“I’m a perfectionist” – In a culture obsessed with appearance, performance, and productivity, it’s almost inevitable to fall into the trap of perfectionism. Our society tells you the way to be happy is to achieve your goals; earn more money, have a good body, find a romantic partner, get married, have children, buy a house, buy a car, get promoted… Your to-do list may feel like it’s endless. Most of us probably have too much on our plates. When there is too much to do and too little time, slowing down may not even be an option.
Perfectionism affects people in different ways. Symptoms may be procrastination, anxiety, people-pleasing, self-criticism & depression. What we all have in common is that perfectionism can get in the way of living our lives to the fullest. If you are struggling with perfectionism, in addition to having the drive to achieve more and prove yourself, you may be setting impossibly high and often unrealistic expectations for yourself and sometimes for others. You may believe that you should never make mistakes or have flaws, and you may find loosening up or relaxing as extremely difficult or waste of time. People with perfectionist tendencies all say this: “I don’t know how to relax”.
On the other hand, healthy striving is a completely different concept than perfectionism. Healthy striving is more about setting realistic goals and expectations for yourself, treating yourself with kindness, building your frustration tolerance, and managing your day-to-day stress without feeling overwhelmed, or anxious.
Both perfectionism and healthy striving mindsets can motivate you to do your very best and accomplish your goals. However, while perfectionism is the belief that achievement determines self-worth, healthy striving is the belief that self-worth determines achievement. Another difference is the way these concepts affect how you feel about yourself. Let’s see how these mindsets have a dialogue with you when you make a mistake and when you accomplish a goal.
1. When you make a mistake:
Perfectionism: You beat yourself up for your mistakes
“I’m my biggest critique”, or “I’m being so hard on myself” are the two most common statements that you bring to the therapy room. If you are struggling with perfectionism, lowering your standards, or cutting yourself some slack may feel like an excuse or failure. How you react when you think you made a mistake or you’re falling short tells a lot about your perfectionist tendencies. Because perfectionism lacks self-compassion, it’s going to be very challenging for you to be gentle or understanding of your mistakes. In these situations, your perfectionist self asks you, “What’s wrong with you?”, or “How can you be this stupid?”, “You shouldn’t have done that”, “You wasted your time”. No matter what your inner dialogue looks like, the message you’ll hold onto will be the same: “I am not good enough”.
Healthy Striving: What did you learn from your mistake?
Healthy striving helps you to take a step back and focus on the present and future, rather than contemplating on your past mistakes. It encourages you to reframe your mistakes as learning experiences and directs your attention to possible solutions. It gives you hope that things can improve, and you can regain your control over your drive and motivation through being kind, accepting and understanding of your mistakes and flaws.
2. When you accomplish a goal:
Perfectionism: Okay, this is done. What’s next?
A “This is done, what’s next?” mentality is more harmful than helpful. In short-term, perfectionism may seem like it’s working out for you. If you don’t slow down, you’ll get a lot done in a short amount of time. But in long-term, you’ll be more likely to experience psychological symptoms like burnout, depression & anxiety, motivation loss, and more likely to experience physical symptoms like sleep issues, stress, and related disorders. Perfectionism doesn’t allow you to slow down and enjoy your accomplishments.
Healthy Striving: I’m proud of you. Before you focus on what’s next, let’s celebrate this accomplishment!
Healthy striving encourages you to slow down without feeling guilty or concerned about potentially wasting your time. It helps you to practice giving yourself credit for your accomplishments, celebrate, enjoy, and most importantly recognize your strengths and efforts. Celebration is a reminder of your self-worth. Consciously creating time and opportunities to celebrate your accomplishments will significantly improve your wellbeing. Celebration may include a treat or reward. The most important treat is self-praise. Telling yourself that “I’m proud of myself for taking a walk this morning” or “Good job for getting this done before the deadline” is rewarding. It’s up to you to include your loved ones in your celebrations such as going out for dinner to celebrate a promotion. But keep in mind that treat can be literally anything, such as listening to your favorite song after feeling accomplished.
Perfectionism may affect many areas of your life including professional accomplishments, parenting, physical appearance, sexual performance, academic performance, athletic abilities, etc. Identifying where you notice perfectionism the most in your life may be helpful before seeking therapy.
Perfectionism can show up in your thinking and behavior. I’m here to help you to switch your mindset and/or behaviors from perfectionism to healthy striving & to support you in this process. Please contact me to learn more.