Perfectionists have been described as those that ” strain compulsively and unceasingly toward unobtainable goals, and measure their self-worth by productivity and accomplishment. Pressuring oneself to achieve unrealistic goals inevitably sets the person up for disappointment. Perfectionists tend to be harsh critics of themselves when they fail to meet their standards.” If you talk to a perfectionist, they will describe it as a positive personality feature or trait. For a job interview, people are often coached to use perfectionism if they are asked to name one of their negative qualities or flaws, because it is thought to indicate a harder-than-average worker with great attention to detail and ambition.
In my practice, I’ve seen quite a few perfectionists who talk about how stressed they are because they are striving for these unrealistic standards in their life. They are not really seeing they are setting these standards themselves and are effectively torturing themselves. One client talked about how stressed she was because she was taking a continuing education course and spending hours and hours in their evenings to make sure she got an A+, and then went on to describe similar stories or sources of stress in her life – all linked to perfectionism. I believe perfectionism is a form of self-bullying – of saying I am not worthy, I am not lovable unless I am perfect or do this task perfectly, I always have to strive to be enough, basically who I am is not enough. It is a behavior that is simply not loving or compassionate to ourselves or to those close to us. It’s geared on impressing someone be it a boss, a partner, a child, other parents, a group with our perfection to make ourselves feel better about who we are, perhaps to feel superior to others, but ultimately telling ourselves if I don’t make this effort or succeed I won’t be good enough.
I know perfectionism well as a I used to be a perfectionist. I have read that perfectionism stems from being punished for your mistakes as a child instead of feeling accepted; it’s also linked to needing praise or acknowledgement to build a false sense of self-esteem. You can see how the combination of the two would put you on a search for praise to build self-love with difficulty dealing with failure or criticism. Growing up I learned that when I did things people wanted me to do or did well in school I was praised or “good” but when I didn’t I wasn’t behaving acceptably and was “bad”; I was not loved unconditionally – as most of us experienced. This led me to be a big people pleaser in my life and do things that would earn me praise – I needed others to tell me I was good, special, smart, worthy… wanting to get praise and attention from others, to feel special, trying to feed my need to feel that I was worthy, good enough, excelling at what I was doing or who I was. A core component of that was believing I had to do something to earn that, to go beyond my best, to sacrifice – that who I was or what I did was not enough. When I started to heal and learn to love myself and realize that our sense of self should come from inside not outside, my perfectionist standards fell away. I choose being kind, loving and compassionate with myself instead. I now know we should never attach higher importance or internalize what other people think or perceive about ourselves or use that to guide our decisions in life – that’s a recipe for unhappiness. What others think really doesn’t matter at the end of the day. It’s what we think about ourselves that’s important, and being kind, loving, and compassionate to ourselves. Self love means that we do our best and be kind to ourselves when there are those times when we don’t feel we have the energy or time to. Self-love means we learn from our mistakes but don’t internalize them and feel bad about ourselves because of a mistake or failure. We are grateful for the learning experience and for what we experience on our journey. Self-love means that we embrace our imperfections as what makes us unique and special .
As this quote illustrates an emotion that drives perfectionists is fear. Fear that if we’re not perfect we won’t be loved, worthy, we’ll be a failure, or we’ll lose our jobs. We create all kinds of unrealistic and false motivators to drive our perfectionism. So you can counter that fear with self-love and realism. When you notice your inner perfectionist activated try to observe yourself and ask some questions to inject self-love and realism into the situation. You can use the above statements and question if they’re true. You can ask what would happen if I didn’t (fill in the blank with whatever you’d usually be compelled to do in order to try to obtain perfection in what you’re doing). Would anyone but you even care or notice?
It’s also important to take some time to honestly look at your life and see the costs of that drive for perfectionism. How happy is that perfectionist drive making you? What about your loved ones? When you’re a perfectionist you often extend that tendency to those in your life because they’re a reflection of you too. Do you drive your partner, kids, coworkers crazy with your criticism and expectations? Are you unavailable because you’re always putting work first and trying to be the perfect employee? Do you criticize your performance after you complete something focusing on what wasn’t right or criticism you received instead of feeling good about the things you did well? Are you in debt because you are always trying to beat the Joneses with the perfect clothes, perfect home, perfect car? Are you always late because you spend an hour on your hair and make-up? Do you look in the mirror and criticize your appearance instead of seeing your beauty? What is perfectionism doing for the balance in your life? Is your health suffering due to stress and working long hours and trying to please everyone? Have you damaged relationships and hurt other’s self-esteem with your drive for perfectionism? What is the cost of perfectionism in your life?
