Perfectionism is an anxiety-and shame-based process. Perfectionism is an addictive, self-destructive process of trying to reach unrealistic, unreasonable standards for one’s self-image. It is driven by an unrelenting fear of not being enough—That is, not being smart enough, not being pretty enough, not being thin enough, not being accomplished enough, not being a good enough friend, daughter/son, parent, and so on… It’s really a fear of not being worthy enough as a person.
Perfectionism is on a continuum, and we are all on the continuum somewhere, though different people may attach their perfectionism to different things.
I myself am a life-long, recovering perfectionist… Though I have made great strides in overcoming perfectionism, it still takes ongoing effort to let go of my perfectionistic standards and tendencies.
My perfectionism started in childhood, when I was diagnosed with a slew of learning disabilities, or “differently abilities” as some people, including myself, prefer to call them. But these “different abilities” were not immediately obvious or visible. I was diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder, a learning disability in math, a learning disability in language, and a disordered central auditory processing system in the brain. As a result, I had to work 3 times as hard as my peers to be on the same level playing field in school. I do not regret having these disabilities because they taught me to work very hard, to persevere no matter what, and to be thankful for the gifts and privileges I did and do have. I also take great pride in my persistence to overcome them and accomplish the things I have accomplished in my life…
But there was a darker side to them– a double-edged sword that led to many years of unrelenting, unsatisfying competition with myself. Getting a bachelor’s degree wasn’t enough, so I had to get a master’s. Getting a master’s degree wasn’t enough, so I had to get a Ph.D… I still remember how shocked I was when my now husband first told me he loved me. I remember that I found it hard to believe at the time because I had trouble truly loving myself unconditionally. I was constantly trying to prove to myself that I was enough, but I would later come to learn that there was no accomplishment that could do that for me. It had to come from within me. I had to learn to see my own inherent worthiness, flaws and all… A worthiness that does not require evidence or proof.
I only share this because I believe that we all have our own challenges and hurtles, and I believe that perfectionism is more common than many are willing to admit. Also, an intellectual definition of perfectionism does not adequately exemplify the true pain that underlies perfectionism. I hope that there is something in this piece of my story that you can relate to, especially if you are a current your recovering perfectionist yourself.
So how do we overcome perfectionism? Courageously lean into the anxiety and shame, and practice loving yourself unconditionally. Practice embracing your perfect imperfections and seeing the beauty that lies within them… Yes. This is of course easier said than done. It is a skill that does not happen overnight and can even take years to develop with constant practice. I will discuss this at greater length next week, but here are a few tangible pointers you can take with you to practice this week:
- Practice having the same grace with yourself that you have with others. When you see others experience courageous vulnerability, you are probably not as hard on them as you are on yourself. For example, when you see someone else trip and fall, you’re probably NOT thinking to yourself, “Wow! What a clutz. That person really needs to get their sh** together.” You are probably feeling empathy for them because you know that you have been there before. Practice this same grace and empathy with yourself.
- Laugh at yourself. I actually practice identifying funny imperfections about myself and, instead of being mean, I laugh endearingly at myself. Some examples of the imperfections I laugh at are the fact that when I cry, I make the most distorted face (haha it makes me laugh as I’m writing this even now). I laugh at how unbelievably uncoordinated I am. I laugh at how I’m so short, I have to literally climb or jump to reach things on the top shelf when I go shopping at the grocery store! Hahaha we all have funny imperfections like this. Practice giving yourself a loving laugh about them.
- Use your values as guides to strive for self-improvement, not perfection.
- Be constructive and encouraging toward yourself. We naturally tend to focus more on our shortcomings than our strengths. Sometimes, we use harsh criticism as a strategy to motivate ourselves to be better, but this strategy is ironically ineffective and discouraging. Give more attention to your positive moving progress every day rather than your shortcomings. As I always say…
“You don’t have to beat yourself down to build yourself up!”
In next week’s blog, I will discuss at length a practice called “Self-Compassion,” which research has shown to successfully combat perfectionism.
Have courage and kind wishes!
Tannah E. Chase, Ph.D.
The Anxiety Counseling Clinic, P.L.L.C.
Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly. New York, NY: Gotham Books.
Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection. Center City, Minnesota: Brene Brown.