Do you tend to evaluate your worth in terms of your performance or achievements? Beat yourself up whenever you make the smallest mistake? Find it hard to relax and accept current circumstances because doing so might make you look lazy or unsuccessful? If so, you may have fallen into the perfectionist trap. Understanding how you may have gotten there and why this position is so unhealthy could help you leave perfectionism behind once and for all.
The Beginnings of Perfectionism
The roots of perfectionism usually occur early in life. They may begin with a simple desire to please your parents and teachers. Adults might have praised you for making good grades in school, being mannerly around others, and following rules at home. Since this felt good, you probably tried harder to win their approval. Before you knew it, your daily life became an exercise in people pleasing. It was important not to disappoint anyone by failing to meet their expectations. By the time the pattern was in place, you were well on your way to becoming a card carrying perfectionist. I can tell you firsthand that being a perfectionist is a lonely ride. One that can lead to depression, obsessive/compulsive behavior, and a host of other problems if you allow it to continue.
Your Own Worst Critic
Caught in the grips of perfectionism, you are likely your own worst critic. You can allow mistakes made by others, but you can’t stand it when it’s you who is in error. And as you set impossible goals and live by rigid standards, you find it hard to forgive yourself when you don’t succeed. It seems you can pardon everyone but yourself. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve beaten myself up over tiny details and stressed out when my plans didn’t go as expected. No one else ever seemed as devastated by failure as I was. I now know that I could have spared myself many sleepless nights if only I had implemented a more balanced attitude.
Ironically, I didn’t realize for the longest time how unhealthy such behavior is. It had become such a part of my identity that I was unaware of how it was damaging my mind and body. American clinical psychologist and author Anne Wilson Schaef calls perfectionism “self-abuse of the highest order.” Sharon Martin, LCSW, calls it “an excuse for self-criticism.” I never looked at it that way, mostly because, by the time I reached adulthood, I knew no other way of thinking. But it was also fear that kept me trapped.
Fear is the Real Enemy of the Perfectionist
So what, specifically, did I have to be afraid of? Because I equated my self-worth with my actions at home and at work, I was under pressure to be the best. That often led to competitiveness and a need to control. Additionally, I felt the need to iron out every detail of a project before I could make a decision and move forward. To state the obvious, I was scared of making a mistake. Many times I felt so stuck that I began to procrastinate, feeling more anxious as my self-confidence decreased. As the dictionary definition clearly states, perfectionism is “a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable.” I shuddered to think that anything I did was unacceptable!
But it wasn’t just the possibility of stumbling that made me panic. It was the fear of disappointing others, of appearing unsuccessful or even worthless. Of co-workers and friends criticizing me for my poor efforts. Instead of seeking personal fulfillment, I found myself thinking more about how I would appear to others, whether I would look good in their eyes and whether they would like me. Brene Brown, a leading expert on vulnerability and embracing our imperfection, says, “Many people think of perfectionism as striving to be your best, but it is not about self-improvement; it’s about earning approval and acceptance.” I had to learn to accept myself and not be so concerned about the opinions of others if I were to break free of being a perfectionist. It wasn’t easy.
A Perfectionist No More
As I’ve gotten older and hopefully wiser, I’ve realized the importance of being mindful of my actions. But it also took people around me, my family and close friends, in particular, to make me aware of my crazy-making behavior. Their honesty and courage in pointing out my perfectionistic attitudes caused me to stop and evaluate things for myself. Once I looked inward, I saw that I had become rigid and inflexible with myself. It was hard to just go with the flow since I didn’t like uncertainty. Asking for help was also difficult, and the self-inflicted burden of doing a perfect job affected my relationships in a negative way.
If by now you have also identified yourself as a perfectionist, I’m here to tell you good news. You can let go and learn to enjoy your life just as it is. Be kind to yourself. Learn to have the same compassion for yourself as you want others to show you. Try to stay in the present moment, and enjoy it for what it is, no matter how messy or complicated. And remember that life isn’t black and white; there are shades of grey to all our experiences.
One of my favorite sayings these days is “Nothing is perfect — make it work anyway.” It’s up to you to break free from the perfectionist trap and experience the joy of being loved for who you are and not what you do. To have a life of peace and acceptance of the world around you, no matter what. I’m not saying that if you do those things, it will ever be perfect because it won’t. But I’m confident that you can make it work anyway… and it will be good enough.