This diagram provides a great summary of the cycle of perfection in science, a field I used to work in that attracts perfectionists, but really this applies to perfection overall. The perfectionist develops unrealistic expectations. If things don’t go well (they’re get the message they’re not perfect), they blame themselves creating more low self-esteem. Then they procrastinate, are defensive and have low confidence and my have reduced productivity. If things go well, the perfectionist gets positive feedback, and continues the game of filling their self-worth from the outside.
So once you’re aware of the costs of perfectionism, how do you relax your perfectionism? Well your life is going to improve without question if you start to focus on accepting and loving yourself for who you are and not seeking things from the outside to fill you (see other posts I’ve written on this topic such as https://justbreathereiki.com/2013/09/10/learning-to-love-yourself-its-an-inside-job/ and https://justbreathereiki.com/2012/11/28/finding-happiness-and-love-inside-you-instead-of-yearning-for-the-outside-world-to-be-perfect/). To directly work on perfectionism itself, you will find it is easiest to start letting go little by little of your expectations and standards and see what happens. Doing this will allow you to reduce your stress a little (and it will only be a small amount to start because you will be scared of not being perfect) and bring you a little ease, allow you to breathe and let go a little, feel a little glimmer of happiness. As you continue letting go of perfectionism, testing the waters and seeing what happens when you don’t do the perfect job, but just doing your best, following realistic standards instead of the harsh ones you imposed on yourself, you start to see that it’s okay. That your performance doesn’t have to be perfect. That people don’t notice a difference on what you’ve let go of in terms of your standards but that they notice you are happier, less stressed and more easy-going.
Here are some suggestions for different areas you may find perfectionism activated for. If you’re a perfectionist with your appearance, go out without make-up, unwashed hair and schlep around a bit. Does the world really encounter you that differently, do they give you shocked sighs, do they not make eye contact – of course not – they just see you a person. Don’t feel that your diet or exercise has to be perfect all the time; let yourself enjoy some pleasurable food or relaxation regularly. You may notice as you start to let go of perfectionism about appearance and start to love and accept yourself that your judgements about others starts to become more compassionate and kind. Let you family and partner be who they are without giving them criticism or guiding who you think they should be or look like.Be happy with what you have materially and start to detach your ego with associating your self-worth with your material possessions. Look at those who have less. Are they really less happy than you? Look at those who have very little and could benefit from your generosity and share some kindness with them – not out of pity but true compassion and connection.
If you’re a perfectionist at work, look at your workplace and really see what is expected of the staff around you. Is everyone putting in the hours you are? Is everyone as stressed as you? Figure out what your boss really expects and deliver that. Start seeing what it’s like when you cut out the extra two hours of edits on your reports catching little typos and errors or changing wording around obsessively. If your boss is a perfectionist, it might not be the healthiest workplace dynamic or great for your career. Try to see if there’s someone else you can work under or maybe look for a workplace that has a different dynamic that drives their employees. Become more comfortable with delegating and positively praise staff that do work for you instead of focusing on how their work is imperfect and how you could have done a better job. Give constructive criticism but have praise be the focus.
If you’re a perfectionist when it comes to a hobby or activity start to notice what happens when you just let go a little. Do you notice you’re having more fun? Does your perfectionism suck some of the joy out of your activities? Can you see what you’re doing as a source of enjoyment instead of competition or performance? So if you train for a marathon and your time was not as good as your peers you trained with or you didn’t achieve your goal would you look for what went wrong and internalize that experience as a failing of some kind or would you feel good about your accomplishment, improvements to your health, and fun you had training. Start to shift your perspective to a more compassionate, self-loving perspective.
See yourself as perfect just as you are. See that the flaws and imperfections people have are what makes them interesting and memorable. Find the authentic you without all these perfectionist trappings. Start to fill the time you spent getting ready in the mirror, shopping for the latest and greatest indicator of status, redoing your graphs for the meeting, judging and criticizing yourself or others, and fill your life with activities, people, things that actually bring you happiness and self-fulfillment. Embrace your imperfection as absolute perfection – you are absolutely perfect just as you are – just by breathing and being.