The following is a definition of perfectionism: Perfectionism is characterized by a person's striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high performance standards, accompanied by overly critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others' evaluations.
Hmmm, sounds like the ‘perfect’ formula for disappointment, unhappiness and a lot of stress due to never being good enough and needing others’ approval. So why do people value perfectionism so much? There’s a stigma that it makes us work harder, pushes us and, you know, never let’s us settle. Sure that might be true in some respects but I would argue that there are far more negative side affects of perfectionism than there are positives. Even when people aim for perfection (which is truly impossible to attain), they find that push towards those incredibly high standard leads to never being satisfied and a high amount of discontentment and disappointment. Part of the reason is that perfection leads us to believe that if we are perfect and we reach perfection (again, not possible) then we will be happy. So we strive and strive only to be left unhappy and blaming ourselves. Then we try to be more perfect which then leads to shame, judgment….. you get the picture. Some of the attributes that create success and happiness include vulnerability, self-compassion, acceptance and love; opposite of what comes with striving for perfection.
As the definition stated, perfectionism creates a lot of critical self-talk. It becomes hard to connect to others when you’re constantly criticizing and downing yourself. Not only are YOU not good enough, but in your mind NO ONE else is either! The standards of perfectionists keep them isolated and disconnected. For the perfectionist, there is no room for vulnerability because perfectionists don’t want others to see their weaknesses. The truth is, being vulnerable is strength! It allows us to connect to others and learn about ourselves. It’s how we grow and truly experience happiness in relationships. Sharing our imperfectness is how we connect and relate to each other.
When people come to therapy because of the many detriments of perfectionism they usually come in stressed, unhappy, anxious, isolated and struggling in relationships. According to the great researcher of shame and vulnerability, Brene Brown, part of the work to overcome perfectionism is to learn how to acknowledge our vulnerabilities without shame, judgment, and blame. Through the process of recovery from perfectionism we develop shame resilience and are able to practice self-compassion.
It’s not to say that we can’t push ourselves and have high standards and goals. There’s a very big difference between healthy striving and perfectionism. As Brown puts it, “healthy striving is when you’re striving to be better for yourself and for positive reasons, not to avoid shame, blame, and judgment.” The true work of a perfectionist is not to work harder, not to be more discipline, or to be more perfect but quite the opposite. The true work is to allow oneself to make mistakes, learn, grow, be vulnerable, have self-compassion, to “be human” as I like to say, have positive self talk, work with ourselves instead of against ourselves and most importantly enjoy the journey as opposed to focusing on the destination. When we strive to be our best selves rather than to be perfect; the journey becomes a lot more fun and a lot more rewarding; it’s perfectly imperfect.
Courtney Pastner is a registered Marriage and Family Therapist intern at Coral Gables Counseling Center. She received her masters from the University of Nevada in Counseling and Educational Psychology with an emphasis in Sports Psychology. Courtney specializes in helping children, adolescents and adults overcome the deeper struggles that create challenges and obstacles in their lives such as anxiety, lack of confidence, relationship issues, perfectionism and fear of failure, to name a few. Courtney helps her clients develop a new set of tools, knowledge, and understanding to be able to cope with adversity and have a healthy and happy life. To set up an appointment, Courtney can be reached by cell at 281-799-0566 or through the center at 305-445-0477. Feel free to email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.