When Perfectionism Hurts

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Our society is built upon a drive towards the best.  We strive, we compete, and we strive some more.  This ambition and striving is often celebrated, yet the consequences correlate with depression, anxiety, and mental health difficulties.  Perfectionism is the flip side to this striving, the outcome of holding impossibly high standards.  It may seem counter intuitive, that an obsession with success often breeds more difficulties and problems.

Interestingly, the markers that we ascribe to success do not always translate in the real world.  Research on achievement has shown that the true innovators and influencers are often mediocre students.  Failure and setbacks are necessary learning experiences, and drives our resilience.  Perfectionism is correlated with conformity, a trait that is often not seen in real-world success.

Perfectionism can be sneaky, and it is hard to draw a line between achievement, overachievement, and perfectionism.  When high achievement is celebrated and encouragement, an environment for perfectionism may inadvertently be borne.  Some symptoms of perfectionism include frequent procrastination, inability to relax, or a need for control in situations and in relationships.  The mindset – a fear of failure, or a presupposition of failure, means that trying is not worthwhile.  Perfectionists are often stuck, with difficulty deciding or moving forward, for fear of it being the wrong choice.

It is within our nature to want perfection, ideals, and the best of the best.  This is how products and services are marketed, and this is an underlying message of academic institutions, that want to see best effort.  Shame researcher Dr. Brene Brown describes perfectionism as “armor,” and she describes it as the “ultimate fear,” afraid that being seen as less than perfect will lead to rejection and inauthentic connection.  A fear that being seen as a vulnerable and flawed human may lead to shame, blame, and judgment.

To cope with perfectionism, it takes bravery, confidence, and connection.  Therapy can be a useful and safe space to explore some of the core vulnerability and shame that is driving perfectionistic ideas and attitudes.  Because perfectionism is so closely related to anxiety, some of the same techniques that work with anxiety treatment can help.  Do an inventory with yourself to see how realistic your thoughts and fears are.  What is the worst thing that can happen?  While some things need to have “great” outcomes, many just need to be “good.”

It also helps to practice radical acceptance of our humanity.  Humans are flawed, and make mistakes.  To err is human, and therefore, you will make mistakes.  Try looking at your flaws with a loving eye.  Practice talking to yourself the way you would talk with a friend.  We are often far harder on our selves than we are on loved ones. Having structure and routines help, too.  By automating some of the less important daily tasks that we have, we create less room for the distortions and negative thoughts that surround perfectionism.  Some activities need our full thoughts, intention, and an aim towards best – but most can just be good enough.  By making that part of a routine, some of the discomfort surrounding perfectionistic thoughts can decrease.

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