The Perils of Perfectionism

When I was young, I was proud of the fact that I was a perfectionist. People rewarded me for doing things “perfectly.”  It seemed the more perfect, the better. I remember in graduate school that my friends and I regularly joked about being perfectionists.

Perfectionism as a concept is not problematic. The idea of striving for excellence is a good thing. Working diligently to achieve excellence is a worthy goal. For example, if a surgeon did not repair your heart perfectly, you would die. If a musician played a song imperfectly, it would sound bad.  If a basketball player did not aim perfectly, he or she would miss the basket. If a car was not put back together perfectly, it would not run. If I did not spell a word perfectly, it would not make “neses” sense.

I always tell clients there is a difference between striving for excellence and being a perfectionist. However, most of us have no idea when we’ve left the calm waters of excellence and entered the dangerous sea of perfectionism. The reason for this is fairly straight forward. Most societal institutions are dysfunctional in the way they promote and reward perfectionist thinking and behaviors.

Let me start by giving two cliche examples. A football player takes steroids to become stronger. He sacrifices his relationship with his wife and family to become a star. He secretly engages in devious behaviors to destress. On the inside he is a reck, on the outside he is perfect. He makes more touch downs than anyone and becomes an all-star. People cheer for him. He is paid millions of dollars. It seems the more dysfunctional he becomes in order to achieve an inhuman degree of perfection, the more he is admired and the more money he makes. A similar example can be made for supermodels. Starving themselves and being underweight, getting breast implants and plastic surgery, and using dangerous stimulates to achieve perfection is rewarded. On the outside they are perfect, on the inside they are secretly dysfunctional and killing themselves, but that is okay because they are beautiful.

We might not be famous football players or supermodels but we become just like them when we cross over into the dangerous waters of perfectionism by convincing ourselves that the ends justify the means.

For example, my 12-year old client pulls “all nighters” to achieve perfect grades and their parents and teachers reward them. On the upside they achieve straight A’s, on the downside they develop anxiety and need to see a therapist.

Perfectionistic adults behave in similar ways. They sacrifice their health and wellness for achievement. For example, my clients in fast paced jobs consistently report to me that they do not take time to urinate during the day. The combination of perfectionist and fast paced business environment collide in an incredible storm and my clients’ bladders suffer. Even though this is small, it is significant. Just imagine what else falls away or is neglected for an adult dominated by perfectionism.  

One of my favorite author’s John Bradshaw says that perfectionism has no internal sense of limits. Perfectionists never know how much is good enough. Perfectionism is learned when one is valued only for doing, and parental acceptance and love are based on performance. The performance is always related to what is outside of the self. The child is taught to strive onward. There is never a place to rest and have inner joy or satisfaction.

As a result, stress and anxiety become difficult to manage. Children in particular have trouble regulating this stress and anxiety. However, adults have trained themselves to manage these emotions with exercise, food, alcohol or marijuana, intellectualization, excessive screen time, playing video games, having affairs, taking antidepressants, or other short lived pleasures.  Eventually all of these coping mechanisms fail and people find themselves in counseling for the first time. When this happens I am so happy for my clients! Finally they can get the help they need. Don’t ever feel embarrassed if you need coaching or support to work through these issues. It is NOT your fault!!!!!!!! And there is no way you could have known. Trust me, there was no way.

I want you to pause right now and take a moment to think about your upbringing. Did your parents and teachers reward you primarily for doing or achieving? If so, you are probably swimming in the dangerous waters of perfectionism and unable to feel inner contentment or satisfaction with your life.  

Since perfectionism creates a superhuman measure by which you are compared, no matter how hard you try or how well you do, you never measure up. Not measuring up is translated into a comparison of good versus bad, better versus worse. Good and bad lead to moralizing and judgmentalism. Perfectionism leads to comparison making. When perfectionism dominates, the comparison of self with others inevitably ends in the self feeling lesser in the comparison. 

Does looking at social media sometimes ruin your day or lift your spirits depending on what you see or what you post? When we engage in social media, we consciously and unconsciously compare ourselves to others. It is impossible not to do this. We are social animals. But the degree to which it triggers us is an indicator of how much perfectionism dominates our inner world.

I am betting that you feel a great deal of tension in both your mind and body when you get triggered around perfectionism. For most of your life you’ve probably referred to this tension as stress, anxiety, fear, irritation, or depression. However, the emotion behind this intensity is actually shame. You heard me right, SHAME. Shame is a deep rooted feeling of “not being good enough, not being enough.” Comparison making is one major way that one continues to shame the self. One continues to do to oneself on the inside, what was done on the outside. Judgement and comparison making lead to a destructive kind of competitiveness. Competitiveness aims at outdoing others rather than simply being the best one can be (i.e. striving for excellence). Striving for excellence takes a back seat to the rigors of perfectionism turning life into a never ending struggle or challenge.

Final Thoughts

Perfectionism denies that we often make mistakes and that making mistakes is a natural part of life. Wouldn’t it be nice to still feel good about yourself when you make a mistake? If you are like most people and need help with perfectionism, please contact me through my website. I spend a great deal of time helping clients develop a new framework for achievement as well as identifying and letting go of the toxic shame associated with perfectionism.

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