Perfectionism is one of those things that carry both positive and negative qualities, making it a tricky and complicated issue to understand. If you are detail-oriented or want the best for yourself, are you perfectionist or just ambitious? I think the answer lies in (1) the way you feel about yourself and (2) whether the idea of perfection is an obsessive thought that won’t let go or, rather, a repetitive behavior done in an attempt to succeed.
Of course, some amount of ambition is a good thing, right? We all want to do our best, to look our best, and to have life go our way. In that way, striving is a positive quality. However, it becomes harmful and maladaptive when we attempt to reach an invisible goal. What is perfection, exactly? Doesn’t it depend on your definition? What might be perfection for some may not be for others.
In a quote by Anne Wilson Schaef, she writes, “Perfectionism is self-abuse of the highest order.” Self-abuse is a strong wording choice that defines the obsessive quality of the idea. Perfectionism can run rampant on your self-esteem, your confidence, and your motivation to do more. If your first thought when you start an exercise routine is that you want to look like a supermodel, you may be experiencing perfectionist thoughts. Even supermodels don’t look like supermodels in real life. If you lose weight, get fit, eat healthier, and yet don’t look like a magazine ad, have you failed? Perfection is a deep whisper in our souls that we, alone, are not enough. Its invasive quality can be quite destructive to a healthy outlook on life.
Perfectionism is most apparent in three areas of our lives. First, we are perfectionists with our bodies and minds. Every commercial, every advertisement, every billboard reminds us that we are not “right” in some way. We’re expected to believe that we must have a toned body, the longest, sleekest hair, acne-free skin, and white teeth. Second, we are perfectionists in relationships and especially parenting. We read the books, get on the preschool mailing list before our children are out of diapers, and kill all germs immediately. This quest for perfection in parenting leads to perfection-driven children who may feel they cannot measure up. Third, we are perfectionists with our environment. We want our homes to be HGTV worthy while we bake like Martha Stewart. An entire home-design-and-improvement culture was created on the perfectionist ideal.
So, what to do when perfection is running our thoughts? Here’s how to get un-perfect and still be OK:
- Check yourself. Are you thinking perfection all the time? What if you don’t reach perfection? Will you be happy, healthy, and alive? Will others still love you? Will you still be a good person? If you understand that thoughts can come and go, you will start to realize that perfectionist thoughts can be harmful and they can be released. Check to make sure that while your standards are being met, you are not preoccupied with perfection. Flawed people are great, too.
- Focus out, not in. Focusing on ourselves too much can breed insecurity, which in turn breeds perfectionism. Instead of focusing inward, reach out to family, friends, and strangers to see what else the world has to offer. Take a class, help a friend, volunteer, teach, garden, or build something to give away. Perfectionism loves inwardly focused people. Open yourself up.
- Fail. Try something new with the intention of being bad at it. Paint a picture and laugh at how ridiculous it is. Talk to a stranger with the understanding that if he or she ignores you, at least you tried! Failing is a vital step to get rid of perfectionism because you learn that failing isn’t as bad as you thought. In fact, it can be fun! If you are always trying to be perfect, it can paralyze you to never try anything. So go out there and fail!
If you believe you cannot get a grip on obsessive thoughts and behaviors, please contact a mental health specialist who can help guide you to feeling more balanced.
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.