Being exposed to our fears is often essential in order to overcome them. This is especially true for perfectionists – to overcome your perfectionism, you’ll have to purposefully expose yourself to being imperfect. Of course, this is likely to raise a great deal of discomfort and anxiety at first. However, with repeated exposure, you tend to become ‘desensitised’ and slowly begin to feel more relaxed. Over time, you start to learn that not engaging in your perfectionism behaviours does not result in catastrophe.
Working to change your perfectionism behaviours can feel overwhelming at times. For example, say you have identified that you spend too much time checking your work. You may want to reduce the amount of time that you spend checking, but doing this in one go may feel too anxiety provoking. Instead of trying to achieve your goal in one big leap, it can help to break things down into smaller steps. This technique is sometimes called graded exposure.
Graded exposure involves breaking your goals down into manageable steps. You start with behaviours that cause only mild anxiety, and gradually build up to harder tasks. For example, if you currently check your emails five times before you send them, you could begin by checking them only four times. Once you have mastered this step, you could reduce the number of checks to three times per email, then two, and eventually one.
Reducing your perfectionism behaviours involves you letting go of your unrelenting standards. This is likely to be difficult, so a graded approach can be helpful here. The first step is to identify the excess and avoidance behaviours that you engage in due to your perfectionism. For each behaviour, rate the level of distress you would feel in changing the behaviour (0 to 100). For example, organising my desk less (90), redoing tasks less (85), checking my work less (80), and relaxing more (75).
Next, you must identify which goal you want to work on first. We suggest you focus on one goal at a time. For example, “I want to spend less time organising my desk”. For each goal, you will need to build an ‘exposure stepladder’. Your exposure step ladder will help you break your goal into clear steps. You need to rate your level of distress for each step and then order them from least to most distressing. By doing this, you’ll end up with a clear plan for overcoming your perfectionism behaviour in a gradual and safe way.
Goal: To spend less time organising my desk (distress rating: 90)
- Monitor the amount of time I currently spend organising my desk (20)
- Imagine reducing the amount of time that I spend organising my desk (25)
- Limit my organising time to 45 mins at the start and 45 mins at the end of each day (30)
- Limit my organising time to 30 mins at the start and 30 mins at the end of each day (35)
- Limit my organising time to 30 mins at the start of each day (45)
- Limit my organising time to 30 mins at the start of each day (excluding weekends) (60)
- Limit my organising time to 30 mins at the start of every second work day (75)
- Limit my organising time to 15 mins at the start of every second work day (80)
- Limit my organising time to 15 mins twice a week (every Monday and Wednesday) (85)
- Only organise my desk once a week for a total of 15 mins (every Monday) (90)
Step Ladders will have a different number of steps depending on the task and the level of associated distress. More steps may be required for more difficult tasks. We encourage you to repeat each step as many times as needed before moving on to more challenging steps. You should feel relatively comfortable with each step before moving on. This allows you to build your confidence slowly and gives you a better chance of success in the long run.
Before you take on each step, it is important to remember that you will feel discomfort. This is why repeating steps is important, as it allows you to adapt to that level of discomfort before increasing it. It may be tempting to revert back to your perfectionism behaviours. However, if you stick with the discomfort for long enough, you will soon notice that it starts to decrease. This is the desensitization process at play. It’s also important to take it one step at a time. If you find a certain step too difficult, don’t be afraid to go back and re-do the earlier step or insert a new step in between.