November 24, 2007
Perfectionism is a form of anxiety. You feel like you need to be perfect because you are afraid of what people will think if you aren't. The thought of having people find out what a fraud and a failure you really are (in your opinion) could send you into a panic attack.
Being a perfectionist is both good and bad. Having high standards and doing your best is a good thing, but making yourself sick with worry because of a minor mistake or avoiding things you enjoy because you might not be the best at it is not healthy. Anxiety and stress from perfectionist beliefs can cause health problems, including heart disease. The goal is to find balance between the positive aspects of perfectionism and the harmful reactions to or beliefs behind perfectionism.
How does perfectionism start.
Perfectionism starts in childhood, and, like almost everything psychological, stems from your core beliefs. At some point in your childhood, you learned that you seemed to receive more appreciation and respect for what you did rather than who you were. Over time you had experiences that enforced this concept until you finally develop a core belief that you are not worthy of love or respect just for being yourself; you have to do something, and the better you do it, the more respect or love you will get. In more extreme cases, you develop the belief that if you make any mistakes at all or fail to be better than everyone else, then you are not worthy of respect or love at all.
"I'm not a perfectionist because I'm not perfect..."
"...and I realize that it is impossible to be perfect."
Being a perfectionist and being perfect are two entirely different things. Everyone seems to say "nobody is perfect," but such statements are precisely the problem. Just by saying "nobody is perfect" acknowledges that perfection is something that we are not.
In reality, each of us is already perfect. You are the perfect you. Nobody could ever do a better job of being you. The problem is that perfectionists want to do a perfect job of being somebody else.
What is a perfectionist?
A perfectionist is somebody who thinks that they should be doing better. No matter what they do, they should have done it better. They may feel that everybody is one step ahead of them, and they can't keep up. They may feel that they should be one step ahead of everyone else, and they're not. Secretly, they may believe that nothing they do will ever be good enough. (Even worse, perfectionists often believe that everybody else is making the same comparisons, but in reality that's rarely true.)
Some perfectionists wish to be perfect in everything they do. Others are only concerned with certain areas of their lives. (e.g. My house must be perfectly kept even though I'm admittedly a sloppy dresser and actually don't care about how I look.)
Overachievers and Slackers
Most perfectionists go to great lengths to avoid mistakes because mistakes mean they're not doing things well enough.
It is impossible to avoid mistakes, so when mistakes happen, the perfectionist beats himself up. Large mistakes are devastating, but even small mistakes can create intense anxiety. Mistakes are a huge source of agony. To avoid mistakes, a perfectionist may become an overachiever and actually attempt to do everything perfectly. A perfectionist may also choose to give up completely, "I can't be perfect, so why even try?"
If you are a perfectionist, to avoid mistakes a you may...
- Avoid doing things you know you don't do well even if they might be fun to do. (e.g. "I like miniature golf, but I can't hit a hole in one or even in ten, so I'm not going to play, or if I do play, I'm not going to put any effort into it.")
- Avoid doing things that you think you do well but believe other people think you don't do well. (e.g. "I love the paintings that I do, but I don't think other people like them, so I don't paint.")
- Avoid doing thing that seem overwhelming because you believe you have to do them perfectly. (e.g. "My garage is so filled with stuff that you can't even walk into it, but the thought of cleaning it out is so overwhelming because I can't do it the way it should be done, so I avoid doing it at all.")
- Do things that you enjoy doing but avoid letting other people see those things because you believe they will criticize your work or efforts. (e.g. "I love to sing, but I other people would tease me about it because I'm not good at it, so I just sing alone in the privacy of my bedroom.")
- Do things to the best of your ability then apologize or make excuses for your works or efforts. (e.g. "I worked for 10 hours straight on that report, but I still don't think it's good enough. I did the best I could with the time I had, but it wasn't good enough. I told my boss that I was working on an important account and was distracted by phone calls, so she wouldn't expect too much and wouldn't notice that I did a terrible job.")
- Try to be in first place for everything you try to do. (e.g. "I'm not happy unless I'm in first place. If my name isn't on the top of the list, I get sick just thinking about it.")
- Try to learn everything about a topic, so you can be prepared for every situation. (e.g. "If a nuclear war broke out today, I want to know exactly what I'm supposed to do, so I don't screw up and kill the whole family.")
- Take over and do things for other people because you want everything to be done right. (e.g. "I don't let anyone else cook even when they want to. They'll just mess up my kitchen, waste my ingredients, and make food I don't like anyhow.")
- Take more than the usual amount of time to complete a project because you focus on perfecting details. (e.g. "My homework was to write a paragraph about what I see when I look out the window. It should have only taken me five or ten minutes, but I have corrected it so many time, that it took me two hours.")
- Attempt to control everything through excessive planning and organization. (e.g. "I can't do anything without a plan. If we're going on a trip, I plan out where we will stop, how long we'll stop, and what we'll eat along the way. Sometimes we don't even follow the plan, but I need to have it in place just in case we need it. The thought of just getting in the car and going is stressful.")
- Refuse to acknowledge mistakes that you've made. (e.g. "I've done nothing wrong. I handled the situation exactly as I was supposed to. I don't care if saying that he was the worst husband ever hurt his feelings. That's his problem. I was just being honest.")
- Procrastinate. (e.g. "I'm getting to it.")
Recovery from Perfectionism
If you want to release yourself from the turmoil of being a perfectionist, you need to get to the root of your problem. Take time to figure out your core beliefs and values. It's a ton of work, but you don't have to do it all in one sitting. Take fifteen minutes every day to think about what's important to you and why. Your values and core beliefs probably made sense to you when you adopted them, but do they still make sense to you today? Does having a messy house mean that you are a bad person? Does stumbling over your words make you stupid? Does it really matter what other people think? Think about what makes sense to you today and allow yourself to develop new beliefs and abandon the old. The stress of perfectionism will soon fade into an appreciation for the present without criticism.
As a coping tool, you can do things like set time limits to complete projects. It can be difficult to stop yourself once you start on a project because you may try to do it perfectly. Setting time limits ensures that you don't spend an excessive amount of time on any project.
Be realistic. If your plans to be perfect don't balance with the important areas of your life, then your goal is not realistic. You can have a goal to be as good as an Olympic athlete in your favorite sport, but you will also need to have a realistic plan to achieve this goal. This plan would include hours of training per day, paying for a trainer, traveling to competitions, etc. What are you willing to give up to follow this plan? Are you willing to give up your relationships? Would you give up time with your children? Would you be willing to live a lifestyle that may be less comfortable than you are accustomed to, so you can afford the costs of training? If those prices are too high to pay, then maybe you should accept that being a perfect athlete isn't important enough to worry about and let the anxiety of being an imperfect athlete melt away into the comfort of knowing that you are focusing on the things you value most.