Often, we think of perfectionism as good. We see it as a helpful, effective, and useful trait in reaching our ideal life. We believe it is a must-have if we want to go for our goals and live up to our highest potential. We define perfectionism as “doing our best” and see it as striving for excellence. We think pursuing perfectionism means we care; care about the work at hand, care about the relationship, care about our health.
So, where does perfectionism go bad?
When perfectionism is the be-all and end-all. When it fuels our inner critic. When we become more invested in the outcome and specifically having it be perfect, instead of being present during the process and being curious about learning from the journey. When it tells us that we are not “doing our best” because the standard we now hold ourselves to has become impossible to achieve.
We can all think of examples from our lives when we had a goal: whether we had a presentation for work or a class project, whether we were training for a triathlon or were planning our wedding. How many times did our need to achieve perfection derail our enjoyment of the process, sometimes to the point of ruining how we felt about the end result? How many brides do you know who, when told their wedding was beautiful/fun/lovely, rolled their eyes and said, “Yeah, well it was a lot of work…” and then pointed out something that “went wrong” that day that you hadn’t even noticed? That’s a pretty dismal way to reflect upon a day of celebration that took substantial time and money to organize, but it’s pervasive!
When we look at it like that, we might have some judgment about times when we know we become or have become hung up on this all-or-nothing outlook. With reflection, we might mentally kick ourselves for a specific instance or a particular pattern that we can identify as perfectionism. The thing to remember is that it is an entirely normal human experience to get caught up in trying to achieve perfection, even when we can recognize that our current fixation is harming us.
Why do we bother with perfectionism?
1) We think that if we do things perfectly, nothing bad will happen:
It stands to reason that perfect outcomes can protect us from failure, pain, from loss. We think that if we can be perfect, we can stay safe. But in actuality, perfectionism is not attainable, and the work of trying to achieve our version of a “perfect outcome” is far more damaging than it would be to make missteps and mistakes from time to time. We are also attempting the impossible, as we can never completely control the outcome or avoid unpleasant life experiences. Brene Brown calls Perfectionism a 20-ton shield: “If I look perfect, live perfect, work perfect, I can avoid or minimize criticism, blame, and ridicule; all perfectionism is, is the 20-ton shield that we carry around hoping that it will keep us from being hurt.”
2) We think that if we do everything for everyone, we will have the best relationships.
With a perfectionist mindset, we find that no matter the cost, we are willing to compromise, keep quiet, or overextend ourselves to “make a relationship work” because we believe that that is what it will take. We believe that maintaining our connection with the other person is “worth it” to achieve a healthy relationship. Sometimes, we even get into the mindset that we must make great sacrifices to “prove” that we “deserve” to have this person in our lives.
In actuality, overextending ourselves and avoiding confrontation not to make waves leads to disconnection, not connection. It leads to resentment. It leads to fatigue. Consider this: if you have the “perfect” relationship because you never fight, but the only reason you never fight is that one of you isn’t being honest, how perfect could that be? We come together and understand one another much more deeply in times of strife or discord. This doesn’t mean that we should lean into the idea of a screaming match every other day, but it does mean that sometimes the only way to move forward is to hash something out.
Relationships, whether platonic or romantic, work best when both people are contributing relatively equally. If the other person you are dealing with doesn’t want to contribute, that’s an issue to be explored; it is not your job to carry the entire relationship on your back. But there is also the flip side, where the other person wants to contribute. Still, the perfectionist won’t relinquish “control,” leaving the other person drifting, feeling micromanaged, or developing apathy about participating.
In the words of Chris Rock: “People say relationships are tough. No, they’re not. They’re only tough when one person’s working on it. That’s right. Two people can move a couch real easy. One person can’t move it at all. …Let me help you.”
What if the person you are dealing with prefers to use Acts of Service as a way to show he/she/they cares? When you take on all the service in a relationship, you take away that person’s opportunity to contribute in their chosen way, to feel active and engaged in the relationship. People feel engaged when their participation makes a difference, and engagement is a significant aspect of any interpersonal relationship.
3) We think that if we don’t pursue perfectionism, we will just do things half-heartedly.
When we focus on achieving perfection, we begin to rely on pursuing a perfect outcome as a motivator. We tell ourselves that we won’t put in the honest and our best effort if we aren’t committed to achieving an excellent outcome. While it is true that having high expectations will point us in the right general direction, it is also true that we tend to find it easier to work harder at tasks we enjoy. When the stress of a perfect outcome is a factor in our process, we will not enjoy the process. We are also not going to be able to discover what we truly connect to and enjoy. When we let go of perfection, we make space to find out what we naturally excel at; those things will probably achieve excellent outcomes because of our passion and commitment. A perfect end goal is not the strongest motivator. Enjoyment is. This doesn’t mean that we can only do things in life that we enjoy; wouldn’t that be nice? But it does mean that the things that matter to us will receive the appropriate attention and dedication without our having to tear our hair out to do them “perfectly.”
In the perfectionist mindset, we can quickly fall into the trap of thinking that if the results of our efforts aren’t flawless, then they are not good quality at all. We tell ourselves that if things are perfect, then the result is our best. Unfortunately, your best is never good enough for Perfectionism, so you never arrive at your best. For Perfectionism, there is always more to do and more to achieve. Even if we do use the pursuit of perfection as a motivator, we’ll never get where we want to be. It’s an impossible measure. It is far healthier and more organic to reframe ourselves to take stock of our goals and values and put heart into our efforts that way.
