“I’m a perfectionist.” You’ve heard it before, almost stated proudly, a humblebrag for being successful, or detail oriented, or having high standards. In fact, perfectionism is actually none of these things (although perfectionists can certainly have these qualities).
It’s far more of a mouthful to say what perfectionism really is. I have come to understand that perfectionism is a sense of self-worth that yo-yos up and down depending on your latest achievement. If you’re wondering if you’re a perfectionist, ask yourself what it would be like for you if you were to not perform/look/achieve according to one of your unrelenting standards? What fear about yourself – that you’re not good/smart/competent/attractive enough might be “discovered” if you were to flounder? Perfectionists live in fear that they are one mis-step away from others finding out that they are not actually as smart, effortlessly competent, attractive, or impressive as they seem to be. So there is an incredible amount of investment into nailing it. Whatever “it” is really varies – academics, parenting, work, outward appearance. Often, one might stack all their perfect eggs in one basket, and focus on one particular area, rather than require perfection all over (for example, a workaholic who is flexible about their appearance).
Consider that one of the litmus tests of perfectionism is how one reacts when the object of their pursuit goes sideways. It’s discouraging for anyone when we fall below our own personal standards, but perfectionists experience it as a serious blow and engage in some corrosive self-loathing. They might then overcompensate for this perceived defeat by working unsustainably long hours to reverse the course. No wonder perfectionists suffer from burnout so often!
Let’s not confuse this with what psychology researcher and perfectionism expert Dr. Brené Brown refers to as “healthy striving.” With perfectionism, the pursuit of greatness comes at a great cost – long hours of preparation, an intense focus on the external goal, often neglecting self-care essentials (like sleep) and quality relationships. With healthy striving, our goals may indeed be lofty, but there is more flexibility and more balance in our process. We work hard, but know when to give ourselves a break. When we are disappointed with our outcome, we don’t relentlessly beat ourselves up over it. Healthy strivers tend to bounce back from defeat more easily.
So, how does one go from being a perfectionist to a recovering perfectionist? We must wonder about, and come to understand, the layers inherent in this rigid way of being in the world. When did we develop this personal narrative that demanded us to prove ourselves? What (or who) made it seem so important that we be this airtight and impressive? Most importantly, we must cultivate a completely different attitude towards our self; specifically, we may need to overhaul our notions of what makes us valuable and loveable. Compassion, patience, and self-validation are the only viable replacements for shame and self-judgment.
Here’s the clincher: to wriggle free from the clutches of perfectionism, we need to actually do the opposite of what perfectionism wants us to do. We need to practise imperfection. I love to prescribe homework on being mediocre to my perfectionist clients (my perfectionist readers are probably cringing by now). Of course, we can still give ourselves permission to knock ourselves out and be a rock star when the occasion calls for it, but perfectionists struggle far more with knowing when to dial it down and give themselves a pass. Practice makes perfect (ha)!
As for me, I am going to lay this imperfect blog post to rest by clicking the PUBLISH button now, rather than condemning myself to a few more hours worth of obsessive editing!