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Part 1 || What is Perfectionism?








“If we were perfect, we wouldn’t be human; we’d be Barbie and Ken… Warm, breathing, human life is a constantly unfolding wonder, not a static state of flawless sameness. Being alive involves struggle and despair as well as joy and glory.” - Kristin Neff










Perfectionism involves setting exceedingly high expectations for yourself—or others—with no room for making mistakes or falling short. While striving to achieve can be healthy, perfectionists tend to over-identify with their goals and base their self-worth on being productive, successful, or liked. You might be a perfectionist if you feel devastated or worthless when you don’t get something just right.


Perfectionism isn’t the same as striving to be your best. Healthy striving is flexible, involves joy, moves you towards your long-term goals, and motivates you to achieve your goals in alignment with your values. Perfectionism says that if you look and act perfect, you’ll minimize the pain of judgment or shame. But this goal of perfection can never be reached. 


Because humans are seriously complicated beings living in a complex world, perfection is simply impossible. Perfectionists inevitably experience disappointment and feel dissatisfied with themselves. Which brings us to another element of perfectionism—self-criticism. If you’ve got a harsh inner critic, it makes sense that you’d want to avoid failure at all costs—whether that means striving for perfection in all areas or avoiding challenging tasks by procrastinating or choosing goals you can accomplish easily. That’s right, avoidance and under-achievement can be results of perfectionism too. Making and admitting mistakes is an essential part of growing, learning, and healthy compromising (things that make you better in your work, relationships, and as a human being) and perfectionism makes this much harder.


When your expectations are perfection, failure is any small mistake or minor slight or not performing at the level you expect. And for perfectionists, failure causes feelings of shame. Shame is one of the most painful human experiences. It involves strong emotions and self-criticism, perhaps even viewing yourself as broken or not worthy of love. Shame expects others to see those negative qualities in you, activating a fear of being judged while simultaneously fulfilling that fear as you criticize yourself.


Before you start beating yourself up for being a perfectionist, I want you to take a moment to honor the part of you that has tried so hard to protect you from judgment or shame by striving for perfection. Somewhere along the way, something inside you learned that the most effective way to be accepted, earn approval, or experience belonging was to perform perfectly. At the end of the day, we’re all humans who want to belong and feel accepted. For most of us, that’s what perfectionism is trying to help us do.


From that lens, perfectionism is a learned behavior and a coping tool. And one of the amazing things about humans is that we can change our learned behaviors and choose to cope in different ways that are more in alignment with our values and more beneficial for our current circumstances. There is a better way for us to operate, a way that is not rooted in self-criticism and shame.


Take it from me, a recovering perfectionist. The antidote to perfectionism is worth a try.


Sources:


Brown, B. (2010). The gifts of imperfection. Center City, MN: Hazelden. 

Kemp, J. (2022). The perfectionistic helper: Striving to help and never fail.

Neff, K. (2011). Self-compassion: The proven power of being kind to yourself. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

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