As a therapist and yogi that specializes in mind-body-spirit living, one of the key components of my work is helping individuals (and couples) connect with their true, authentic selves. This means embracing all pieces of their identity, the good and the bad. The light and the dark. The beautiful and the ugly. We are complex, holistic made of memories, experiences, emotions and thoughts, and in order to be healthy and whole, we must be willing to integrate, accept, and even embrace ALL pieces of ourselves.
This is hard to do though. And for many people, if we feel shame or guilt about pieces of our identity, we may develop unhelpful behaviors to cope and to hide these pieces that we don’t want others to see.
This can show up in many different ways, but perfectionism is one of the most common ones. I see this a lot!
Sometimes clients will tell me that they have a “healthy” level of perfectionism, that they use this trait as motivation.
But perfectionism is inherently unhealthy because it assumes that the ability to be perfect is even possible in the first place.
In the psychology world, perfectionism is defined as a person’s desire to be flawless and avoid failure at all costs. Perfectionists often set extremely high-performance standards for themselves (and others) and spend a lot of time fixated on ensuring a flawless performance in life.
Perfectionists also tend to experience high levels of self-criticism and obsessive concern about other’s opinions of them. So much in fact that they have developed a belief system centered around the core idea that they are worthy of love from others only when providing a flawless performance in whatever they do.
In other words, their worthiness of love and acceptance is believed to be rooted in being perfect at all times, rather than being authentic and real. Messiness and flaws must be hidden at all times.
Keep in mind that there is nothing wrong with striving for excellence and becoming your best self. This is a good thing and something I talk about frequently. So it is important to note that the key distinction between perfectionism and high achieving, which is the motivation of the behavior. Perfectionism is rooted in fear — fear of failure, fear of not being good enough, fear of not being loved. High achievers are not fear-based. Rather, they are focused on excelling and are driven to learn and grow. They are open to constructive criticism and feedback, they don’t equate their worth with success, and they see failure as opportunity. High achievers learn from setbacks, perfectionists are frozen by setbacks.
When we are stuck in the illusion that we can be perfect, we will engage in unhealthy behaviors to hide any part of ourselves that is not perfect. We also find ways to manage the distress that comes with being unable to attain perfection.
Here are 3 common signs of perfectionism:
- All-or-nothing thinking
I see this one a lot with perfectionists — the idea that it either perfect or it is worth nothing. It either is done fully and completely or not at all. This kind of thinking does not allow for any gray area and can be really unhelpful.
- Fear of failure
I talk a lot about reframing the concept of failure in my work. Perfectionists struggle with this — failure is not an option for them, so they develop incredible anxiety about the possibility of failure. Which can lead to the next common symptom…
This is a big one. Perfectionists can obsess over the fear of failure to the point of avoidance — essentially, fear of being unable to complete the task flawlessly leads to complete avoidance of the task in the first place.
So what causes this?
The perfectionism trait can be rooted in our early development. Things like messaging from parents and caregivers around the importance of performance, poor attachment with mother, and harsh criticism from those around us when we are young can all lead to perfectionist tendencies.
Eventually, we take this faulty messaging from others and make it our own. We grow to believe that perfection is the goal, at all costs. We learn that our worth is defined by our performance and our achievements. We fear anything that could indicate we are “less than.” We become driven by fear rather than excitement. We live in a perpetual state of worry.
How can I overcome perfectionism
- Develop an awareness.
Most of us are very unaware of our thoughts and resulting behaviors and how this impacts us on a daily basis. But awareness is such a powerful tool in itself — as we become more aware, we create a pathway of understanding and healing. This is one of the primary methods for creating change. Developing an awareness of our internal world teaches us how our thoughts influence our interactions with the external world. We have to be able to identify our patterns first before we can make a change.
- Change your self-talk
What is your internal dialogue like? How do you talk to yourself daily? How often do you criticize yourself? Part of developing awareness is identifying how you speak to yourself — and those with perfectionist tendencies are often the most critical of themselves (and others). Start writing down positive statements daily that help you recognize your own worth. You deserve love and support because you are human, not because you are “perfect.” Focus on telling yourself this daily.
- Focus on inner child healing
We develop these habits young as a response to our environment and external messaging. Remember that this is not about blaming anyone, it is about owning your own experience and focusing on healing wounds you are carrying still as an adult. Inner child healing helps us identify and resolve when we were wounded in our early years. There are lots of resources for this, but I recommend starting with Thich Nhat Hanh’s book Reconciliation: Healing the Inner Child.
Be Your Best Self + Thrive Counseling uses a holistic, non-judgmental approach to help you build an alliance with your mind, body, and spirit that work together for your benefit. If you are looking for a therapist who is experienced in working with perfectionism, Jamie Molnar is a clinician who can help you explore this. Book your free 15-minute session with her here.
Peace and love,