February 12, 2020
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.” ― Anne Lamot
This is probably my most scariest topic to talk about because, Hi, my name’s Puja, and I’m a perfectionist! – Or was. I manage it better now by re-focussing my attention, more on that later. When I was putting together some points for this post and also my upcoming workshop on perfectionism, I delved into a dark hole of holding a mirror up against myself. Literally every article I read, every scientific or psychological explanation for perfectionism was me. I was like, yep, yep I do that, yep I’m like that and then it got me reflecting all the way back to when I was a kid. I didn’t realise it but during my recovery from depression, my counselling sessions addressed the need for perfection in my life so I’ve luckily been aware of it and I’m much better than I used to be but it still creeps in every now and again so this research has been a useful reminder to me to take it a little more easy and enjoy the process of attaining my goals again. It ain’t easy though, believe me, it ain’t easy.
Perfectionism tends to stem from fear. This is usually very deep rooted from childhood and then this fear is fed as we become adults and start working towards life goals. Depending on your upbringing, it can be really hard to ascertain what you are ok with and what you’ve been conditioned to believe is ok. Personally for me, I know exactly where my perfectionist standards come from, my mother. She herself was and is a perfectionist, she’s highly strung and stressed all the time. Unfortunately, I’ve also been like that. I know that my grandma put my mum down a lot, I remember the things she used to say, they were subtle, but I now know how much they must have hurt my mum. And this too was probably deeply rooted in a long line of perfectionism which we could perhaps trace back to colonialism if we really want to get deep – whereby the British let Indians know that they could have a better life if they did things the British way.… Anyway, that’s not for today
When I was younger, my mum was always making me strive for me to be more, things like “you got an A, well done but why didn’t you get an A+?” Nothing I did was ever good enough. My career choices were questioned, why didn’t you become a lawyer and marry a nice Indian man? Why haven’t you bought a house yet? No one will ever love you if you’re fat. I mean, there’s a long list and I’m not sharing these so that you hear me bashing my mum, remember I’ve done the work now, so I can come from a place of compassion towards my mum, rather than blaming her for her experiences, I choose to be different. But, if you’re not sure if you can label yourself as a perfectionist, I hope that these examples can show how easily these standards can come to be in our lives from an early age and that they might just be the reasons why you struggle with life today.
Experts have found that perfectionism is more than an attitude or excess attention to detail — it has become a way of life that creates and amplifies mental issues. It’s a clear signal that we have a problematic relationship with our sense of self.
Perfectionism can be a positive or a negative trait. When it’s negative, the person tends to be motivated by fear of failure or an effort to avoid difficult feedback or unpleasant experiences. When you have a high fear of failure, you see yourself as not good enough. Sound familiar? It does to me!
Perfectionists strain compulsively toward being good enough. In their minds, it’s about being accepted by others and being good enough not to be rejected. Perfectionism is a social issue in many ways because it’s about others’ reactions or imagined reactions to you or the comparison with others.
Being good enough often means not having any flaws or making mistakes. Somehow in the perfectionistic mind, being accepted means meeting a very high, extremely high bar. Performance and public interactions become about social comparisons.
In perfectionism, self-worth comes from achievement and “wins.” When you don’t “win,” you judge yourself so harshly that you don’t want to try anymore. It’s painful to think you’re “not good enough,” and the fear of rejection, the sense of rejection, can be incapacitating, even when it’s not factual. Imagining that you are being shunned, kicked out of the tribe, for not being good enough can be crushing. You can easily begin to hate yourself.
That sense of not belonging goes deep, back to our tribal roots, where we couldn’t survive if we were ostracised by the tribe. The fear of being rejected by the tribe can lead to avoiding social situations. Perfectionists can be quite lonely. So even if you have lots of friends and a busy social life, you still feel lonely in your relationships because there is confusion between genuine connection and connection in return for something.
How does perfectionism show up in social situations in everyday life? Maybe your best friend invites you to dinner with a group of friends she has that you don’t know. She wants you to meet them. Are you excited and expecting to have new connections? Perfectionism can sneak in to make you worry about whether they will accept you or not.
You worry about not knowing what to say or even what to wear. You don’t know what their interests are, so you can’t plan what to say. You can’t control how the evening is going to go, so you begin to think of how you can get out of the event.
Or you go but freeze. You nod and answer questions, but you don’t really let people know who you are. That just confirms your worse fears—you believe even more strongly that you are flawed. You try to plan even more for the next event, try to do better—which makes it scarier. And anxiety sets in. Perpetual anxiety because this need for perfectionism is so in-grained, so strong, that you lose the sense of what is real.
That brings up another component of perfectionism. The need for control. You want to plan conversations, control where events occur, control who is present, plan the activities of the evening. Spontaneity or just letting the evening flow is scary. How can you be sure you’re acceptable, and your flaws aren’t obvious if you don’t have control?
You see how perfectionism can sneak in? and are you even aware of it? Part of letting go of perfectionism is letting go of control. If you have a chipped plate, so be it. If there are two extra people coming, that’s great.
If your main dish is overcooked, well, the most important part of the evening is not that you’re a good cook, right? It’s about having a good time with people. Changing the focus from your performance and how others might judge you to one of enjoying the company of others and contributing to the group can make a difference.
In this “Age of Anxiety”, there’s increasing evidence that we’re taking the bait of today’s culture, one that makes us feel under accomplished if we aren’t some kind of glammed-up success-bot.
We’re expected to look like the Kardashians, be goal-setting machines, answer every ding within milliseconds and not let anyone see us sweat—unless it’s to show off the insanely hard hot yoga class you managed to sneak in between all the deadlines, meetings and time spent triaging the latest disaster.
Kids are expected to iron out their college choices by second grade. Their parents are pressured to find the perfect parenting style. We’re told cut the cord, go free-range—but not to the point your kid gets picked off by a gorilla. Douse yourself in hand sanitiser, but don’t kill the good bacteria. Don’t dare smear that toxic sun lotion all over your child—you’ll give them a different kind of cancer. Let them go down the slide alone, but if they get concussed, you’re an idiot. Don’t be a helicopter, be a submarine. And even with all this effort, you still feel guilty even though this generation spends more intentional time with their children than any generation past.
Thomas Curran, PhD and Andrew Hill, PhD define perfectionism as “an irrational desire to achieve along with being overly critical of oneself and others.” Their 2017 study reveals a 33 percent increase in socially prescribed perfectionism since 1989. They explain that “the strong need” for today’s generation to achieve relates to “increasingly unrealistic educational and professional expectations.”
The relentless messaging tricks us into thinking what we do defines who we are. It leads us to constant self-criticism and incessant worry we’re not measuring up. Our inner voice takes on the tone of the culture, and if we redirect ourselves, we might be at risk for mental health problems and chronic discontent.
As you can hear, this is a huge topic with multiple variances dependant on your life experiences. Here are some things you can say to yourself to help you talk back to your perfectionism and keep your quest for being perfect from spiralling into irrational thoughts and behaviours:
Being perfect isn’t my key to social acceptance.
When things go “wrong”, there are lessons to be found.
There’s no such thing as perfect.
“Perfect” isn’t sustainable.
I need to practice mindfulness not mindlessness.
I can’t let perfectionism consume me.