When Good Enough is not Good Enough
Perfectionism is a behaviour that recognises just two categories of performance: perfect and imperfect. There is nothing in between. Although initially my client tries to convince me, and themselves, that their perfectionism is about striving for excellence, we both come to recognise that is is not in fact about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is a defensive move it is about trying to earn approval and avoid vulnerability.
My client retells a story that I have heard in many ways before. They have felt the need to be perfect for as long as they can remember. They never felt good enough as a child and they were always striving. Then an assumption starts taking root in childhood: If I’m perfect, I won’t be rejected, ridiculed, abused — I’ll be loved and accepted. They make an unconscious negotiation they make with the world: If I’m perfect, all this good stuff will happen, all these needs will be met. Perfectionism develops as a way to cope and as a way to avoid or minimise the painful feelings of disapproval blame, judgement, and shame.
The trouble is of course that perfect does not exist. It is not an achievement. It does not work. Perfectionism is an unattainable goal. It’s more about perception than achievement and success, and there is no way to control other peoples perceptions, no matter how much time and energy we spend trying. Research indicates that perfectionism is associated with low self-esteem, depression, eating disorders, and, ironically, poor productivity. Nonetheless, perfectionism has taken up significant space in our society. It is an epidemic, and one that is growing.
At its worst perfectionism is both addictive and dangerous. Addictive because in this world we will inevitably experience shame and judgement and when we do perfectionism tells us to look internally, be critical of ourselves and that ultimately this happened because we were imperfect, rather than suggesting we look outside of ourselves and question the faulty logic of the perfectionism itself. Dangerous because it is founded on completely unrealistic expectations. No matter how hard you try, you’re never going to be perfect. What is “perfect” anyway other than an entirely subjective entity?
You may have come to see perfectionism as a healthy form of self-improvement. It’s often framed as “trying to be the best version of yourself.” Despite what we may believe however perfectionism is not the key to success. In fact, research shows perfectionism hampers achievement. If the idea of failing, making mistakes, and not meeting people’s expectations are unacceptable, it is going to be difficult to get things done. You will be more likely to procrastinate than produce.
Overcoming perfectionism is a commitment that you can make to yourself. It is hard work. It is consistency and it is always imperfect! In its simplest form it follows the pattern of the three steps below:
Step 1: Accept that you, like everyone else in the world, will always be vulnerable to uncomfortable feelings such as shame, judgment, and blame. Accepting that these emotions are universal and unavoidable takes away perfectionism’s power. After all, perfectionism is rooted in the idea that you can avoid these emotions. Once you realise and accept that you cannot, it becomes pointless.
Step 2: Focus on developing your shame resilience. Having strong shame resilience will make the idea of experiencing shame less scary. You won’t need to avoid shame because you’ll be able to deal with it when it arises. Therefore, you’ll no longer need to engage in perfectionism.
Step 3: Practice self-compassion. Being kinder to yourself can help you to embrace your imperfections, rather than punish yourself for them or work desperately to hide them. When you think or talk about your flaws, mistakes, or struggles, try to do so without a tone of shame or criticism. For example, try to avoid such thought patterns such as “making this mistake makes me a bad person” or “if I didn’t have this flaw, I’d be worthy.” Instead, frame your imperfections in a tender and compassionate way. For example, tell yourself, “My imperfections don’t define me or my worth,” “I don’t need to achieve perfection: I just need to do the best I can under my current circumstances,” or “It’s okay to be imperfect; everyone is.” If you can use self-compassion to convince yourself that it’s okay to be imperfect and make mistakes, you’ll eliminate the need to engage in perfectionism.
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