As a recovering perfectionist, I am very cognizant of my easy slide into old habits. You’ll notice I didn’t say recovered perfectionist, as I think it’s an ongoing area for growth and that most of us have at least a slight natural tendency toward it.
The problem with perfectionism is that it doesn’t really exist, so it’s a never-ending struggle that results in frustration, self-reprimand, stress and procrastination. It also frequently leads to depression and eating disorders. We are not perfect, nor is anything that we do. It’s not achievable.
So why do so many of us struggle with this trait? I think it’s important to note that we all want to do our best and it’s sometimes a fine line between trying to do that and aiming for perfection. But more importantly, perfectionism itself is an unhealthy trait that typically derives from past traumatic experiences.
For example, it is not uncommon for children who suffered abuse to migrate toward perfectionist tendencies. Some of these are based in literal experiences, such as being expected to do something “perfectly” as a child with the threat of emotional or physical consequence when failure occurred. I had a wicked stepfather until I was 13 and one of my daily dreads was to make my bed according to very strict standards. Corners tight, absolutely no wrinkles in any of the bedding and pillows horizontally aligned. When I could achieve this illusion of perfection (there had to be wrinkles in there somewhere!), there were no ramifications. When I did not, however, there were harsh consequences. So as a child, it’s obvious now how my brain received this message – do things perfectly and no harm will come.
Children’s brains are so resilient in some ways, but so fragile in others. Even if you suffered no abuse, it could take something as slight as a raised eyebrow by a parent to plant the seed of perfectionism in the child. Now before we proceed, I want to be clear that I’m not blaming your parents. I’m not even blaming my stepfather. I’m simply pointing out that if we stop automatically reacting to current life events based on misinterpretations from our past, we can perhaps overcome these perfectionist tendencies.
There is a strong relationship between perfectionism and control as well. This again frequently comes from childhood, where if we felt out of control about a circumstance or situation, we found and latched on to areas we could control. I believe this is why perfectionism can result in eating disorders which are based in misguided self-control efforts.
This topic popped up for me this week from several unrelated activities. I’m in the midst of developing a leadership workshop around inter-generational communications because of all of the differences between Baby Boomers and Millennials, and soon to come, Gen Zers in the workplace, which is really fascinating. But I also came across an article in Psychology Today about how perfectionism is on the rise, in part due to the pervasive presence of social media. Of course, Millennials and Gen Zers are the social media drivers, but they are also the biggest sufferers when it comes to witnessing everyone else’s “perfect” life on social media, so it makes perfect (pun intended) sense that this trait would be increasing.
On a separate track, I had two different people ask me similar questions last week about why I wasn’t afraid to jump into new things. One was referring to my career change from being an accountant to a transformation coach and the other was about a podcast I recently launched. On both topics, my perfectionist tendencies almost prevented me from making these leaps and I think are good examples of just how life-limiting perfectionism can be.
I did make a big career change, but I wasn’t fearless. I procrastinated for probably three years because I was absolutely afraid that if I did it before I was ready (i.e., perfect at it), I would fail or at least look really stupid. I had to overcome my perfectionism in order to make that career change. I had to force myself to do something that I was not perfect at in order to become good at it. I know that sounds ridiculous, as how can we gain a skill or learn anything new if the rule is that we have to be perfect at something before we do it! But that’s the core of the problem with perfectionism. It freezes us into place, wanting something different but too afraid to be seen as less than perfect.
With the podcast, I didn’t procrastinate because I was much further along my road to recovery by the time I started this, but knowing that the first 5 or 10 episodes would have quite a few mistakes made my stomach turn. Anyone in the world could listen and find fault as I learned a new craft. That’s a perfectionist’s nightmare! And due to the pervasiveness of social media now, they have the ability to share their criticism with me. Another potential nightmare. But the choice was clear. I could spend months or years learning how to use audio editing software, trying to get my voice perfect (which by the way, includes not breathing or swallowing while recording), plotting out a year’s worth of topics in advance so that I wouldn’t have to feel pressure each week, and finding the perfect audio equipment from which to record. If I had gone that route, there would still be no podcast. I will become an expert at it, over time, as I figure things out each week. But for now, the focus is on the message, with the knowledge that slicker production and better quality will come with time.
