What Does Perfectionism Sound Like
“I should have done better.” “I’m ugly (…or fat, or stupid, or unsuccessful, or undeserving, or unpopular or unworthy, or…).” “This isn’t good enough. I’ll never be good enough.” “I promise I’ll do better next time.” “Everything seems to come more easily for everyone else. I just can’t get it right.”
Do these thoughts sound familiar? They should. They are all forms of a rapidly exploding belief system that has more than doubled among people young and old in the U. S. in the past 20-years. They are all forms of unattainable perfectionism.
Improving vs. Perfecting
We’ve known for centuries that working to “be better” is motivating and can improve our performance. The urge to “be better” inspires diligent practice, which improved performance, dedicated repetition results in important fine-tuning of skills, perseverance in the face of life’s set-backs builds resilience, and the stubborn desire to be our best helps to bring out our authentic best selves. That, fortunately, has nothing whatsoever to do with perfectionism.
Unlike the desire to improve, whether the end-goal is our work, our relationships, our culture, or our character, perfectionism isn’t linked to bringing our best self forward. Instead, perfectionism is rooted in the belief and even a core felt sense, that we are deeply flawed. Perfectionism is not about our behavior, though it will often harshly judge any actions we take as evidence of our failure to overcome our flaws. This perfectionism is ultimately about our negative presence.
Taking up Undeserved Space
To the perfectionist, he or she takes up unearned and undeserved space in the world. To the perfectionist, their nature is ineluctably wrong, unworthy, and even shameful. Perfectionists seek to escape the dread of accepting such a dreadful fate. They are motivated by the slim hope of eventually proving their worth. As a result, their only choice becomes to work harder and longer, to sacrifice more, and to strive tirelessly, forever chasing the fading chance of achieving, at long last, the unattainable – love and acceptance.
The Endless Race
Of course, since perfectionism begins with the assumption that we can never be what we so desperately hope to become, we are doomed before we start. Like the Greek character Sisyphus, who was doomed to spend eternity rolling a boulder up a hill all day, only to have it roll back to the base at day’s end, perfectionists are locked into a perpetual striving with only one potential hope of escape: to achieve the un-achievable.
The Price of Perfection
In my practice, I see the human and emotional costs of perfectionism every day.
- The brilliant engineer, never believing he’d done enough in his field enough despite loads of evidence to the contrary, who came to believe that suicide was the best way out of his hopeless and endless chase.
- The young adult anorectic woman, drawing ever-closer to a lethal cliff over which she would tumble if only a few more pounds could be shed as she obsessively pursued a misguided and distorted self-image that confused her body with her being.
- The 40-something woman who repeatedly entered limiting and even demeaning relationships with men, whom she saw as the only men she deserved given the emotional legacy of the early life abuse she’d internalized as proof of her limited objective worth and minuscule human value.
- The man with panic episodes that were increasingly crippling. He carried near-constant fear of failing and being judged by others. Intermittently, those fears erupted, like an anxiety-driven volcano, into panic episodes he responded to by becoming increasingly socially anxious, isolated, and lonely.
- The couple, both so terrified of having their self-perceived flaws exposed to their partner and convinced that such a revelation would immediately result in the end of their relationship, that despite deep hunger to be loved and accepted worked tirelessly to be perfect. Of course, they failed to do so. Anybody would. They becoming increasingly alienated from and resentful toward each other every day.
Human Beings or Human Doings
Earlier, I said perfectionism is about our presence. Let’s dig a bit deeper. Perfectionism rests on a fundamental confusion. This confusion involves that yawning gap between doing and being. Our culture routinely confuses them. We attach personal worth to our various achievements but go a toxic step further in evaluating our self-worth – our “being” – in terms of those accomplishments. For example, a BMW has value, which we can earn through our actions and a little good fortune. That is about doing. But, when we say that unless I have a BMW, I am a less valuable person, then we are caught in the quicksand of perfectionistic being. This dangerous self-delusion all-but assures that no matter what we personally accomplish, the result is the inevitable experience of “falling short.” Anxiety, depression, despair, exhaustion, and all manner of other human miseries often follow.
Three Forms of Perfectionism
Research has identified three forms of perfectionism running rampant in our culture.
Socially-prescribed perfectionism: The attempts to live up to a culturally defined ideal – the perfect body, bank account size, college admission, job status – that has us perpetually believing that others in the world are negatively judging us.
Self-oriented: The on-going attempts to hold ourselves to a standard of perfection we can’t ever attain. We also discount what others say if they offer us a more positive view of ourselves.
Other-oriented: The incessant attempts to get others to meet our unattainable expectations. Children, employees, and spouses of such emotional tyrants know only too well what it is like attempting to please the unsatisfiable perfectionist.
This research confirms two important scientific findings. First, the desire to be our best is motivating and not associated with negative mental, emotional, and emotional consequences. But, the second point is that when perfectionist attitudes rum amok and become maladaptive, there still remain steps we can learn to take to soften the damaging burden of these toxic beliefs. Ultimately, the view that fuels these unhealthy beliefs can be modified.
Steps to Escape Perfectionism’s Grip
Here are four steps you can take to cut the stranglehold of perfectionism on your life.
- Recognition, as with so much in life, is a key first step. Perfectionism involves a distorted perception, not a reality. It is a belief, not a fact. Recognizing it as a perceived belief, no matter how long ago you learned to believe it is a first step in driving a wedge between outdated and damaging beliefs and a freer, more joyful new outlook. Recognizing “how you do” your perfectionism is like looking for the first time through a set of kinder, gentler eyes.
- In All of Me, John Legend sings the lyrics, “Love your curves and all your edges, All your perfect imperfections.” As a photographer, I know that any portrait is striking, beautiful, and unique precisely because of each individual’s imperfections – one eyebrow lower than the other, each eye a slightly different color, each leg a slightly different length. A perfectly symmetrical face is unappealing and appears false, which it almost certainly is. People are an infinite number of variations around hypothetical standards that don’t actually exist. So, discover your “perfect imperfections.” Write them down. Then, as though looking at them through kinder, gentler eyes, identify some feature of each characteristic that you can perceive as reflecting your unique and unrivaled uniqueness.
- Often, the difference between doing your best and striving to be perfect is just a matter of degree. In his book, A Life of Being, Having, and Doing Enough, Wayne Muller describes how perfectly legitimate human needs can cross the line to become the means to create misery for ourselves and others. When we can acquire material possessions through our efforts, we can feel satisfaction and even fulfillment. Cross the line and no matter what we earn or acquire, it’s never enough. Desire becomes greed. When we allow healthy competition to motivate our actions, we can feel authentic pride in our achievements and accomplishments. Cross the line and instead of focusing on our efforts, we constantly compare ourselves to others’ achievements, pride become jealousy. Worse yet, if we also foster resentments that others have achieved what is rightfully ours, we transform jealousy into envy, a truly bitter pill that can rot our capacity for joy. So, practice cultivating a sense of sufficiency. Simply put, there is more than enough to go around because you are already “enough” just as you are. Separate who you are – your being – from your actions.
- Overcoming perfectionism often requires being seen in new ways. Being witnessed by an empathic and caring other can soften the sting of perfectionistic beliefs. That is where a competent therapist can be so helpful. Through the therapeutic relationship you can learn to “expose” the false beliefs about yourself that give rise to perfectionist strivings. As Donnel Stein said in Partners in Thought, “We need a witness to become a self; and later in life, in similar fashion, we need a witness to heal ourselves.”
Stay tuned and take care…
Dr. David Alter
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