Perfectionism (noun): a belief that being perfect is possible and anything short of it is unacceptable; unrealistically high personal standards for self and overly critical self-evaluations; the need to be or appear to be perfect. See also: imposter syndrome, impossible expectations, and heartache.
Welcome to the club of recovering perfectionists. At one point or another, we have all felt this need to be perfect, to appear to the outside world as having it all together, knowing all the things, and executing it all flawlessly. Fast forward to the real world where none of that is attainable, here we are scraping and scrambling with all our might to achieve a perfect standard that we never will actually meet. There are a lot of reasons for feeling the need to be perfect. If you are growing up in a home where you have felt you weren’t given attention, time, praise, etc, unless you were seen as perfect or close to it, you might feel the pressure to be perfect. If you feel that your self-worth is rooted in actions and “hustling” for your worth, you might feel the burden of pushing and working and hustling just to feel good enough. Or maybe, you just feel the pressure to be perfect because you feel everyone around you already is, and you’re the only one left behind who is imperfect or who actually has to try (because, obviously, everyone else is already effortlessly perfect, right?!).
These are understandable reasons why we feel the need to be perfect, but let’s call it out right now and say a big fat “NO” to perfectionism. Because while perfectionism might feel like it’s rewarded with praise, positive attention, or recognition, the actual consequence of pursuing perfectionism is burnout, low self-esteem, racing thoughts, inability to calm or slow down, hopelessness, anxiety, and depression. And that’s just to name a few. So, if these are the consequence of perfectionism, don’t you want to break out of that system? Come along, and let’s talk about how we do this.
- Learn to call out perfectionism. In building awareness to a problem and giving it a name, we have more power over what we do with it. Ask yourself questions like: What standard am I trying to achieve? What is my motivation for this? Am I giving everyone else the benefit of the doubt but never myself? When you notice that you are sacrificing your own time, energy, and sanity to meet expectations, be curious as to why, and if you see it could be perfectionism, call out that ugly beast.
- Weigh the costs and the benefits. Unfortunately, other people profit from your perfectionism. Teachers give it high marks, parents shower praise, and social media idolizes it. These are short lived consolation prizes with only momentary payoff. Weigh out what you are sacrificing in order to have that tiny moment, and evaluate its worth to you. Spoiler: it isn’t worth it.
- Shift your perspective and challenge your thoughts. Changing from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset allows you to see your mistakes as opportunities instead of failures. It sounds silly, but even changing that little voice in your head can begin the shift. When it says, “You messed up, that’s a failure”, frame it instead as an opportunity: “Okay, that doesn’t feel great to me. What can I do next/instead/what words do I need to hear?” The thinking traps of black and white thinking or over generalizing are seductive traps but faulty at their heart. You don’t have time for that way of thinking anymore.
- Instead of putting your needs last, tend to yourself first and validate, validate, validate. When we take care of our needs first, it allows us to show up more authentically and productively to those around us. The lie we listen to in perfectionism is that we have to sacrifice in order to be okay. It’s just not true. What you need and deserve is validation from yourself that what you’re feeling is okay. Wanting to be perfect is trying to satisfy some kind of need. That’s okay, give yourself a hug and some validation and then think of what you might need in order to fill that need for yourself. It might be that you need more grace, or to cry it out, or even just some time.
These steps sound simple, but the execution can be hard. There are more steps than just these, but we have to start somewhere. Don’t you think that maybe, just maybe, you are done supporting a relationship with perfectionism? Breaking up with perfectionism can feel scary, because perfectionism is SO codependent with us. But in this case, the whole “it’s not you, it’s me” thing? Yeah, it’s definitely them, it’s definitely perfectionism. Cut those ties, because you deserve a whole lot more.
Alexa Bailey is a Licensed Master of Social Work (LMSW), who works in private practice providing therapeutic services at Evolve Counseling. She has experience treating several different populations and areas, including trauma, anxiety, depression, relational challenges, and life transitions with both young adults/adolescents and adults. Alexa is a big advocate of self-care and creating whole personal wellness through positive change and healthy habits.