Recovering from Perfectionism

I often refer to myself as a Recovering Perfectionist. As a kid, I enjoyed learning, and was a “pleaser” by nature. It quickly became clear to me that getting good grades would earn me praise.

The more A’s I achieved, the less “special” they started to feel, so the standard was raised to getting 100%. Over time, that perfectionist approach started applying to other things: body size and weight, calories, exercise, having clear skin, dental hygiene, remembering to make gifts for friends’ birthdays, even the words I would write in text messages! It would eat me up when someone was upset with me or didn’t like me, to the point where I would stay up at night ruminating about everything I had fallen short in that day and how to “fix” things. It was an exhausting and unsustainable way to live, but anything less than these standards felt unacceptable.

In my own healing process, I’ve become more balanced, but it took a lot to let go of those old ways. In my work, it gives me great satisfaction to help others break free from this mindset.

Perfectionism is characterized by a strong desire for control, tendencies to criticize oneself or others when expectations are not met, and believing that self-worth (and the worth of others) is tied to performance in various areas of life. Can you relate?

Anyone who has experienced the mental prison that is perfectionism knows what a life-sucker it can be, yet it’s often minimized. We live in a society that tends to reinforce people for “having high standards,” so it’s sometimes hard to spot it before it’s spiraled. While there’s no clinical diagnosis of “perfectionism,” it often manifests with diagnoses like Generalized Anxiety, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), eating disorders and disordered eating, compulsive exercise, and even drug and alcohol addiction.

Where Perfectionism Comes From

Perfectionism is born from an illusion of control and a hunger for validation. All human beings want to be in control, and we all share that desire for validation. These are natural parts of being alive. However, perfectionists create made up formulas in their heads about what will give them that control and validation, and then try to follow those formulas in everyday life. When you follow these rules, you sometimes get results and feel pleased, but only until the next time you face a challenge. The validation is fickle, and it never feels like “enough.”

It’s also rooted in black-and-white thinking (or “all or nothing” thinking), which is a pattern of thinking in extremes (thoughts that contain words like “always” and “never”), fatalistic thoughts (“I always fail,” “I’ll never get the job I want”) and made-up rules (that we don’t always see at the conscious level). For me, one rule was “If I don’t get an A, it means I’m stupid.” For some people, it might be, “If I ever upset my boyfriend, he will break up with me.” These rules are rigid, and we develop them to try to feel some sense of control. They give us the false promise that if we just stick to these rules, we will be totally in control and have an amazing, perfect, easy, happy life.

To an extent, I think every human has some perfectionist tendencies, because it’s human nature to categorize our experiences as “good” or “bad.” We extend this categorization to everything: our eating habits, exercise routine, sleep schedule, job, marriage, kids, house, and social lives. We put them in one of two categories: “good enough” or “not good enough,” and when we deem them to be the latter, we go about trying to “improve” them.

Perfectionism Disguised as “High Standards”

It can be strange to think of being a perfectionist about other people’s performance, yet we do this all of the time. Some people extend their rules or “high standards” to others, and they get stuck on the places where other people fall short. It’s nitpicking at your partner and identifying all of the things that would make them the ideal partner “if only” they would change.

The problem is that nobody is perfect– not you, not your partner, not your friends, and not your boss. Having unrealistic standards will only set you up to feel disappointed and push people away.  You never feel satisfied for more than a fleeting moment, since life goes on and presents new challenges each day. You never reach a destination where you can rest.

The Problem With Perfectionism

When we are motivated by the desire to “feel good about ourselves,” that feeling of pride, accomplishment, or relief is always fleeting, since emotions never last forever. So it’s a losing battle all along. When we turn to certain “standards” (grades, work, money, eating choices, exercise, cleaning, etc.) to measure how “successful” we are being at life in a given moment, the hit of relief doesn’t last long. Over time, it can really detract from our quality of life.

When you stop tying your self-worth to some arbitrary standard, you get to figure out other, more meaningful ways to validate yourself.  Recognizing that what you’re chasing doesn’t exist is the vital first step in recovering from perfectionism.

Recovering From Perfectionism

By developing an acceptance practice, we can learn to identify that “inner critic” voice and dismiss it as a bully.  It takes practice to develop this type of self-awareness, and it’s often not a fun or easy process. It involves feeling like a total failure at times, and allowing that feeling to be there until it naturally subsides, without fighting it. The good news is there are steps you can start taking right now to engage in that process.

First, look at the purpose served by whatever thing you’re chasing. If it’s a job title, what’s so important to you about that job title? If it’s a weight or body size, what does your brain tells you it means for you to reach that weight or body size? Think critically about your answers, as they will inform you of two important things:

  1. Your VALUES (the things that matter to you, such as health, security, or intelligence)
  2. Your FEARS (the things you are trying to avoid, prevent, or decrease by striving for those goals, such as seeking a certain beauty standard to be perceived as desirable or seeking a certain job status to avoid feeling incompetent or inferior)

Next, identify the cost of these standards. What has it cost you to achieve perfect grades? Your sleep? Your social life? Was the outcome worth the sacrifice? When you consider what your efforts to achieve have taken you away from, you can gain perspective about whether it is worthwhile to continue putting your energy towards those things. You can also decide whether you’ll be happier at age 95 looking back on your life if you spend your time and energy on something different.

Remember that your ability to achieve certain standards or goals does not reflect anything about your worthiness as a human. You get to matter simply because you exist. Your values are what make you special and they are uniquely determined by you. Nobody else gets to decide what’s important to you or what it looks like to be the best version of you.

The values at your core make you tick, like your intense passion for a cause, your deep love for the people in your life, or your commitment to creative expression, loyalty, learning, or love. There is no “failing” at these values, because they are roads on a roadmap, not a destination you ever truly reach. You act upon your values in various ways each day, and the way you act upon them will often be messy and imperfect.

None of this is to say that effort is irrelevant. Working hard, being ambitious, and putting forth effort towards your goals are great habits to have and being able to motivate yourself to take action towards things that matter to you can certainly enhance your self-esteem. The balance comes from knowing that achieving a certain outcome is not the be-all, end-all to your happiness, worth, or life satisfaction. It’s being able to step back when you’re struggling, and ask yourself, “Why does this matter to me so much? Does it need to matter? What does it mean about me if I fall short of this goal?”

It’s okay to rest. You are already enough.

Do you struggle with perfectionistic tendencies? What gets in your way? Remember that you don’t have to face recovery alone. I am here to support and guide you along the journey.

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