Perfectionism: A flawed badge of honour in modern society
It is a strange truth in that perfectionism is often seen as a good thing. To be a perfectionist means to accept nothing less than perfect outcomes or standards. You might be thinking; What’s wrong with that? Sounds quite admirable. However perfectionism implies being ‘without flaw’ and that kind of person or environment simply doesn’t exist. And yet even though most of us know this, it is still something that many of us strive for all the same. Then we feel that something must be wrong with us and that it is our fault when we inevitably don’t achieve these impossibly high standards.
New year’s resolution season sees industries and social media influencers really capitalising on our desire for perfection. Every year the same messages come at us from all angles around self-improvement in January. A not-so-subtle message that all our emptiness and sadness would evaporate if only we achieved perfection. The perfect body, the perfect new job, the perfect partner, the perfect smoothie ratio.
Far from being the ‘key to success’ being led by perfectionism is more likely to prevent us from achieving the things we want.
How it can show up in beliefs and behaviours
Often after working tirelessly to achieve successes people with perfectionist tendencies then move the goalposts onto something bigger, greater and further out of reach. To be led by perfectionism can often be a path of constant self-questioning. Never being truly satisfied with where you are. Always focused on where you want to go. Convinced that when you get there all will finally be well.
As well as personal projects, perfectionism can be a barrier to relating authentically in relationships. This is because people with perfectionist tendencies often believe somewhere that if they are the perfect girlfriend, husband or son they will be able to control other people’s behaviour. Perfectionism is a way to live that provides a false sense of security that we can somehow by being our very very best, control the thoughts and actions of another.
You might not think that you are perfectionist when you look around at unfinished projects, a messy house and a list of things that were supposed to happen but didn’t quite work out. But when perfection is the goal many of us thwart our efforts before we have even begun. We choose safety over failure because; if it can’t be perfect, what is the point in starting? This way of thinking can lead to increased feelings of shame and fear which in turn gives rise to lots of harsh self-talk which keep shame cycles going.
If you have perfectionist tendencies, you might identify with some of the following:
- a fear of messiness and complication
- being hard on yourself
- a way of existing that does not really allow for rest
- needing the approval of others
- comparing yourself to others a lot
- struggling with being flexible
- quitting when things do not go exactly how you imagined
- fear of getting started with something new
- regular feelings of dissatisfaction
Where perfectionism might come from
Perfectionism tendencies are often forged in childhood. It can be an adaptive coping strategy to help manage the anxious feelings that come with believing we need to seek approval and win love in our family home. Having a perfectionist parent, a strong fear of disapproval or attachment issues can be some of the causes. If as a child you were overly praised for achievements and certain behaviours you could have really taken that to heart, resulting in a belief such as: ‘I am my achievements, and my worth is determined by how well I achieve them.’
Perfectionism might seem like it is striving for excellence and caring about personal growth but at its heart it’s actually about a deep need for approval. It is an other-orientated way to live that is less about what matters to you and your needs, and is far more concerned with; what others think of me.
Some things that can help when challenging perfectionist beliefs
- celebrate little wins
- reframe goals – aim for progress, not perfection
- read about people who have failed as part of their life story (many successful people have countless failures as part of their experience!)
- gently increase your tolerance for situations that might be uncomfortable (like trying something new you might be pretty bad at to begin with)
- work on your resilience
How working with a professional can help
Research has found that high levels of perfectionism were correlated with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, deliberate self-harm and obsessive-compulsive disorders. So it is not surprising that it might be something you wish to look at with a counsellor or therapist.
Working with a professional can help you better understand the root of your perfectionism and how it ties into your ideas about your worth.
A big part of countering perfectionist tendencies is to learn to live less rigidly. A professional can help you to navigate potentially difficult feelings of fear around what you believe might happen if you relax your standards. Having someone to walk with you as you challenge long held beliefs that are no longer serving you means you can be supported while exploring what matters to you.
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