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Is Perfectionism Helping or Sabotaging Me?

Kaitlin Broderick LCPC

Perfectionism can be thought of as the belief that your worth as a human being is tied to your achievements and therefore, you cannot fail at anything. We live in a culture where people are constantly praised and respected for their achievements; especially in work.  Perfectionists often have a pervasive feeling of just not being good enough. It can impact every area of one’s life including work, relationships with others, and even the relationship you have with yourself in that it can negatively impact your ability to take chances and try new things if you can’t be perfect at them.  Perfectionism isn’t all bad-it can help you be a great employee, pay careful attention to detail, master a skill, etc. However, the tendency to be a perfectionist can turn toxic when nothing is ever good enough, or when the fear of failure prevents you from doing anything at all. For example, some people may avoid applying for a new job unless they believe they can perform the job perfectly, which can be quite limiting. 

The motive behind the behavior isn’t driven purely by the need to be perfect but can often be driven by avoidance- avoidance of shame, avoidance of failure, avoidance of judgment from others. Without even realizing it, one may subconsciously think “if I can avoid failure, criticism etc. I can avoid pain”. For many people, it begins in childhood, where they got the message that in order to feel loved, accepted, and secure, they must be perfect in order to avoid criticism or abandonment. When mistakes are made it can reinforce the feeling of “I’m not good enough” and perpetuate the shame cycle. Perfectionism is often linked to anxiety, eating disorders, extreme amounts of stress, lack of sleep, etc. There can also be an element of isolation and loneliness which isn’t widely talked about when discussing perfectionism. When there is constant pressure on oneself to always say and do the right thing, this can lead to a feeling of disconnect from others.  It can also result in procrastination when a person avoids a task if they don’t think they can perfect it. The thing about perfectionism is that nothing the perfectionist achieves will ever make them feel permanently good enough. There may be fleeting satisfaction followed by the thought of “what’s next, what can I achieve next”. 

Healing from perfectionism is possible although it isn’t something that will happen overnight. To begin the process of overcoming perfectionism you may start by looking inward and asking yourself how perfectionism has served you thus far in life and also begin to understand how it came to develop for you.  Look back on how your achievements were rewarded when you were young; where did this idea of I can’t fail come from?  Cognitive behavioral therapy can be very helpful in dealing with perfectionism, as most perfectionists have black and white thinking; for example, they think in terms of failure or success, if I can’t do it perfectly I won’t do it at all” etc. Perfectionists tend to use language such as “I must do this, I should have done better” etc. Start by exploring what would happen if you didn’t live by these strict standards. What would happen if you took these strict rules away for a day? A week? How has perfectionism hurt you? Allow yourself to make a mistake and see what happens. By understanding and gaining more insight around this, you can begin to feel a little more self-compassion.  Perfectionists often tend to think that if they are too self-compassionate with themselves they will become unmotivated but the opposite has been shown to be true. Degrading and criticizing oneself typically doesn’t lead to more productive behavior but rather results in increased feelings of guilt, shame, and can lead to depression.  If you feel like you can relate to this article, therapy is a great place to start to begin the journey of overcoming some of these tendencies.

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