Perfectionism is the attitude that anything short of perfection as unacceptable, Many people suffer with perfectionism and spend a significant amount of time and energy striving for perfection. Perfectionism may seem to be achievable in a particular instance or facet of life, but it is unsustainable over a relatively long period of time and it is unrealistic. We all make mistakes, we each are imperfect. That is normal.
Perfectionists may fear making mistakes, screwing-up or looking "not-their-best". Perhaps, more importantly, is the "cost-to-self" in the messages they give themselves and in their negative self-talk. Not being perfect can sometimes mean that basically "I'm not good enough" and/or "I must try harder" (even though they have probably already exerted 150% of a best effort). For some perfectionists, self-confidence is entirely dependent on perfect performance on tasks, perfection in the body and in life in general.
Propping-up self-confidence and self-esteem with a perfectionistic track record can be detrimental to building an authentic and resilient sense of self. In other words, what we achieve in life and how well we do it can comprise numerous reasons to feel proud and self-confident, but what happens when we make a mistake or mess-up? Self-confidence can take a nose-dive leading to feelings of low self-worth, isolation, shame or deep disappointment. There needs to be something else to help us appreciate ourselves and to remind us that we are wonderful, even if we are not perfect. In fact, it can be helpful to remember that when we are imperfect, we are beautifully human with a greater capacity to learn, grow and reflect on life. We are also able to relate better to other people that are also imperfect. Relationships tend to last longer and develop to have deeper meaning when we embrace imperfection.
I recall one of my own experiences with perfectionism, when I was younger. I had to have perfect handwriting and to the point that I would start writing on a new piece of paper if what I was writing was not in perfect form. I could not even use a cross-out or white-out because that would still be a remnant, a sore reminder to myself, of my mistake or imperfect performance. As you can imagine, I would rarely be able to finish writing a piece of work. If I did finish with mistakes (bad handwriting or white-out or a misspelling), then I would degrade that piece of work and feel very negatively about it. Now, when I write something and notice I don't like my handwriting or need to cross-out a mistake, I remind myself that I can still read what I wrote, I focus on the content of what I'm trying to write and I celebrate my ability to evaluate myself in a fair and compassionate way. As a result, I accomplish much more satisfactory work.
Coping with perfectionism can start by noticing that the boundary has been blurred between 1) what you achieve in life and 2) who you are as a person. It can also help to notice if you are thriving on attention for doing selfless things for others, by producing exemplary work or similar. It is worth noting whether or not you are spending a disproportionate amount of time managing your appearance. It can be helpful as well to realise that perfectionism often has origins in how we were treated as children and young adults. As children, it can be difficult to make sense of the criticism, attention and feedback we are given by adults and peers. However, as we grow and develop through life, we can make appropriate meaning of the past and learn to support ourselves in healthy ways in the present and in the future.
It can be a long journey to depart from perfectionism and one worth travelling. In adopting a more realistic approach to life and a compassionate viewpoint for yourself, you can experience more freedom.
Blogging about mental health issues for personal and professional development. All material is authored by Cori Lambert unless explicitly stated otherwise. Authentic Consulting and Counselling is located in West Perth, Greater Perth Area.