Another important point about perfectionism is that it is not only the perfectionist that suffers. Those close by will be affected in some way. There are basically three realms of perfectionism: self-oriented, other-oriented and socially-prescribed. We’re either imposing unrealistic standards of perfectionism on ourselves, someone else or society at large. That means we’re probably not just making ourselves miserable, but spreading the misery to others and strengthening a negative mindset about the state of the world as society does not live up to our expectations.
What’s the payoff for this destructive behavior? In addition to making those around miserable, creating stress or drama where none need exist, and if we work, wreaking havoc with productivity, the grand payoff is nothing more than an illusion of perfectionism and/or control. That’s it. And it’s not real. So, if you recognize that you might have a perfection problem, start working on it. Leave the house a little messy and explore your feelings. Try something new where you look really silly and notice that the world continues to spin. As you flip through social media postings, remember that anyone can look perfect in a snapshot or 30 second video clip, but that doesn’t mean their entire life looks like that. And the snapshot can be a total illusion. Do a good job on a project or task and let it go, even if you’ve judged it as imperfect. If you find yourself fretting over the consequences of someone else not thinking you’re perfect, ask yourself where those thoughts and feelings are coming from. No one or thing is perfect, period.
If you can’t start with yourself, start with others. Notice if you’re holding someone to an exceptionally high standard and then judging when they don’t meet it. Give them a break. Then explore how you feel about it. The more you reflect on your feelings around each incident, the more you break apart the rigidity of perfectionism and its hold on you. If you find you’re really stuck, get help. Traditional or alternative therapies may be just the boost you need to get started. There are also several good books available that you could read, including Brene’ Brown’s, The Gifts of Imperfection, and there are thousands of videos online if you don’t want to read. But take a step. You’ll be glad you did, later, when you’re further down the road to recovery and recognize how much more enjoyable life is when you let go of all of the unrealistic expectations you’ve been carrying.
Mindfulness is also a powerful tool for overcoming perfectionism. Interestingly, a lot of people resist mindfulness and meditation because they don’t think they do it well. But mindfulness is not about perfection. The concept of mindfulness often brings up images of relaxation, stillness or acting in some blissful, staid manner. There is a widely held assumption that being mindful means you’re always calm and in control. This notion that mindfulness imparts some unrealistic state of human perfection misses the point. Not only does it not equal perfection, it encourages quite the opposite view of our lives. As much as we’d like to think we can be cheerful and understanding about screaming kids, a flat tire, gridlock traffic or a grouchy boss, the fact is, we’ll at least be annoyed.
Most anywhere in life, being mindful starts in part with accepting the fact that we cannot be fully mindful in the first place. Our brains aren’t wired that way and it takes a lot of practice to shift our neural pathways. Life itself is unendingly unpredictable and imperfection is the norm. It’s how we live with these facts that influences our moment-to-moment well-being and that’s why we practice mindfulness.
Mindfulness also does not mean “I’m perfect just the way I am.” Or that life is “all good.” All of us could use some improvement, and sometimes, life isn’t particularly good. But when we recognize that we’re lost once again in feeling we “should” be perfect at being mindful, or anything else, we practice letting that thought go, and get back to doing our best without the extra layers of exhausting self-judgment.
Practicing mindfulness, we can surf the never-ending waves of change and challenge that comprise real life, aiming to improve while not judging ourselves for feeling the need to improve. We can readjust and try again both in mindfulness practice and in the rest of life.
Ultimately, mindfulness can help us live with and love our imperfect lives.
Have a mindful week,
For the podcast version of this post, LISTEN HERE.