It starts as early as we can remember. We make a mistake, we are corrected, and we strive to never make that mistake again. In that moment, a fictional destination is created: Perfection. As we grow and learn, we begin to subscribe to countless myths that suggest we must live perfectly. These myths often go unchallenged, and even unrealized. What if we were to take a moment to truly consider the longstanding implications of perfectionism? Were it even possible to attain perfection, what would we truly accomplish? What is the goal of reaching a perfect state?
In her book “The Gifts of Imperfection”, Dr. Brene Brown reminds us that “perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth.” Rather, perfectionism falsely guarantees us that – with it – we can essentially be safe from pain. Brown shares: “Perfectionism is 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 taking flight.” Perfectionism, when untamed, can impede productivity, tamper with our self-image, unsteady our relationships and prevent us from enjoying a full life.
Tips on Taming Our Perfectionism
[Tip One] Practice Awareness: Those who struggle with perfectionism often avoid finishing tasks for fear of falling short of the ideal. Along the way, one can become frustrated with his imperfect work. Ironically, obsessing over perfect work competes with actually working! Therefore, one can start with an awareness of perfectionism when it begins to overtake. Once we are aware of it, it can help to remember that the perfect goal is merely a motivator, not a reality. And in the even grander scheme, whatever we do or produce can be seen as a single step in our learning; it is always there for revision and further development!
[Tip Two] Practice Forgiveness and Self-acceptance: Imagine one who constantly measures herself to perfect standards. What happens to her self-esteem or self-image? Like chasing the horizon, the fruitless pursuit of perfection can quickly deplete morale and self-efficacy. Therefore, it is crucial to guard ourselves by practicing forgiveness of imperfections, and eventually accepting our imperfections as gifts. Each mistake or shortcoming is an opportunity for growth, learning, and self-acceptance.
[Tip Three] Practice Vulnerability: Being in relationship with a perfectionist guarantees a struggle with high expectations. We can start by asking ourselves: Do we expect perfection from ourselves in relationships to receive love? Do we expect perfection from others in order to give love? The implicit message we often learn from a young age is: If we are imperfect, we will lose love and acceptance. At our core, perfectionism is a place where we are loved and accepted conditionally – rather than for simply being. It is a belief that our worthiness lies in what we are able to do rather than an inborn sense of self-worth. True intimacy comes when we find we have fallen short and still are still loved. It is in these moments that we are awakened to the freeing power of love, freeing us to be ourselves and to love others no matter what. As we all know, it does not take any effort to love perfection. So consider being more of an explorer; explore vulnerability in relationships and patience with any known imperfections.
[Tip Four] Practice Enjoyment! All too often, we allow our ideas or practices to grow into more than we intended. For instance, we allow dieting and exercise to begin to consume us. Rather, we can simply enjoy the practice of a healthy lifestyle while allowing occasional extravagant treats or lazy days. Creating room for our humanity amidst striving to be better is the mark of a beautifully balanced life. And for those of us who struggle with perfectionism, we can simply choose to enjoy our competence, our tenacity, and our drive for greatness – without letting it consume us. We can appreciate perfectionism for what it is, and not allow it to grow beyond where we can still enjoy it.
Perfectionism, by its very nature, demands that we fit into a mold. However, if each of us are unique beings, then we each have a mold of our own, unlike anyone else. As we grow into the fullest versions of ourselves, it will help to practice self-compassion, a sense of humor, honest vulnerability, and fearlessness in our journey. When we can embrace our imperfections, we are becoming more authentic versions of ourselves – and becoming perfectly us.
Check out Celestine Chua’s indicators to help us spot if we, ourselves, struggle with perfectionism. Enjoy the journey!
M.A., LMFT-Associate, LPC-Intern
Supervised by Dr. Amy Fuller, LMFT-S, LPC-S