Unpacking Perfectionism

As a recovering perfectionist myself, I remember equating perfectionism with being perfect, but the truth is, perfectionism isn’t really about being perfect, it’s about feeling perfect.

In hindsight, I realise that I spent many years confusing high achieving behaviour with perfectionism. You see, if you’re a high achiever, you’re a dedicated and determined individual with a strong desire and focus to accomplish whatever is important to you; once you achieve what you’ve set out to accomplish, you gain personal gratification from your success. You’re certainly not concerned with what other people will think of you and you’re sure as hell not afraid of failure.

If, on the other hand, you consider yourself a perfectionist, you’re more than likely driven by the desire to avoid failure. But here’s the thing that I discovered quite late in life: perfectionists aren’t really trying to be perfect. They try with all their power, to avoid the feeling of not being good enough and evading this feeling is what dictates much of this self-destructive behaviour and is what powers a negative belief that says: if I look perfect, have the perfect career, live a perfect life and do everything perfectly, I can control, avoid and/or minimise painful feelings of shame and unworthiness. So why would someone adopt perfectionist traits?

Where does Perfectionism come from?

To answer this, you need to take a step back into your past and reflect on the messages you received growing up. When you know how and where your perfectionist tendencies were formed, you can start to understand the ways you show up in the world today.

Right from the word go, you were judged and measured against a set of educational standards, starting from primary school exams all the way through to your degree classification. And have you noticed that there has been a constant raising of the bar? When I was at school, the highest mark you could achieve was an A, but then an even higher standard to aim for was established with the introduction of A*s. The educational system plays a key role in instilling a sense of failure or inadequacy if you don’t achieve great results, which then feeds the idea that you must be perfect to be acceptable.

If you then add ineffective parenting to the mix, you can start to see a clearer image of where perfectionism stems from.

If you grew up without feeling supported, safe or nurtured, it’s very likely that you developed perfectionist ways of thinking and being.  In many cases, perfectionism can also be a response to childhood expectations and/or trauma where appearing perfect becomes a compulsory strategy to emotionally survive, and vulnerability is a definite no no.

Maybe, as a child, you were told that what you were thinking or what you were doing or how you were behaving was wrong. Maybe you were shut down, told to be quiet or to stop crying when you experienced big feelings that you didn’t quite understand yet. Depending on how actualised your parents/caregivers were and because of their own personal issues, perhaps you were shamed for having a normal, human reaction to life or you were held to an impossibly high standard.

Maybe you tried to be perfect after your parents’ difficult divorce because you believed the separation was somehow your fault, so to diminish your feelings of guilt, you formed a belief that never making mistakes would somehow prevent future family disruptions. Or perhaps your sibling was the charismatic, sociable and funny one so you worked incredibly hard to gain attention and affection. Maybe you were constantly criticised, dismissed and invalidated by your parents, so you threw yourself into your schoolwork and obsessed with getting good grades to distract yourself from the sadness and feelings of unworthiness that comes from feeling judged.

Whatever the case may be, the habit of striving for perfection was initially triggered by an unsettling situation and provided relief from a painful emotion. Repeat this behaviour over a few decades and you have a fossilized habit of striving for perfection to ease any painful situation or experience, so it’s no wonder that perfectionism shows up in your adult life.

If this is you, then I invite you to show yourself compassion, to be kind to yourself and to know that your perfectionism is a protection mechanism you adopted as a kid to be able to survive the pain of being shamed or measured by impossibly high standards, which translated to you trying to be the best at everything and possibly entering a state of panic when you weren’t. Subconsciously you use perfectionism as an impenetrable shield so no arrow of criticism can get through.

Perfectionism and Low Self-Worth

Although it may have served well as a shielding mechanism when you were a child, perfectionism is exhausting, impossible, unsustainable and, driven by the fear of not being good enough, is detrimental to your sense of worth.

Do you believe that whatever you do is never good enough?

Do you feel inadequate or unacceptable unless you’re perfect?

Do you set yourself ridiculously high standards and judge yourself against them?

Are you super-critical and only focus on mistakes?

When you understand why you identify as a perfectionist and when you understand that it no longer serves you, you can invite the possibility of meeting life in a different way. You don’t need to set high standards for yourself only to experience strong feelings of shame and self-criticism when you don’t measure up.

Practical Steps to Overcome Perfectionism

  • Become aware of black or white, all or nothing thinking – there’s a wide tapestry of grey areas between 100% perfect and completely imperfect.
  • Focus on your successes and the positives in what you do – Allow yourself to enjoy your achievements.
  • Practice self-compassion whenever you give yourself a hard time because you think you’ve failed at something.
  • Be aware of the impact your perfectionism may have on others. Do you expect others to meet your impossibly high standards?
  • Pay attention to moments when you’re reluctant to delegate (at home and at work) because you feel you’re the only one who can get something done to your high standards. Not only does this put pressure on you to do everything, but it also makes people around you feel inadequate.

If you’re ready to move forward and discover new ways of being that gently raise your self-worth, I invite you to download my free PDF guide Powerful Tools and Practices to Boost your Self-Worth.’

How to Reframe Perfectionism

I could have done better ⬇️

I did my best and learned how to do better

I feel like a failure ⬇️

I am not defined by my achievements

I need to be good at everything I do ⬇️

I embrace getting out of my comfort zone

This needs to be perfect ⬇️

Done is better than perfect

I’m so overwhelmed I don’t know where to start ⬇️

What’s the very first step I can take?

I would love to hear your thoughts or any questions this topic has raised, so please leave a comment below.

With love,

This post is also available in audio format on iTunes and Spotify.

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