Perfectionism is often viewed as a form of anxiety. Some make connections to procrastination (if I can’t do it perfectly I shouldn’t even bother), missing deadlines (I can’t turn this in until I’m sure that it’s just right), difficulty apologizing and being accountable (I must convince you I didn’t actually make a mistake), and restrictive behaviors (I must create the conditions to eliminate the potential for error, even if it harms me in the process).
The search for perfection in itself implies that there is a such a thing as perfect. When we say “I’m only human” or “that was human error” we acknowledge that by definition we are imperfect while also suggesting that being human is not enough.
From an attachment perspective, perfectionism can be a coping strategy to please and connect to caregivers with high expectations; we can feel this more broadly in the family culture (and lineage of profession or general exceptionalism) or a particular parent’s need to see their desires reflected in their children. It can also be a response to abuse and neglect- “if I could just be better then I will be safe and worthy of love.”
At the systems level, many of us (especially in the US) are socialized to believe that hard work and sacrifice is enough for you to achieve your “dreams” and that any failure to find the external markers of success is an individual failing. We are to believe that there is a right way to be, and that we are deficient if we don’t meet larger cultural standards.
Healing perfectionism can’t only be behavioral, or cognitive restructuring, because it is deeply relational.
It is developmental, it is subconscious, and at its core it is linked to our fundamental drives for survival, belonging, and worthiness (even though in many ways this is ultimately a false belief). Although I see this as a deep wounding that is especially common among survivors of trauma, I don’t know many people who are not touched by this type overwhelming pressure in some way. Social location isn’t a protector either, as perfectionism is by definition unachievable. No matter how hard you work, how much you’ve achieved, how successful you are or how many unearned advantages you have you are still unable to be “perfect.”
It requires a change in value system to dismantle perfectionism. One that values growth and expansion over avoiding mistakes. It requires loving yourself so deeply that’s it’s unconditional, that it’s unwavering even as we may make grave errors and fuck ups that can’t be easily fixed. It also means extending that outwards, allowing those you look up to and respect to make mistakes. To let them learn and grow, as you learn to hold your disappointment.
A part of challenging and untangling perfectionism is taking risks, socially and tangibly. In my personal experience, making mistakes runs in parallel with risk; when I am overly cautious I live a life of fewer mistakes. With fewer mistakes this healing is abstract and conceptual, it’s an idea that holds a set of old and new beliefs. With more risk, and more connection to intuition-led action, I make more “mistakes.” That’s where I start shining a light in the dark corners and feeling those connections to worthiness in my body. In those moments I test the limits of how self-compassionate I really am.
Developing a sense of worthiness that isn’t connected to achievement or being “good” is messy business. There so much harm involved in divorcing a person from intrinsic knowledge of their wholeness and humanity. Repairing that harm inevitable involves grieving and painful emotions. But how else can we return to ourselves and figure out who we really are and what our place is on this earth? I think a lot about this question: who would I be if I didn’t feel so much pressure to do everything right?
Some practices that can be helpful when endeavoring to heal perfectionism:
- Writing out your personal values system, being critical and curious about the values that you endorse and those handed down to you
- Connecting to the age/part of yourself that first remembers those messages of not being good enough and listening to those younger selves
- Practicing tolerance of other people’s mistakes
- Valuing learning and awareness over “getting it right”
- Engaging in messy and/or playful self care (Have you tried bringing some containers into the bathtub and remembered how fun it is to play in the water? Or painting your hands when you’re making art? Making snowballs and throwing them at the ground and smashing them?)
- Noticing when you have a question or comment and you don’t want to share because you think maybe it’s stupid or not interesting enough- and share it anyway
- Practice saying “I don’t know” when you don’t know something
- Admitting to mistakes even if no one notices, as an act of affirming that it’s ok to be wrong or screw up
- Setting boundaries with people you don’t feel safe around (rather than managing them by “being the better person” or trying to handle things perfectly)
- Being more curious, remembering the benefits of a beginner’s mind
What are the ways that you struggle with perfectionism?
How do you move through it? Where do you get stuck?