The Problem with Perfectionism (and How to Solve It)

“We don’t have time for perfect. In any event, perfection is unachievable: It’s a myth and a trap and a hamster wheel that will run you to death. The writer Rebecca Solnit puts it well: ‘So many of us believe in perfection, which ruins everything else, because the perfect is not only the enemy of the good, it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible, and the fun.'”

– Elizabeth Gilbert, ‘Big Magic’

What is Perfectionism?

Perfectionism is the idea that something needs to be perfect, that nothing is worth doing unless it is done to a perfect standard of excellence.

Some people theorize that there is a difference between healthy and unhealthy perfectionism. “Healthy perfectionism” is defined as a personal standard (not forced on you by others) that is motivating and makes you feel good. “Unhealthy perfectionism” is defined as when the standard is external, and/or if it results in negative feelings.

I think this wishy-washy idea downplays the harm of perfectionism — it tries to have its cake and eat it too. I mean really, can anything ever be completely perfect? Why have a standard that’s not actually realistic? Yes, striving for excellence can lead to high results. Reach for the stars and maybe you’ll land on the moon. Furthermore, sometimes a high level of performance is required — for example if you are literally a brain surgeon performing brain surgery.

There is a big difference, however, between having high standards of excellence and being a perfectionist. Someone with high standards may be quite disappointed if the result of their efforts fall short of a goal, but they aren’t utterly demoralized. Their identity is not tied up with the success or failure of any specific goal. And they often feel joy and satisfaction in the process of working towards their goals. The process is fun and rewarding to them.

Perfectionists also have high standards of excellence but they often link their worthiness with their results. It is unbearable to be seen as less than perfect. The end result is the only thing that matters, not the process, which is typically joyless and stressful. And if they fail to achieve perfection, whether by an inch or a mile, it can be a deeply demoralizing crisis.

I agree with those researchers who argue that perfection is never adaptive. I think it’s harmful to the perfectionist, and it’s easily exploited by those who benefit from it, like employers, causing even more harm to the perfectionist.

What is the nature of this harm?


Downsides of Perfectionism

It’s an inhibitor. As Elizabeth Gilbert noted, not only is perfectionism the enemy of the good, it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible, and the fun. For example, it limits the hobbies and activities you try. The perfectionists asks, “What’s the point if I can’t be good at it?”

So much of the joy of life comes from a willingness to try and explore new activities. Creators experience a deep, satisfying sense of flow, the sheer joy of creating. The ways that you spend your time don’t have to be for public consumption.

Perfectionism doesn’t travel solo — she always brings along her side-kicks of anxiety and excessive self-criticism. Anxiety comes from fear of judgment and fear of failure, excessive self-criticism comes from comparing yourself unrealistically to others. The standards may come from external pressure, from social media highlight reels, from the barrage of advertisements constantly pushing our pain points so we’ll buy something we probably don’t really need. Or they may come from internal pressure, learned messages that we have no worth unless we prove we measure up.

Perfectionism emphasizes the goal over the journey. When a perfectionist’s self-worth is tied to achieving some goal, then that goal must be achieved whatever the cost — whether that cost is no sleep, crazy hours, ignoring your family, denying your needs, etc… This is terrible for mental health! We need to build lives that we enjoy living day to day, not just on the days we have a great achievement.

Perfectionism is a hunger that is never satisfied. This goes along with emphasizing a goal over the journey. Achieving a goal feels great for a short amount of time — usually much less time than the weeks or years spent working towards the goal. Once those positive feelings of satisfaction and validation fade, the perfectionist is compelled to set a new goal to get that burst of wellbeing again.

Perfectionism makes daily life suck. The life of a perfectionist is hard. They are constantly trying to prove their value and worth to themselves and to the world. They motivate themselves with brutally harsh language. They can’t forgive themselves for honest mistakes. They often experience anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. And even when they do achieve their goals, they don’t fully savor it. They look for and find flaws in their performance. They can’t bear to be judged and found wanting, so they hide their vulnerabilities and humanity and have difficulty connecting with others.

Recovery from Perfectionism

So let’s say you recognize you have a problem with perfectionism. What can you do to change years of perfectionist behavior?

1. Change your internal messaging.

You need to feel accepted and cared for by yourself. Use kind, gentle language, treat yourself with patience and tenderness. Life is not always easy and we need all the kindness we can get, especially from ourselves.

If you don’t have kind supportive voices in your head from childhood, surround yourself with supportive voices now. There are so many — Tara Brach, Adriene Mischler, Fred Rogers, Anne Lamott, Elizabeth Gilbert, Kristen Neff, Glennon Doyle, Mastin Kipp — or get yourself a good therapist — and they can all show you a different way to be in the world.

Keep a journal of all of the lightbulb moments you have when listening or reading these supportive people, and reread it often. You want to superimpose these messages over your harsh, perfectionistic ones.

When the perfectionistic, judgmental voices resurface, recognize them, and maybe even address them: “I get that you’re upset, but there is another way to look at this.” And then reframe what the judgmental voice is saying from a more self-compassionate perspective.

Finally, avoid generalities, blanket statements, especially if you fail to reach a goal or if you make a mistake. Try to use very specific statements, and then, if appropriate, a small action you might take. “I’m so stupid, I can’t remember anything” is very different messaging from, “I forgot to pay my credit card on time and now I owe an extra $30. I will put a recurring reminder in my calendar so I don’t forget next month.”

2. Learn to accept yourself as you are right now.

Never make your self-acceptance conditional on achieving some goal (lose 10 pounds, get a huge raise, win first place).

By all means, set goals, strive for excellence in a few areas that are important to you. But do not make your self-worth contingent on success. Tell yourself that you are a human being, doing the best you can at any given moment with the imperfect resources and knowledge you have, and you’re operating in a very imperfect world. Things will go wrong, we’ll misjudge people, miscommunications will happen, you’ll make mistakes. That’s just life! It’s impossible to be perfect. But things will be okay.

recovery from perfectionism

3. Ignore external messages extolling ideals of perfection and minimize your exposure to them.

Consumerism is built on creating a sense of lack in you, that you could be perfectly happy or perfectly successful or perfectly thin or have the perfect tan or the perfect scent if only you purchase a certain product. Understand that these are general marketing messages and that they do not apply to you specifically.

External messaging also comes from social media, where people show their highlight reels, which can reactivate the competitive nature of the perfectionist.

4. Practice being a beginner.

Art is so good for this, because mistakes in your lines become part of the process. You can paint over them, or layer over them so they actually look cool. But whatever it is you decide to learn, practice using that kind, encouraging voice on yourself, practice embracing the process and enjoying the journey, not getting hung up on the result.

5. Remember most of life is regular old living.

This is from the movie “Soul” – I loved it so much I wrote a blog post about it. Our biggest moments and achievements may add up to a single month of days if we’re lucky. Each achievement is just one moment in time. Most of our life is spent in between those achievements! And it’s important that we enjoy the between time, that we notice and deeply appreciate this world we live in, the little grace notes scattered through every day, the people who love us. Each one of us is an improbability, a miracle of time and space. Don’t let perfectionism rob you of the ability to love yourself and your life.

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