and what many of my clients experience.

They come to me overwhelmed by their to-dos, often unaware that these tasks serve as a distraction from deeper emotional currents.

Let’s explore together how to move forward once you recognize that perfectionism is at play:

  • Examine the motivation behind your behavior.Why are you so focused on certain tasks? In my case, my drive to pack perfectly for camp was fueled by a deep-seated fear that my son would feel out of place or unprepared, potentially feeling like an outsider—all because I might fail in the quest to pack him perfectly.
    • What are the deeper fears or beliefs driving your perfectionism? Identifying these can help you understand what you’re actually trying to control or achieve through your actions.
  • Question the consequences of good enough.What would happen if you shifted your focus from perfect to good enough? For me, this shift could allow me to be more present with my son, enjoying our time together before he leaves for camp, rather than being consumed by packing.
    • How might easing your perfectionist standards affect your life and relationships?
  • Adjust your approach. Once you recognize your motivations, how can you adjust your approach to reduce the grip of perfectionism? For me, consolidating my lists into one and resisting the urge to add more is a start. When I feel compelled to research or perfect something, I will pause to explore what I’m really feeling (e.g., a fear of letting go).
    • How might you modify your approach to reduce perfectionistic pressures?
  • Observe and accept your feelings without judgment. Observing your emotional reactions without criticism can be revealing. As I confront the reality of my son gaining independence, I’m learning to accept my own fears and anxieties. It’s a process, uncomfortable yet necessary.
    • How do you feel when you think about not adhering to perfection? What emotions come up, and how can you address them with kindness?
  • Anticipate and manage setbacks. What might cause a resurgence of perfectionist behaviors? For me, as the camp date draws nearer, my emotions might intensify, tempting me to revert to old habits. By acknowledging this now, I can prepare to face these feelings openly, rather than suppressing them. To look in rather than out.
    • What triggers might you anticipate, and how can you plan to handle them?

Reflecting on these steps doesn’t just alleviate my stress—it gives me a greater sense of peace and control. While my initial attempt to manage my anxiety involved a flurry of activity and planning, I now recognize that true control comes from understanding and addressing the underlying emotions

Addressing these patterns and emotions doesn’t always bring immediate relief, but it does provide insightful information that helps you to move forward.

Be gentle with yourself through this process. You are valuable and deserving of your own compassion.

All my love,
Dr. Carolyn

Caught in anxious patterns like people pleasing or perfectionism?