Tears running down her face, Judy, a newlywed of ten months, described her fear of divorce as her only option. She was afraid “everyone” thought she made a stupid choice in marrying her husband. They were all laughing at her. Her husband was “never” going to be good enough. He didn’t have a good enough job. He didn’t help around the house. He wasn’t romantic enough. “He can’t even do the dishes right,” she wailed in despair. For Judy, divorce was around the corner because of her high standards for how the dishwasher should be loaded.
Maybe her standard for doing dishes was a little too high, but her anxieties about the future and the possibility of divorce were real for her. Demanding perfection and rejecting anything else can lead to high levels of stress. Perfectionism is the belief that life needs to be fixed because it is broken or not complete.
Signs of Perfectionism
- Do you strive for a flawless life?
- Do you believe you must attain a state of perfection in order to be lovable?
- Do you believe your worth and value as a person is tied to your performance at work, home, or school?
- Do you constantly find faults with yourself or others?
If so, you may be struggling with a condition usually referred to as perfectionism. The stronger your need for perfection is, the more you will feel anxiety and stress in your life. For a perfectionist, happiness is always out of reach because life comes with inherent flaws. Life is fraught with mistakes and imperfection. At its very foundation, life is imperfect.
When Susan, a powerful business financial consultant, read the previous paragraphs I wrote about perfectionism, she replied that I had given a clinical description but missed the very essence of what it is really like to be a perfectionist day in and day out. I had missed the relentless pain of constant self-criticism. Her lifelong efforts to be good enough that she could feel loved were an exhausting burden.
Raised by a mom insecure in her own worth, Susan said she spent her life agonizing over the question, “What more could I have done?” She said I missed the agonizing pain of searching for a place she couldn’t find because it didn’t exist. She said every time she ALMOST got to the level of perfection, it was awful because what she was striving for was elusive. “It’s not really about being perfect,” she said, “It’s about being loved.” She concluded, “The biggest irony is that you just keep trying for something you never receive. So you spend your life with ‘if’s, when’s and yets.’ You can’t give up because that’s not how it works.” You wake up thinking, “If I could just ___________(fill in the blank with the shortcoming of the day), then someone will think I am acceptable and love me.”
Perfection is always elusive
Although from different stages of life and circumstances, it is no wonder Susan and Judy experienced anxiety from perfectionism. The crushing anxiety brought them to therapy with no idea that constantly striving and falling short was the root of the problem. The problem with having to be perfect is best described in this Chinese Proverb, “Gold cannot be pure, and people cannot be perfect.” Perfectionistic anxiety causes stress and reduces happiness. It’s time to reduce your anxiety by taking a step back from perfectionism and reclaiming the joy of life.
Before continuing, it is important to state the difference between a perfectionist and a high achiever. Many people who want to do a job well say they are perfectionists. There can be a fine line between perfectionism and being a high achiever. The key difference is that a perfectionist bases self-worth and value on perfect performance. A high achiever wants to do things well but knows that worth and value is independent of performance.
Perfectionist vs. High Achiever
- A perfectionist bases self-worth and value on perfect performance
- A high achiever wants to do things well but knows that work and value is independent of performance.
[tabs slidertype=”top tabs”] [tabcontainer] [tabtext]Perfectionist[/tabtext] [tabtext]High Achiever[/tabtext] [/tabcontainer] [tabcontent] [tab]Perfectionism is the belief that life needs to be fixed because it is broken or not complete. A perfectionist bases self-worth and value on perfect performance.[/tab] [tab]A high achiever wants to do things well but knows that worth and value is independent of performance. [/tab] [/tabcontent] [/tabs]
These are some of the common components of perfectionism:
Almost Perfect is the Same as Failure
Setting a high standard and being ruthlessly critical of yourself is painful. Judy not only set high standards for herself but also for her husband. Her husband didn’t think it mattered exactly how the carpet was vacuumed as long as it was done. Judy completely missed the fact that he was willing to vacuum at all. She saw his less than perfect efforts as failure. Of course, this had a big impact on the quality of their relationship.
Perfectionists tend to spot tiny mistakes and imperfections in their work, themselves, and others. They focus on these imperfections and have trouble seeing anything else. In addition, they’re more judgmental and harder on themselves and others when ‘failure’ does occur. The fear of not reaching high standards is a constant reminder of not being good enough. The anxiety from wondering how to reach such high standards can be unbearable.
Perfect is Elusive
George Fisher taught, “When you aim for perfection, you discover it’s a moving target.” This is the same thing Susan described. In childhood, if she did well in one area, then the perfectionism shifted targets to another. This left her always falling short. A moving target is impossible to reach, but perfectionists truly believe that if they can just _________ (fill in the blank), then they will be acceptable. The big problem here is that what they have to reach to be ‘okay’ is always moving and shifting.
Perfect may be too High a Goal
A perfectionist sets goals that are out of reach. To Judy, the carpet being vacuumed correctly felt like the most important thing in the world at that moment. The goal of vacuuming the
carpet in a certain way did not seem unreasonable to her. Because she demanded perfection of herself and others, it never occurred to her that she was making a mountain out of a mole hill. For Judy and other perfectionists, when the goal is not met, life is unacceptable. Depression and anxiety often result from this negative self-talk.
Loss of Your Sense of Well-Being
Fear of failure robs the perfectionist of joy. There is no joy in the journey. Achieving a flawless life is what feels important. Perfectionists tend to be very self-critical, leading to a loss of ‘self’ in the pursuit of perfection. They may be lonely or isolated because their critical nature and rigid thinking pushes others away. This can lead to a negative self-perception that makes it difficult for feelings of self-worth to survive. Judy’s feelings of not being enough also led to feeling her husband was not enough. Rather than recognizing her impossible expectations as the problem, Susan believed in a self-critical way that she was not enough; and if she just strived harder, she would be happy.
