With Perfectionism Along for the Ride, Getting Started Can Be Hard!
I began writing this blog post exactly three months ago today. This being the first blog entry, I wanted to really nail it, rather than just knocking out a few paragraphs so I could get over the hump of writing the first post. I wanted it to be thorough, while also being authentic and conveying my expertise. I wanted it to be … well, I guess–”perfect”. Oops.
Except as you can see, one result of wanting to do something perfectly–whether we admit it or not–can be that we avoid doing “the thing” because we worry it won’t measure up to the high standard we have set for ourselves–or the standard we imagine others have for us. (Procrastination can be a sign of perfectionism, so look for a future post on that.) Perfectionism can be a trap we fall into over and over again without even realizing it, myself included, which is why I call myself a recovering perfectionist.
As I write this first post, I am putting to rest that this post–or any future post–is about “conveying my expertise”(!). You can find plenty of “expertise” out there about perfectionism and for that matter any other topic I may write about. In this space I want to share about common challenges life brings that impact who we are and how we show up in our work and relationships. The only way possible to do life is imperfectly (Yes, that one seems painfully obvious!). And I am admitting the obvious: The only way to write posts here is imperfectly. So let’s dive in!
Let’s start by looking together at what perfectionism really is (and is not). Then let’s look at what causes some of us to become perfectionists. What is our perfectionism actually doing for us… to us… and to our relationships?
What is perfectionism?
Researchers have identified at least five attitudes and beliefs common to perfectionists:
- Excessive concern about making mistakes;
- Indecisiveness and second-guessing themselves;
- Setting unreasonably high personal standards;
- Perceiving their parents as having high expectations and being highly critical; and
- Concern with neatness and organization.
Do you identify with some of these? To me, none of these sound “too bad”, at least not taken one at a time. If you overlook indecisiveness/second-guessing, these seem like they can be helpful in motivating a person to accomplish great things. Some researchers have identified “adaptive perfectionism” as beneficial. But what is actually underneath perfectionism?
Perfectionism and Shame. Huh?
I distinctly remember how I felt in 2012 the moment I first heard author and researcher Brene Brown in one of her TED talks say “Shame is the birthplace of perfectionism”. My brain tried to process that sentence. I knew I was a recovering perfectionist, which I still felt a teeny bit proud of. I had learned in therapy many years earlier that perfectionism was not my friend. But shame? “What? Why would she say that?”, I thought to myself. I didn’t believe shame was something I experienced much if at all as a child, and I certainly didn’t as an adult. When I digested Brene Brown’s definition of shame, though, I got it. From her research, she defined shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”
What does shame have to do with perfectionism? Everything. In her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, Brown defines perfectionism as
“a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment and blame.”
Elsewhere Brown refers to perfectionism as a “twenty ton shield that we lug around”, because we believe it protects us from being hurt. When a person feels shame, the impulse is to hide. So perfectionism keeps us from being seen, since we use it to hide that we are human and imperfect. Its weight can crush us on the inside as we try so hard to look good on the outside.
Faulty Logic feeds Perfectionism
Perfectionism can become addictive when we buy into its faulty logic, which says the reason for the blame or criticism directed our way is that “we just weren’t perfect enough”. When we don’t meet our own or others’ unreasonably high expectations, we critically judge ourselves. To get out of this low place, we try harder and harder to do things perfectly. We find ourselves slaves to “What will people think?”, or myths like “I must do things perfectly to prove I am a worthwhile person”. When perfectionism is in charge, it tells us it is a healthy and useful quality to possess, since it drives us to work hard to accomplish our goals by meeting our high standards, which we are proud of.
Perfectionism is NOT Healthy Striving for Excellence
Okay, it’s true that perfectionists do have some very desirable traits. We love it when we are seen as dependable, responsible, persevering, motivated, tenacious, and detail oriented. Research has shown, however, that perfectionism actually gets in the way of achievement. In the long run, there is no such thing as “adaptive perfectionism”. Perfectionism does NOT lead to life satisfaction, positive self-esteem, or positive affect (happiness). On the contrary, research has found that perfectionism is associated with depression, anxiety, eating disorders and addiction. Healthy striving for excellence comes from a place inside us where our natural abilities, strengths, and creativity want to be expressed in a form that can be a gift to others. Perfectionism, on the other hand, comes from a place of shame and fear–fear of being seen, fear of not being good enough, fear of failure, or some variation of these.
Perfectionism is a Thief, But You CAN Get Your Life Back!!
When we do what it says, perfectionism can steal SO MUCH of our life from us. When we believe we aren’t worthy of love and belonging unless we earn it by living, working, or looking perfectly–meeting unreasonably high standards–perfectionism can rob our lives of love, joy, creativity, fun, compassion for others, self confidence, and most of all, connection with our partner, friends, family, and even our sense of spiritual connection.
When we see how perfectionism works and we finally notice it while it is happening (yay!), we may then be tempted to beat ourselves up for being a perfectionist–shaming ourselves more. Instead of adding yet another layer of critical thoughts and negative feelings, we can just notice that our old “friend” perfectionism has paid us another visit in the form of that familiar thought and the urge to “do it perfectly”. Then we can celebrate that we are on the path toward recovering our freedom and joy. Perfectionism still shows up every day for me, but it no longer has the power to run my life and take me down like it once did. Can it be a little scary to just ignore what perfectionism says and do something only “good enough”? Absolutely.
Once we discover how perfectionism has been at work in our lives to bring us pain instead of the joy and connection we long for, we are ready to begin the process of recovery and even transformation! In the next post, we will look at where to begin: “heartfulness” and self compassion.
To learn more about Anxiety Therapy and how it can help you overcome perfectionism, click here.