As 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.
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.
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.
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