If you identify that your need for perfection has taken over some (or all) aspects of your life, it can be daunting at first to try to disentangle your thought process from your daily habits and routines. Like all changes that we implement, it is important to be kind to ourselves as we struggle. This can be exceptionally challenging in the case of perfectionism, as we want to “move away from perfectionism perfectly.” Utilizing tools is a helpful part of a journey; there is no quick fix. Revisiting the following steps consistently to reflect and ponder will be a helpful habit to get into.
3 steps to take back your happiness:
1) Embrace Imperfections:
To learn to embrace your imperfection maybe not only an emotional revolution but also a cognitive shift. You may need to identify the benefits of imperfections to help you celebrate them more openly. For example, imperfections such as flaws or past mistakes provide us with more wisdom, empathy, and connection. Taking lessons away from unfortunate incidents or outcomes is how we evolve as human beings, better understand ourselves, and better understand others.
Embracing imperfections in our relationships can be especially beneficial. In our attempts to have the “perfect relationship,” we may be derailing everything that makes our partnership so special. People aren’t perfect, and relationships aren’t meant to be perfect, either. They are supposed to be supportive, honest, and loving connections that maintain healthy communication, respect, and boundaries.
Focusing on being or appearing perfect instead of focusing on how your imperfections are part of life can lead to some of your most memorable moments, or honest bonding is putting energy where it does no good. Think of times when a miscommunication with a partner led to a deeper understanding or a new experience. Think of times when a series of events caused you and a partner to be late or in the wrong place, that went on to be a hilarious story to tell at parties. The moments that aren’t planned that catch us by surprise are the moments that often stay with us, as they spark knowledge or growth, or they open our eyes to new possibilities.
It can help us take stock of such incidents in our past to assist us in finding the glory and joy of things going wrong. This doesn’t mean that we have to immediately view bad news as a positive or rally emotionally when we are dealt a blow; this is a process that begins with the little things that can go wrong. Major life events and grief may offer lessons and growth but may need different processes to work through. That is okay! We must always be gentle with ourselves and take processes at the pace and depth that we can at the time.
2) Let go of all-or-nothing thinking:
Also known as Black or White thinking, all-or-nothing says, “if it is not perfect, it is not good enough.” Perfectionism is all about absolutes, in which increments of progress “don’t count” and in which it becomes “better” to do nothing than to do something imperfectly. Thinking in what we call “gray” helps us have a more balanced perspective and a more balanced life!
An example of this all-or-nothing approach can often be found in exercise. How many of us have adopted the thinking of “no pain, no gain,” only to go on to injure ourselves or burn ourselves out? How many of us push ourselves so hard to exercise that it begins to feel like a punishment? …And then how many of us just stop exercising? If we adopt an attitude of “I am doing the best I can and doing something is better than doing nothing,” we not only find that we are more physically able to create a consistent routine, but that we enjoy the process.
We give ourselves permission to walk a little slower when we know we want to move our bodies, but we’re feeling a little tired or a little sore. We give ourselves permission to do an active rest instead of pushing through burpees in our workout video. We give ourselves permission to swap out for something gentler when we need to. This mental shift not only increases our sense of free will, as we now know that we choose to go for that walk or put on that video rather than feeling compulsive competitiveness with ourselves but also increases our enjoyment of what we are doing, making us far more likely to keep it up. Whereas in the past, we would have been pushing ourselves to beat our best time on an uphill hike and felt like we “failed” if we didn’t, we might now enjoy the challenge of the uphill hike itself, knowing that the benefit of the hike is the journey. This doesn’t mean that we can’t have fitness goals; it just means that we recognize the value of working toward them at least as much as we value achieving them.
3) Show up:
Letting go of perfectionism and having more connection, meaning, and purpose in your life lies in showing up! It does not lie in waiting until when you are ready or waiting until everything is perfect, but in showing up, trying things out, asking for help, even if it feels uncomfortable. The most important thing you can do in life is to be there. It may feel overwhelming or intimidating. You may worry about what others will think. It is important to show up anyway. To try anyway. When you arrive as yourself and allow yourself room to learn, to stumble, to try and fail, you open yourself up to know, to climb, to try and succeed.
When you show up for yourself and as your true self, you reject the idea that any external forces or opinions have more value than your intrinsic knowledge of yourself, your goals, and your intentions. There is a famous quote by President Theodore Roosevelt that researcher, speaker, and writer Brené Brown was so inspired by that she centered and titled her book “Daring Greatly” around it:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”
Whatever your relationship with perfectionism and whenever it started, it is important to validate that at some point, you took it on because you felt that it served you. Be gentle with yourself about your journey with perfectionism and allow yourself to part with it graciously. It may be that there were times when it helped to motivate you, but there were assuredly times when it hurt or hindered you as well. In reframing your focus to make room for error and plans have gone awry, you make room for learning, growth, happy surprises, and new adventures.
Embracing You Therapy Group Practice
Here at Embracing You Therapy, we invite you to explore with us how life would be different if you had more control over your thoughts and emotions, and we invite you to consider that it is possible to accept things just as they are, embracing imperfections to create a gentler place for calm in your life.
Let’s learn what drives your unique perspective on anxiety and stress. Then, let’s find the tools-your unique tools-that help you respond to life in a healthy, calm way. Contact us today for your complimentary 15-minute phone consultation with one of our Client Care Coordinators.