In my work with clients I find that only a small percentage self-identify as perfectionists when they walk through my door. Yet over and over again after we’ve spent some time working together (often only a few sessions) it becomes clear that perfectionism is something that has been insidiously plaguing their lives and greatly impacting how they feel.
Let’s get one thing straight from the beginning, there is such a thing as “healthy striving” and despite some similarities, it’s quite different from perfectionism. If you google the phrase “healthy striving vs perfectionism” you’ll get tons of articles, blog posts and references. Most notably is the work of one of my mentors, Brene Brown, whose book The Gifts of Imperfection was my, like many others introduction to the idea that these two concepts are in fact separate. It also very clearly highlights the ways perfectionism can disrupt and paralyze lives.
So why are so many people writing about this topic? Why has Brene Brown dedicated the majority of her career to researching components of perfectionism? I think for the same reason so many people who come to see me don’t call themselves perfectionists (and coincidentally are often not yet familiar with Brene’s work. The short answer is lack of knowledge and shame.
A lot of individuals who struggle with perfectionism often confuse it for the idea of healthy striving or being highly driven, because they don’t know there is a difference between the two. Then there’s the more uncomfortable piece, the shame (which is pretty much exclusively what Brene studies). On one hand, we as a society tend to shy away from labeling ourselves with terms that could be considered ‘negative’ and therefore minimize what’s actually going on in our lives out of the fear of the stigma that labels hold. And on the other hand, the crux of perfectionism is the shame that it is crafted to cover.
I want to be clear though, whether perfectionism shows up in your life or not (just as with any other mental health condition), it does not define who you are as a person, but rather is a lens through which you view yourself which impacts how you think, feel and act. The beauty of that distinction is that we can change the lens through which we see things. We can take off the unhealthy clouded filter and replace it with a new, clean, and clear one that better serves us.
What does perfectionism really look like?
I’ll give you just a brief list of ways that it has shown up for the clients I’ve worked with (and even myself) for now. As you read through the list below, I’d ask you to take a thorough look at your own life and see if any of these show up for you consistently.
Being overly harsh with yourself (inner critic voice) when you make a mistake or fail at something, often to the point where you become identified with the failure.
Shows up as thoughts like: “I’m such a failure/idiot”, “I can’t do anything right”, “I hate myself”. These repeating thoughts tend to lead to depression or feelings of unworthiness.
Setting unrealistically high expectations of yourself and then feeling disappointed and beating yourself up for not meeting them.
How this shows up? I like to call it “shoulding all over yourself”, i.e. “I should be able to ____” or “I should know better” or some other “should” statement that ultimately results in you feeling like that shitty failure again. The degree of this varies person to person, but tends to show up repeatedly in conversations.
A constant worry or fear that other people are judging you, unhappy with your work/performance, or will disapprove of something you are doing and therefore disapprove of you as a person.
This shows up with thoughts like: “They all think I’m not doing enough” or “They’re all gonna think I have no idea what I’m talking about” or how about this common combo “I’m certainly not an expert in this, I need to learn/read/research/do a lot more first, then I’ll feel ready” (and yet you never do).
These are just a few of the most common things I hear from clients, but perfectionism can show up in many more ways and have a broad spectrum of impact on how you feel; which again can make it difficult to identify.
So, how’d you do? If any of these resonate with you and you’re beginning to wonder if maybe perfectionism is playing a bigger role in your life than you previously realized I want to remind you that it is possible to change these thoughts and feelings. And that’s exactly what I help most of my clients do.
If you’d like to know more about how I help people do this you can stick around for future posts where I’ll talk more about the strategies you can use to start changing your mindset, as well as learning about the roots and ways to heal from the shame that lies at the heart of perfectionism. You can also follow me on Instagram and Facebook where I post tips, helpful reminders and insights on ways to manage perfectionism, anxiety, people pleasing and many more mental health related issues. And finally, you can reach out here to set up a consultation call to discuss if therapy is right for you right now.
Have something to add to this post or a question about perfectionism? Feel free to leave a comment below!