The Pursuit of Perfectionism: Letting Go
Perfectionism isn’t achievable; the perfection you see is an illusion, so why are so many people striving to meet it? Perfectionism is ingrained and often praised in American culture. We see this in educational standardized testing, workaholic CEOs, athletic competitions, photoshopped photos on social media, the beauty industry, etc.; the list goes on and on. Perfectionism is oftentimes viewed as a positive trait that is linked with achievement and success. However, because perfectionism is unattainable, it can also lead to self-defeating, negative thoughts that actually make it more difficult to achieve goals. When you set impossibly high standards for yourself (and maybe others, too), you’re setting yourself up for frustration, disappointment, and exhaustion.
Many individuals striving for perfection have an underlying fear of failure, feeling like they “aren’t good enough” or “won’t be liked” if they don’t strive for perfection. Perfectionism can also be utilized as a coping mechanism to avoid shame, embarrassment, anxiety, or inadequacy. Brené Brown, an author and research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, distinguishes perfectionism from healthy behavior. She states, “perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfection is not about healthy achievement and growth.” She goes on to explain perfectionism as “a 20-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from being seen and taking flight.” As a self-identified perfectionist myself, these quotes from Brown really resonated with me. I’ve spent so much of my life trying to avoid the feelings of judgment, shame, and failure that I've made myself smaller and shied away from my true self.
If you’ve felt this way as well, you aren’t alone; while letting go of the pursuit of perfectionism doesn’t happen overnight, you can learn ways to overcome it. I want to share a few tips to help let go of the perfectionist mindset and give yourself a little more grace:
Identify your Beliefs.
Many perfectionists hold onto beliefs and rules that promote their perfectionist mindset. If an individual has an underlying belief that they “aren’t good enough,” they may adhere to specific rules and all-or-nothing thinking like “I must be perfect or I will fail” or “I must look perfect or I am ugly.” Becoming aware of these beliefs and rules, and how they affect different aspects of your life, is the first step in deprogramming them.
Set Realistic Expectations.
It’s inevitable that we are going to make mistakes and fail at some point because we are only human. Many perfectionists set unrealistic, and impossibly high expectations for themselves and others. Because these expectations are impossible to meet, we are often left feeling disappointed and frustrated. While it may be difficult to reevaluate and lower your expectations, it can lead to more satisfying relationships and overall happiness. With more realistic expectations, you are more likely to accomplish your goals which can lead to higher self-confidence and self-trust; both of which can combat perfectionism.
Be true to yourself.
Rather than trying to please everyone around you, be true to your authentic self. Perfectionists can also be people-pleasers, which is both exhausting and unrealistic. If you’re so caught up in pleasing others, you’re minimizing your own wants and needs to meet theirs. When you make the choice to live as your authentic self and express your own needs, you won’t be able to please everyone. As difficult as this may be to accept, the alternative is pretending to be someone you’re not and continuing to live as though everyone else is more important. Think back to Brené Brown’s words; she describes perfectionism as “the thing that’s really preventing us from being seen and taking flight.”
Perfectionists tend to be their own worst-critics because they are intolerable of flaws and shortcomings. One of the most helpful ways to combat your inner critic and address perfectionism is by practicing self-compassion. Ask yourself: if my friend or family member was in the same situation, what would I say to them? What are some ways I show others compassion that I can show myself? How can I take care of myself right now? What can I do to meet my own needs? These are some questions you can ask yourself when you’re feeling critical towards yourself to help increase your self-compassion.
The bottom line is: perfectionism is highly stressful and can make us feel worse about ourselves. No matter how much we strive to achieve perfection, it will never be enough because it just isn’t possible. And that’s okay! No one else in this world is perfect, despite what it may look like. Learning to let go of your perfectionist mindset, and overcoming perfectionism, is a process that takes time. It can be helpful to work on this with someone else, including a mental health professional like a therapist; they can help work through your negative thoughts and combat your inner critic.
“You’re imperfect, and you’re wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.” - Brené Brown