Perfectionists Cannot Tell the Difference Between Love and Approval
Perfectionists believe doing things perfectly and the accompanying approval of others is equal to love. “If I do anything less than perfect, I am disgusting. Why can’t I just get it together? I want to feel loved.” This common running dialogue of a perfectionist is brutal. It leaves the person with a chronic feeling of not being good enough and, consequently, not being lovable. Some also add to this painful diatribe that they, “just need to get used to not being loved.”
Judy wanted to please everyone. She believed “everyone” was laughing at her because she married her husband, and he would “never” be good enough. These are two examples of “all or nothing” thinking. This rigid thinking is the companion to perfectionism.
Reading the previous list of traits for people expecting perfection is a little depressing. Empowered Life Solutions gives you the necessary solutions for overcoming perfectionism and reducing the accompanying anxiety. In addition to learning all the Empowered Life Solutions tools for dealing with anxiety, the following are a few specific solutions for perfectionism:
You Have a Choice
If you struggle with perfectionism, you have mastered the skill of spotting mistakes. Setting the standard so high is a recipe for anxiety. Somewhere along the line, most likely in childhood, you decided that you (and others) must be perfect to be acceptable. The great thing is that you can change this decision. You don’t have to hold on to this impossible expectation. You can’t ever be perfect, so why choose to set yourself up by holding on to this belief? It isn’t working for you, so you can work on letting it go.
Each day you get to decide what you believe. Because expecting perfection isn’t working for you and causing anxiety, you may choose to move out of the world of perfection and into the world of high achievers. A high achiever sets high goals. A high achiever works hard. A high achiever is not a slacker.
The difference between a high achiever and a perfectionist is flexibility in the journey toward goal achievement. A high achiever doesn’t tie identity and self-worth to everything working out perfectly. Learning you have power to choose whether or not being perfect is a measure of your self-worth gives you a feeling of empowerment and reduces the amount of anxiety you feel.
You are in Control of Your Self-Talk
A voice in your head might be screaming that you are not good enough or you need to work harder. This critical voice is ruthless. We all hear it, but a perfectionist believes the critical self-talk. As an adult, I started oil painting. Being a new artist, that critical voice shouted loudly that I was “stupid to try.” My inside critic told me that, “I was a fake, and everyone was going to laugh at me because I couldn’t do it.”
I knew from other life experiences that I had a choice. I could choose whether or not to listen to it. Even though the critical voice was telling me to stop, I moved forward anyway. It took a real, conscious effort to let go of the fearful, negative self-talk. I replaced it with appreciation for having the courage to try something new. You can alter your negative self-talk by replacing put-downs for not being good enough with an appreciation for your efforts. As you stop listening to negative thoughts, your enjoyment of life will increase.
Notice the Good in Your Life
Positive Psychology (a branch of psychology focused on helping individuals and communities thrive) teaches that if we really want to increase our joy in life, we need to shift our emphasis to something that will lift our mood. In perfectionism, our shortcomings are emphasized. Practice shifting your emphasis; notice what is ‘okay’ in life. This will provide just enough movement to bring some relief from the perfectionism.
Each day, notice two good things. You may doubt it could be that simple, but noticing two good things a day can be very difficult for a person with life-long perfectionistic thinking patterns. To a perfectionist, noticing something that is just ‘okay’ can be setting yourself up for another way to fall short–another failure. Because of this tendency, go with the flow. Don’t worry if you manage it for a couple days and then miss one; move on from there.
You don’t have to make a radical shift from seeing the glass half empty to seeing it half full. Begin by recognizing that the glass could be half full and sometimes see it that way. Noticing the good in life while ‘rolling with the punches’ reduces anxiety. Shifting a lifelong habit is not simple, but even in small doses, it is very effective.
Keep a Feelings Journal
A perfectionist’s thinking patterns bring confusion, anxiety, and depression. When you separate yourself from your thoughts by writing them down, you can make better sense of your emotions. Emotions bring meaning to our experiences. Through a feelings journal, you can put the emotions on paper, and then have a dialogue back with them. You have to feel it in order to heal it, but sometimes the pain seems too big to feel.
Writing it down helps put just enough distance between you and your feelings that you can start to re-organize the emotions. It also allows you to look at your thoughts and challenge them. After you write your feelings, ask yourself, “Would this thought be reasonable if someone else was having it?” This can give you added perspective and help you realize you may be too hard on yourself. As Rosalynn Carter says, “Once you accept the fact that you’re not perfect, then you develop some confidence.” When you put your feelings into words, you are more consciously aware. This awareness allows you to make the choice to remove some of the pressure you put on yourself.
As a culture, we move away from our painful emotions. We identify with the critical voice in our heads. We believe what the critical voice says. The critical voice says, “I have to be everything to everyone in every way, or I don’t exist.” Once you write it down, you can challenge that notion. You back off and choose to say, “Sometimes I can be something to some people, including myself.” This is a kinder, more realistic viewpoint.
Follow the Full Empowered Life Solutions Program
The full Empowered Life Solutions program teaches areas that are vital for overcoming perfectionism. Pay particular attention to the following four areas:
1. Learn the connection between your perfectionistic thoughts and feelings of anxiety. See Anxiety – “You And Your Thoughts Are Separate.”
2. The power of living in the present moment is the best antidote for crushing self-criticism. See Anxiety – “Living In The Present.”
3. Reducing the shame-based sense of self as taught in the Empowered Life Solutions article, Anxiety – “Inherent Worth Of The Human Soul,” will help you have a better sense of your worth and value.
4. Take time to take care of yourself as taught in the Empowered Life Solutions article, Healthy Living – “Self Care.”