Over the years, I have met many people who use the excuse as the reason why they could not care for themselves and even could not put their health as priority, and that excuse was, “Well, I’m a perfectionist”. It is also the reason used for why they cannot make a change without actually seeing that this excuse might be the problem. According to Dr. Brené Brown it is a self-destructive and addictive beliefs system. She also said,
“Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement, and shame. It’s a shield. It’s a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from flight.” — Brené Brown, THE GIFTS OF IMPERFECTION
“Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval. Most perfectionists grew up being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule following, people pleasing, appearance, sports). Somewhere along the way, they adopted this dangerous and debilitating belief system: “I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect.” Healthy striving is self-focused: How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused: What will they think? Perfectionism is a hustle.” — Brené Brown, DARING GREATLY
It is a fear-based response. Perfectionism is just another coping strategy that is used to help us survive. But it ends upbeing maladaptive and harmful similar to using substances that get out of control which turns into addictions. There is a perception that it is how things get done but it can often mean the opposite. For example, you may not turn a paper in at school because you don’t feel it is good enough and end up getting a zero instead of maybe the A- you would have gotten. There is a reluctance to present anything or put anything out there that may not be perfect. This can be the source of stress, anxiety and depression. The bottom line is perfect is not an attainable goal and it can never be reached. When this unattainable goal is not reached, the self-critic shows up. It is a merry-go-round you can never get off of with constantly trying to be perfect while the self-critic clearly reminds you that you are not measuring up. Many people who are perfectionists often will accept flaws in others but can also put high demands on their children who can end up learning perfectionism as a coping strategy too. Maladaptive perfectionism has been linked to higher levels of depressive symptoms in college students according to studies.1
If I have convinced you that maybe being a perfectionist is a habit that should be broken, now what? What is needed to break this unhealthy habit is forgiveness and self-compassion. Why forgiveness? It is letting go of everything you have done and starting new. Forgive yourself for doing what you needed to do to survive and try something different. This is where self-compassion comes in. Self-compassion has three components (kindness, shared humanity and mindfulness). It is about accepting and even embracing our imperfections. It is changing our mindset from avoiding mistakes to understanding life is about learning through our mistakes. We can learn and becomes a better version of ourselves. It is understanding we are humans who are flawed just like everyone else, and it also teaches us to sit with our discomfort and uncomfortable emotions which is the mindful piece. It is recognizing our flaws, not about overlooking them or numbing our feelings. Kristin Neff who studies self-compassion and in her book “Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind” she states: “Try to feel compassion for how difficult it is to be an imperfect human being in this extremely competitive society of ours.” She also talks about how self-compassion is actually a greater motivator than self-criticism because it comes out of love not fear.
“Being human is not about being any one particular way; it is about being as life creates you—with your own particular strengths and weaknesses, gifts and challenges, quirks and oddities.” — Kristin Neff
To overcome perfectionism has many steps. You may want to explore where it is coming from, the root cause and address it. Again, we have these coping strategies that served a purpose in the past even if it no longer serves us.
It is important to start putting yourself out there. Sometimes good enough is enough. It is working on any cognitive distortions that may be playing in your head such as catastrophizing (jumping to worst case scenario) or overgeneralization (all or none thinking, like I never get it right). It is pushing the self-critic aside and using kindness. It is speaking to yourself with kindness like you would a friend. Maybe just doing some purposeful imperfections. Instead of avoiding doing an activity you are not good at, jumping in and doing it anyway. We sometimes refused to do a sport or participate in activities or hobbies we love because we aren’t that good at it. Just have fun with it. If you suck at volleyball but love it, then play it anyway. Just do it, it is okay to suck at something.
Take small steps and this is where mindfulness can help. Our awareness is the first step in making change whether it is noticing behaviors, or thought patterns then making an adjustment even if small. As I said before, developing a self-compassion practice has many benefits. You can go to Kristen Neff’s website at https://self-compassion.org/ for some wonderful practices and for a list of great books. You can get a self-compassion workbook and there are trainings you attend. You can attend a workshop or training on mindful self-compassion through the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion, https://centerformsc.org/all-cmsc-offerings/. There are additional resources there as well. You can work with a therapist to help take these steps. You can create change. With small steps, change starts to happen. Before you know it you will have left perfectionism in the dust, and embrace a happier life because you deserve that.
1 Patrick W. Harris, Carolyn M. Pepper, Danielle J. Maack, The relationship between maladaptive perfectionism and depressive symptoms: The mediating role of rumination, Personality and Individual Differences, Volume 44, Issue 1, January 2008, Pages 150-160.
• Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection.
• Brown, B (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.
• Kristen Neff (2011) Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind.
• Neff, K. (2011) Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself.
• Neff, K & Germer, C. (2018). The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook: A Proven Way to Accept Yourself, Build Inner Strength, and Thrive.
• Neff, K. (2021). Fierce Self-Compassion: How Women Can Harness Kindness to Speak Up, Claim Their Power, and Thrive.
photo by Leon Seierlein
Original Post July 25, 2021 on Karen Gentilman’s website Illumination Counseling Service.
Karen Gentilman is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) practicing in the State of Idaho, working for 30 years with many different medical conditions both acute and chronic conditions, the last 20 years in neurological rehabilitation including brain injury, strokes and spinal cord injuries. She takes a trauma-informed, integrated and holistic approach with utilizing multiple modalities which is individually based while striving to provide compassionate therapeutic environment. Call (208) 266-4642 or email KarenGentilman@IlluminationCounselingService.com to set up a FREE 15-minute consultation. Visit Karen Gentilman’s profile page.