How Perfectionism Holds Us BackJan 19, 2022
I spent the first two and a half decades of my life trying to be perfect. Thinking that if I did, that's when I would be loved and accepted and valuable. So when my yoga teacher said in one of our classes five years ago, "we have to let go of perfect, to be good," they were words I would never forget. As a recovering perfectionist, the impact of that statement really hit home.
For way too long, perfect has seemed like the ultimate goal. All of my choices were driven by this need to prove myself to everyone else.
I had to have the perfect body
Be the perfect girlfriend
The perfect daughter
Work 60 hours/week
Workout every day
Never eat carbs
Never left the house without makeup
Never let me rest - I had to be productive!
And if someone so much as gave me constructive feedback, I would pick myself apart and let it linger in the back of my mind that something was wrong with me deep down. If I didn't meet everyone else's expectations, I wasn't worthy.
Through my education to become a coach, my own self-work, and my work with hundreds of clients, I know that much of my life experience has taught me that striving for perfection only gets in the way of allowing ourselves to be good. Perfectionism holds us back from enjoying and succeeding in life.
So how is this holding me back, you might be wondering?
- Perfectionism keeps us from trying new things. For perfectionists, there is this notion that "if I don't master it right away, I won't like it, so I might as well not even try it." Not trying new things means we miss out on so much, including some of life's most enjoyable experiences - and potentially missing out on things we could get really good at - or even something we're really awful at that we might really enjoy regardless. This held me back from taking up tennis or even applying to become a Pilates instructor for so long!
- Along these same lines, perfectionism keeps us from experiencing failure. When we never try new activities, hobbies, or jobs, we never struggle or fail. Now you might be thinking, why would I ever want to struggle or fail? It's a really important part of life. It helps us to build character and resilience. So avoiding failure keeps us from building character. We might feel like we experience enough challenges in our lives while avoiding failure but not experiencing failure is different from not experiencing challenges. Perfectionists are really good at overcoming challenges that are still in their area of skill - and know how to avoid them to their own cost. When we don't experience the small failures in life, we won't have any idea what to do when the bigger ones inevitably happen down the road.
- Perfectionism keeps us in a shame spiral of not being enough - this was me until I finally changed the way I thought. It keeps us relying on the approval of others to give us our worth. The problem with that is that a real sense of worthiness or enoughness can never come from outside of yourself. When we can't decide for ourselves whether we've done enough or if we are enough, we look to others to tell us that in various forms. We are essentially putting our self-worth into the hands of others. Like I said about the feedback above, when I used to get positive feedback, it only lasted so long and when it fades, we are back at square one, striving for that approval or looking to be told we're good enough. And when we get negative feedback, we let it mean something about who we are as people.
- Procrastination is a perfectionist's best friend - the same notion that keeps us from trying new things and avoiding failure is actually the same reason that perfectionists are often procrastinators. It's the exact reason I thought about starting wellness by Kelley for years but kept putting it off. We put off starting something new (a project, a paper, a career change) out of an internal (subconscious) fear of not doing well. Then at the last minute, the procrastinator takes action. This gives us an out.. like, oh well, I only had a little bit of time to do it, so if it's not perfect or I don't succeed, there's an excuse. Usually, though, perfectionists pull off the last-minute protects and it just reinforces the procrastinating pattern. While it might sound like a good thing to be able to get things done last minute, it actually fuels anxiety and creates poor health because it fuels overwhelm.
- Perfectionism feeds people pleasing - because perfectionists care so much about what others think, we set unattainable standards for ourselves and never say no to anything. This need to make everyone else happy before we can settle or relax leads to severe anxiety and other adverse health outcomes. People pleasing can feel like it's all about taking care of others, but deep down, it's actually a self-protective mechanism we develop to try to control how we're perceived.
Usually, perfectionism starts as this little voice in our heads. This voice may be the voice of someone in our lives that we have internalized: a critical parent, a never satisfied authority figure, a tough partner. It may even be the voice of what we believe society expects of us. Regardless of where this internal critic came from, its persistence can only fuel anxiety and fear of not being enough.
So how do we let go?
- Try new activities or hobbies that you aren't good at - if you struggle with perfectionism, try doing something completely out of your comfort zone. Something you won't master right away that teaches you that it's ok to learn, to struggle, and to fail and not have it all figured out. For me, it was tennis. If you're a slow reader, read more. Learn a new instrument. Take a cooking class. These new hobbies can actually become outlets for stress that comes from perfectionism.
- It's OK to fail! When you die - whether it's at the new hobby you're trying out or something larger - think of it as a lesson. A course correction. Failure, big or small, teaches us when we start to stray. The lessons we learn are the things we remember the longest because they have a way of sticking with us. This will also help to build resilience for later on in life when failure may happen on a bigger scale. It's inevitable; it happens to everyone - from being fired to experiencing the death of a loved one - so having dealt with prior disappointments teaches us how to keep going after harder setbacks
- Practice being vulnerable - perfectionists don't usually like to be vulnerable. It means letting g down the walls you have built up over the years, asking for help, or saying something is wrong. Because perfectionists are usually pretty self-sufficient, they don't like inconveniencing others, so this is a big step. There is always someone willing to help. You don't have to be superhuman.
- Internally validate - if you find yourself constantly seeking approval from others, the answer is to turn inward for validation. Self-affirmation allows you to set goals and to remain true to your own values. It begins to build a real sense of self-worth by recognizing your own enoughness that doesn't wear off when others don't give you the approval you've been seeking. The last. The importance of this is that YOU get to decide when you've done enough. I used to be the person who thought that I needed to stay after work hours at my corporate job, answer clients at 9 PM, or post on Instagram every day to be "perfect." But now, I recognize that working from 10-6 and having the boundary of shutting off my phone is GOOD ENOUGH! I know from experience this is easier said than done, but it involves telling yourself, "I have already put so much into XYZ today, and doing more is not necessary right now." If your values include being home with family or allowing yourself to rest AND doing a good job, you can recognize that what you've done aligns with those clauses.
- Stop people-pleasing - do you feel tempted to quiet what's on your heart and avoid conflict? Do you neglect your body image healing because of perceived outside pressure to be thin? Do you ignore your personal boundaries because you don't want to make someone mad? You can build more self-trust when you're honest with yourself and when you maintain boundaries. If we're willing to be with what's happening in our hearts, in our bodies, and in our minds, we can move forward more connected to ourselves than ever before. There is a cost to neglecting yourself in all the "shoulds" from the outside world — you forget who YOU truly are. What has people pleasing cost you?
I am now coaching women through Voxer, quarterly 1:1 sessions, and with my online course in group sessions on how to shift out of old mental patterns to allow you to feel better in your mind and body. This is a small part of my work, but it makes such a big impact.
Are you ready to let go of control and embrace trust?