The Price of Perfection: How Perfectionism Holds You Back

Distance shot of person with head in hands, seemingly frustrated with workAs someone who works a lot with self-esteem, I’m always curious to know where people are with their feelings of self-worth and self-acceptance. Some enter my office reassuring me that self-esteem is not a problem for them. But as we start to work together, I often begin hearing patterns that indicate a person may have perfectionist tendencies. People are sometimes surprised to hear that perfectionism and low self-esteem often go hand-in-hand.

People with perfectionist tendencies habitually judge and measure themselves by what was not accomplished, rather than what was. They see the 95% on a test and focus on the 5% of questions they got wrong. They come in second place and beat themselves up for not coming in first. They fail to see the beauty of their artwork, instead focusing on the smudges no one else would notice. Or they get hung up on the few tasks they didn’t quite accomplish while overlooking the progress they did make despite the barriers that may have gotten in the way.

The language and self-talk of perfectionist people tends to include a lot of “should” statements: I should have performed better; I should have practiced harder; I should have achieved more. They set up unrealistic, rigid, or too lofty expectations, which inevitably result in feelings of failure and inadequacy.

Being a perfectionist is not the same thing as having healthy goals. Striving to grow and better yourself is a healthy endeavor when coupled with the knowledge that doing so takes time and no matter what, you will still have shortcomings. When a person is unable to accept weaknesses and failures, they never feel “good enough” and self-esteem is impaired. Perfectionist people tend to be highly critical and judgmental, especially regarding themselves.

Procrastination and an inability to make decisions are often other symptoms of perfectionism. For a perfectionist, making a decision, even a seemingly insignificant one, can become very difficult due to fear of making a wrong or bad choice. For example, it may be difficult to choose a restaurant out of fear your suggestion may disappoint your partner or friend. Perfectionists may delay or put off making decisions or starting new endeavors out of concern they won’t get it exactly right. For some people, this can result in extreme anxiety. The problem with indecisiveness and procrastination driven by perfectionism is that the further we get from being able to voice our opinions or follow our dreams, the more we lose our identity and let feelings of self-worth slip away.

Perfectionism and low self-esteem become a vicious cycle. The more a person fails to meet their expectations, the worse they feel about themselves.

In her book The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, Brené Brown defines perfectionism as a self-destructive and addictive belief system driven by feelings of shame. “Research shows that perfectionism hampers success,” she writes. “In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life-paralysis.”

Perfection is impossible, but rather than accept this as true, people with perfectionist tendencies often go on seeking to achieve it. Perfectionism and low self-esteem become a vicious cycle. The more a person fails to meet their expectations, the worse they feel about themselves, and thus the harder they strive to meet impossible expectations in an attempt to boost feelings of self-worth.

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Perfectionism can also take a toll on relationships. People with perfectionist tendencies often aim to achieve intimacy and approval by trying to appear perfect to those around them. They may put on a facade to hide their true selves, which naturally includes imperfections, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities. This front tends to limit closeness in relationships and may make others uncomfortable, as the person with perfectionism may be viewed as fake, unapproachable, or inflexible. Over time, attempts to be and appear perfect can lead to burnout.

How to Overcome Perfectionism

Escaping perfectionist tendencies can be a daunting task. Our society is filled with media and advertising that portray unrealistic standards of existence, and it can be difficult to accept these as inflated and embellished paradigms rather than as possible and attainable ideals.

If you recognize that you have perfectionist tendencies, accept it as a normal and common issue rather than criticizing yourself. Think about what your beliefs and potentially irrational thoughts are regarding what will happen if you are not perfect. Work toward making peace with imperfections and recognizing that perfection is an unreachable and fleeting goal.

Relax your standards, lower the bar for yourself, and begin setting more realistic goals. Cut yourself some slack and watch out for the tendency to overcompensate for flaws rather than just accept yourself as human. Partner with a therapist if you need some help. Remember, mistakes are how we learn. It may benefit you to adopt an affirmation or mantra, such as, “I do the best I can.” Praise yourself for the accomplishments in your day, no matter how small they may seem.

As you begin to practice self-acceptance and give yourself praise for the things you have accomplished, your perfectionism may gradually lessen. Letting go of the tendency to dwell on limitations or deficiencies may allow you to both feel better about yourself and focus your energy on positive and achievable growth.

Reference:

Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Center City, MN: Hazeldon.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Megan MacCutcheon, LPC, therapist in Vienna, Virginia

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Cadence

    August 16th, 2016 at 10:12 AM

    I have that fear of failing so I want everything to be just perfect so that there is nveer any question about whether or not it is a success.

  • abby

    August 16th, 2016 at 3:29 PM

    Honestly I place so much pressure on myself and I know that I am doing it but I feel like that is what my family has always expected out of me so therefore I expect that from myself too. The time, the stress sometimes it feels all like it is too much but I am terrified that I will let someone down if I ever let up.

  • Connor

    August 17th, 2016 at 7:41 AM

    My mother was always like this and to be honest I think that it kept her from succeeding like she could have otherwise because she would get so bogged down in the small details that she could never fully view the big picture.

  • Townes

    August 17th, 2016 at 10:40 AM

    I read this and I thought that it could apply to me, but I don’t see that I can relate to it. My need for being perfect drives me to do things and get them done, and I don’t view that as a bad thing in my life.

    I think that if I didn’t have that desire to do it all then I would probably do nothing at all, so this way I know that I am being a whole ,lot more successful than I would ever be if I lived at the opposite end of the spectrum!

  • stressmom

    August 17th, 2016 at 2:00 PM

    It can be even worse when you know that there are those who expect this of you and you don’t feel up to meeting those expectations.

  • Lou

    August 18th, 2016 at 9:03 AM

    If this is what you constantly focus on then you are never allowing the authentic you to shine through, only the “prettified” version. That keeps you from ever getting to be your true you

  • Mindie

    August 23rd, 2016 at 2:22 PM

    I know that there have been times in my own life that I have worked so hard and for so long on something and then when it goes unappreciated or unnoticed that totally breaks me down because I feel like the person that I have done all this for does not see the time and energy that I put into the project. That can be very discouraging.

    I don’t normally like to take my self worth from what someone else thinks about me, but I would be lying if I said that I never did that.

  • selma

    August 24th, 2016 at 10:30 AM

    I more often think about what the price to pay would be if I am NOT perfect, not so much the price I pay for actually doing the perfect work.

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