I used to struggle to start writing. I used to sit there and think about perfecting every line, thought, or idea. The truth of the matter is that as long as I tried to write that perfect line, sentence, or paragraph, I was pretty much sitting in front of blank pages for most of my day, frustrated that nothing good is being written, feeling that I am not making enough progress and fearing that no article or book is actually going to be written.
That’s the problem with perfectionism — we focus on what’s missing or broken and can’t make progress.
Striving to be your best is wonderful. The problem with perfectionism is that like anything else taken to the extreme, it is harmful. Very harmful.
The pressure to become better has turned into an epidemic. The World Health Organization links severe anxiety disorders to the unrealistic standards we hold for ourselves.
Perfectionism does not lead to being happier or more successful. Perfectionism leads to frustration, anxiety, and disappointment.
Perfectionism Is Anything but Perfect
Perfectionism is an extreme form of self-abuse. It leads to overthinking and action paralysis, because if it is not perfect, what is the point? Perfectionists tend to overburden themselves. They find it difficult to delegate, even if that means neglecting their health, relationships, and well-being because they are on a mission to get the perfect outcome.
Do not mix perfectionism with setting high standards. Setting high personal standards and working hard toward them is a good thing. However, there’s a dark side to always aiming high — perfectionism is setting goals that are almost impossible, then getting frustrated when you are not able to reach them in a way that you deem as acceptable by these imaginary standards.
The anxiety and negativity that perfectionism brings with it can get overwhelming, but there is no reasoning with a perfectionist. That’s why therapists and coaches know that asking people to lower their bar is pointless — they will ignore their advice. If you want to defeat perfectionism, you must understand and address the issues behind this increasing obsession.
Maria Shriver said- “Perfectionism doesn’t make you feel perfect; it makes you feel inadequate.” How true!
A study called “Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time” found that young people today are more burdened than ever. Unhealthy perfectionism has surged, leading to eating disorders, depression, high blood pressure and thoughts of suicide. This is caused by a mix of excessively high personal standards (“I have to excel at everything I do”) and intense self-criticism (“I’m a complete failure if I don’t get that GPA or that score”).
The pressure to appear flawless is driven by the fear of failure, but also by our desire to be loved and admired.
Our need to please others has reached a new high too. Society today holds perfectionists up on a pedestal as role models more than ever before. Social media has become a space to pursue and achieve perfection — the more likes you get, the closer you are to feeling perfect.
Increasingly, young people hold irrational standards for themselves — they create unrealistic expectations for their academic and professional achievements, looks, and possessions. They have bought into the modern myth that their lives, including themselves, should be perfect.
Perfectionism is a growing epidemic. Studies among Noth American teens show that 3 in 10 exhibits some sort of unhealthy perfectionism. It is also life-endangering — those with higher scores on perfectionism are more likely to die younger.
Perfection is an impossible goal — you only set yourself up for failure and suffering. That’s the paradox of perfectionism. The more you try to win someone else’s validation, the worse you become.
Experts have found that perfectionism is more than an attitude or excess attention to detail — it has become a way of life that creates and amplifies mental issues. It’s a clear signal that we have a problematic relationship with ourselves.
The Three Types of Perfectionists
Self-oriented perfectionists adhere to strict standards while maintaining strong motivation to achieve perfection and avoid failure — they engage in harsh self-assessment.
Other-oriented perfectionists set unrealistic standards for others like partners, friends, or co-workers — they are very rigid when it comes to evaluating how others perform.
Socially-prescribed perfectionists believe that others hold unrealistic expectations for them — they can’t live up to external pressure and (perceived) harsh criticism.
The latter is growing at twice the rate of the other two, according to the study by Thomas Curran and Andrew P. Hill. Even worse, it’s the one most associated with anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts- they let others define their lifestyle.
Rethink Your Relationship with Yourself
We must rethink our relationship with ourselves (especially accepting that we are not flawless). It’s harder to get things done when we have zero tolerance for mistakes — people are more likely to procrastinate since they can’t screw up what they haven’t yet started.
Overcoming perfectionism requires reframing our relationship with life, others, and ourselves. Rather than seeking for perfection, we must find meaning and joy in the precious things that we DO have.
By focusing on what’s missing, we can’t appreciate what we already have.
Three steps you can take to move away from perfectionism
Perfectionism is not a rational emotion, and as such, it cannot be argued or reasoned with. Studies have shown that perfectionists are at a higher risk of several illnesses, both physical and mental and that self-compassion might free us from its grip. Therefore, perfectionism and self-compassion are very much linked.
Here are three steps that you can follow in order to pursue perfectionism less and love yourself more:
Step one, acknowledge that it’s bad for you; beating yourself up over every little error gradually chips away at your sense of self-worth and makes you less happy. You deserve better than this.
Step two– pledge to resist the temptation to beat yourself up for the sake of beating yourself up. When you’ve spent years cultivating this inner bully, you develop an unconscious reflex to put yourself down for every minor thing, no matter how ridiculous or absurd. It is a bad habit of the mind. Every time you start beating yourself up, tell yourself: “I am done beating myself up. How can I treat myself with love?”
Third Step, as part of that self-love, learns to be attentive to your own needs.
Ask yourself this simple question: “What do I need?”. In perfectionism, you focus on the unattainable perfect goal at the expense of your own mental and physical health. I want you to shift from focusing on the unattainable perfect goal of focusing on self-care: what do you need? Rest? Healthy food? A break? Company? A hug? A day off?
The challenge- self-love. The tool- be kind to yourself in at least one way every day. Your happiness is in your mind and your hands.
This article was originally published by Dr. Michelle Rozen September 16, 2019.