“Do you want to meet the love of your life? Look in the mirror” – Byron Katie
The Act of Perfection
When I began thinking of writing a post on perfectionism I asked myself, what is the first word that comes to your mind? I instantly came up with exhausting. I identify as what author Brene Brown calls a recovering perfectionist, and have spent many years working on overcoming my perfectionistic tendencies. I have also spent a a great deal of time working with others just like me. Working on letting go of perfection, and facing head on the fears that accompany it, has been one of the most meaningful choices I have made in my life. It certainly is not something that is one and done, but rather a daily practice that is rarely…wait for it…perfect. Is letting go of perfectionism something you’ve been wanting to work on? Then keep reading.
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First things first, how do we define perfectionism? Well, I consider it to be a way of life or a perspective that is heavily (or entirely) focused on outward appearances, fitting in and appeasing external standards and expectations. And it is all done at the risk of our own authenticity and well being. It’s kind of like wearing a mask, or several masks, all the time. And under no circumstance can anyone know what is behind the mask, because the fear of judgement, rejection or confirmation that we are inadequate is far too great. And so life somewhat resembles a theatrical production, a show that always “must go on”. But while chasing outward appearances and approval, what we are in fact doing is running away and avoiding feelings of guilt, shame and inadequacy. And the longer we wear the masks to hide these feelings, the harder it is to get away from them.
Perfectionism is connected to, and is a strong expression of, the belief that I am not enough, which is a false belief that we have internalized somewhere along the way. This could be from messages we received from parents, teachers, peers, social media, etc. And by acting in “perfect” ways we attempt to show others that we have worth and value, even though we don’t believe it ourselves. This can be through appearance (I have to look perfect), personality (I have to act perfect) or achievement (I have to be the best, all the time). Anything other than these benchmarks are a sign that not only have we failed, but that we ARE a failure.
I would like to point out that perfectionism is not black and white. We typically all fall somewhere along the perfectionism spectrum, and research has shown that there is indeed a healthy level of perfectionism that is of benefit to us. The destructive level of perfectionism I’m referring to, and which I lived with for many years, is not the same as a healthy sense of wanting to be at our best or a genuine desire to grow as a person. The reality is that perfectionists hold themselves back by missing out on taking chances, trying new things and discovering who they really are. Perfectionism rarely leads to life satisfaction. More often than not it leads to further shame and judgement, because we can never truly reach that completely perfect status.
Perfectionism Dissolves Joy and Compassion (For Yourself and Other People)
Because the focus of a perfectionist is on being accepted, approved of and fitting in, and not on a genuine sense of belonging or connection to the people around them, feeling safe and secure in life isn’t an option. A perfectionist always has to be “on” and aware of who their audience is all all times. This is really self destructive because “perfection” is an abstract concept. This means it doesn’t actually exist. But as long as we have the belief that it does we will become increasingly harder on ourselves for never achieving it. As this cycle continues, we miss out on so many opportunities to love and accept ourselves for who we are, to appreciate and show gratitude to the people and places around us and to genuinely strive to become our best selves. It’s not a coincidence that perfectionists often struggle with the question, “who am I?”
Perfectionism in the Long Run
Feeling shame simply for being you is a really tough and uncomfortable place to be in, and it can strongly fuel efforts of wanting to appear in better shape than we feel. The rule of thumb becomes if I look/act/appear perfect then I will be happy. But, in fact, the opposite is true. Only when we feel happy and at peace on the inside do our external circumstances and relationships begin to improve on a genuine level. The further we look outside of ourselves to be happy, the less happy we become. This is why perfectionism has been linked to depression, anxiety, addiction, eating disorders and other major life struggles. In a more general sense, perfectionism leads to missed opportunities to put our unique talents and qualities out into the world, because we are afraid and embarrassed. We miss out on the chance to grow.
What Happens When You Let Go of Perfectionism
There are several huge shifts that take place when someone begins the journey of releasing their perfectionistic ways, including:
- You arrive at the opportunity to discover who you truly are and what makes you authentically happy in life, instead of always trying to figure out what other people want from you.
- You stop blaming yourself for EVERYTHING. Just imagine how much time that frees up in your mind and in your life.
- You see the world from a different perspective. Not everyone is looking at you all the time. What a relief that is! You now have the opportunity to experience and explore what life has to offer you, instead of the other way around.
- You begin to love yourself
Taking the First Step
Make a Choice
Every step towards growth and healing starts with a choice. You may roll your eyes at the screen when you read this, but just hear me out. The reality is that the very first (and arguably most important) step is to simply make a different choice for yourself and your life. Don’t want to live your life as a facade anymore? Then choose not to. Say the following affirmation out loud and write it down. Look at it and say it out loud every day (in the mirror is best).
I choose to release my pattern of perfectionism. Today and always, I am whole and perfect. I approve of and accept myself.
Claim Your Shame
This can be an extremely freeing exercise and one that I encourage you to try out regularly. This is the part where you own your stuff. What is it that you feel embarrassed or ashamed for? Guilty about? What is it that you feel isn’t good enough or that you think needs to be hidden from the world? Ownership must come before acceptance. For us to love and accept our whole selves we first have to shine a light on what we deem to be “flawed”.
Once you’ve explored these questions you get to make another choice; to view these parts of yourself as completely acceptable. When you were born you had no concern about your “flaws”, you loved yourself through and through. This struggle came later, when outside influences lead you to belief that there was something about yourself to be ashamed of. But who the heck are “they” anyways? Go back to choosing to love every inch of yourself.
I said it before, and I’ll say it again; perfection is an abstract concept that does not exist in reality. You cannot be perfect because perfection is an illusion. Stop striving for an illusion. Strive to be the best that you can be, and love yourself every day for doing so. Also, notice others’ attempts at perfectionism. If you see someone who presents themselves as having everything together at all times, kindly recognize the effort it must take to keep that up and send some compassion and empathy their way. Because you know how that feels.
Steps to Keep Going
If perfectionism is directly linked to shame and guilt, then recovery from perfectionism is linked to self compassion, self acceptance and empathy.
Strengthen inner resilience against old patterns of thinking
Notice moments of perfectionism. What triggers it? How do you know you are getting sucked into a perfectionism hole? Keep reaffirming new beliefs about yourself and your worth, and take imperfect action whenever you can.
Practice self compassion, self acceptance and empathy regularly
Self compassion has 3 elements to it; self kindness, common humanity and mindfulness. Click here to take the self compassion scale, design by Dr. Kristen Neff, and see what areas you are strong in, and where you could give a little extra love and attention.
I’ve also got a worksheet for you to print off and complete. Answering these questions will help you explore further your own perfectionism, what’s underneath and how you can work to change this condition.
What helps you stay grounded and true to yourself when perfectionism creeps up?
And if this is an area that you continually struggle with then please do not hesitate to contact me to let me know how else I can support your journey.