I grew up believing that constantly striving for perfection was some sort of badge of honor or a quirk to joke about. However, over the course of my life, I’ve been conflicted about this part of my personality which seemed to cause me as much harm as it did good (if not more so). While it has made me push my limits relentlessly to achieve the things that I set my mind to, it has also caused me a lot of inner turmoil.
Perfectionists tend to be seen as people with an inflated self-esteem and self-confidence, but the truth is, that while they may be driven, high achievers, the behavior doesn’t come from a place of arrogance or overconfidence, it usually comes from a place of fear.
What is Perfectionism and Where Does it Come From?
Perfectionism is the need to constantly strive for flawlessness and setting overly high standards for yourself, followed by very critical self evaluations. This is not to be mistaken with simply trying to be the best you can be.
Brené Brown (writer & research prof. at the University of Houston) says, “Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfection is not about healthy achievement and growth.” She explains how striving to be your best implies the understanding that failure is possible and normal (even when giving it your best shot). Whereas perfectionism is unforgiving of failure. It’s often used as a defense mechanism against failure, vulnerability, judgement and shame.
This is an important difference, as it helps unblur the lines between healthy motivational behaviour and toxic self-deprecating behaviour.
The cause of perfectionism varies from person to person. The main causes tend to be childhood or life experiences, traumas, and mental health issues (ex. O.C.D, Depression, anxiety, low self esteem). It’s rooted in the fear of failure, the fear of being vulnerable and the fear of judgement.
Examples of Perfectionism:
- Constantly comparing yourself to others unfavorably, preventing you from being happy for their success.
- Spending an overabundant amount of time doing something that should normally be very quick to do.
- Avoid trying something new (even for fun), out of fear that you won’t be great at it & that you will be seen negatively.
The Pitfalls of Perfectionism:
While being a perfectionist involves a lot of self-motivation and drives you to put your best effort into the things you do, it also has many pitfalls.
In my case, it caused me to constantly second guess myself and my abilities when the impossibly high standards I set for myself weren’t met. In the past it manifested itself as body image issues, extreme shyness, or hesitance to do certain things because I wasn’t sure I could achieve 100% at them.
The most common pitfalls are the effects it has on your self-esteem and your progress.
Perfectionism ultimately causes you to become your own worst enemy. It crushes your self esteem and the two play off each other in a vicious cycle. By measuring success on flawlessness, you end up getting so caught up in what you’re lacking that you lose focus of what you’re good at. You begin to define who you are by your achievements and forget that they do not constitute you and your value as a person.
It creates a constant feeling of never being good enough, due to holding yourself to impossible standards & assuming that others do too. Seeing as perfection is impossible, this then leads to intense feelings of anxiety, stress, unworthiness, and general unhappiness.
What most of us don’t realize is that It can also cause severe, (& crafty!) procrastination and avoidance of tasks that you feel are outside of your comfort zone. You will find 1 million “valid” excuses not to do certain things or put them off. This impedes your progress, growth, and productivity as you end up limiting yourself.
What Can You Do About It?
If you’re ready to break out of the perfectionist mindset, there are many ways you can go about it. If you’re like me, you’re probably already thinking about how you can perfectly break all the perfectionist habits overnight (But resist the urge! Step one in changing this mindset).
Tips to help you stay driven without also being your own worst enemy:
- Stop comparing yourself to others.
- Put an end to negative self-talk through awareness.
- Practice self care (Taking time to recharge IS a productive use of time).
- Learn to say no & that there is nothing wrong with it.
- Set S.M.A.R.T. goals & expectations for yourself (Specific, Measurable, Attainable/Achievable, REALISTIC, Time-based).
- Let go of the security blanket & allow yourself permission to fail.
- Accept failure as part of the learning process.
- Constantly challenge yourself to leave your comfort zone.
- Limit the time you spend with people who make you feel bad about yourself.
These new habits will help you improve your self-esteem which will in turn help you keep your perfectionism in check. It will take time, It will be uncomfortable at first, and you will inevitable fail a few times in the process, but you will learn from it, & I can tell you from experience with consistent practice, you will see results.
As a person who has been in a life-long battle with my own perfectionism, I can tell you that it’s an ongoing exercise of not allowing fear to dictate my actions (or at times lack thereof) at the gym, in my relationships, at work, even in my hobbies. I remind myself that failure is a natural (and essential!) part of growth and learning and that it is not a fatal flaw in myself, in my work nor is it something to be ashamed of.
I had to remind myself of that to gain the courage to publish my first articles, alongside so many talented writers, as I’m writing this one and sharing these vulnerabilities publicly, but I’ve decided to no longer let fear stop me from putting myself out there. One more small, satisfying victory in the battle with perfectionism!
Growth happens when you leave your comfort zone. Don’t let fear rob you of the opportunity to challenge yourself and progress in different ways. You’re worthy, you’re enough and having the courage to try (and fail!) is the true badge of honor!