Whatever your origin, chances are you were ingrained in the myth of perfectionism. On the path to wellness, our commitment to a healing journey or simple daily habits can sometimes become wrapped up in goals and perfectionism. Certain common questions arise. Did I drink enough water today? Did I cut out caffeine this week? Did I complete Dry January? Have I reached my weight goals? The list goes on and on, and we often get in the way of good progress by trying to achieve perfect progress.
Voltaire repeatedly wrote that the best is the enemy of the good, while Winston Churchill is known for criticizing perfectionism as the enemy of progress. Both deductions send a message about the broader failings of extremism and the widely prevalent myth of perfectionism. When we compare ourselves to other people or standards that we deem “good” or “bad”, we fail to recognize that there is an optimal zone between those two poles that is generally a positive space in which to live daily life.
Being perfect is defined as having no imperfections, flaws, or weaknesses. This is “extreme perfectionism, a compulsive way of life that has a high personal cost, can lead to anxiety or depression, and sometimes hides low self esteem” according to psychiatrist and psychoanalyst David Dorenbaum. For many, perfectionism is an advantage and commonly applied in the workplace to describe behaviors one is supposed to aspire to on the path to success — high standards, dedication, attention to detail. But, the behaviors and sacrifices that are often demonstrated by a person aspiring to perfection instead of aspiring to do things well can be detrimental to their health and performance.
“One day I began to write, not knowing that I had chained myself, for life, to a noble but ruthless master. When God offers us a gift, at the same time he gives us a whip, and this only has the purpose of self-flagellation”. - Truman Capote
Extreme perfectionism is a compulsive way of requiring things and the self to be perfect and exact, and it can foster negative effects like eating disorders, anxiety or depression. On top of this, psychologists have recently noted a rise in “multidimensional perfectionism” - this includes perfectionism that is 1) directed towards oneself, 2) towards others and 3) towards that which is socially prescribed. While self-oriented perfectionism focuses on your own extreme personal standards, multidimensional perfectionism is also directed outward and involves demanding that others meet unrealistic expectations. Socially prescribed perfectionism goes a step further and encompasses the feeling that everyone around us (society as a whole) is imposing demands for perfection. In all cases, when the person striving for perfection fails, the failure catalyzes a deep sense of guilt and shame for what they perceive as a defective performance, thus creating the identity of a defective self.
I have found myself in this trap. Not in a public way, or a social media engagement way, or a ‘what strangers think’ way, but instead trapped in what a partner, ex-partner, friend or family member might think. At one point, it started to create fear, anxiety and an inability to move forward in my life due to listening and emotionally absorbing what others felt about me or about how the world works. They defined their expectations of perfectionism and projected them upon me - and I ingested them.
Here’s are some very simple solutions if you find yourself in a similar situation:
- Take out a journal or piece of paper and write what you’re feeling
- Forgive yourself each day for being unknowing
- Remind yourself that mistakes and missteps are how we learn, how we grow, and how we evolve
- Remind yourself that this is a gift of being human, and you can only expand by being
- Adopt this fun mantra: I GIVE ZERO F**** what anyone thinks about ME
The need to be perfect - or appear perfect - is an unconscious strategy to compensate for a damaged sense of self-worth. Lean into the approaching feelings of perfectionism with the consciousness of how unimportant someone else's opinion or insight as to what your OWN self worth is. When you frame your self worth this way, the expectations to be perfect simply will not matter to you, affect you, and (in more crass terms) you will begin to give zero F**** or attention to it.
Give yourself permission to develop more realistic and flexible expectations.
Keep your own perspective and focus on what you’re passionate about.
Recognize that there is real meaning in failure.