It’s ironic that it’s taken me a week to sit down and write about perfectionism. Seriously- I’ve kept trying to write and share what I have learned about my journey with perfectionism, especially over the past 6 months. I would sit down, state at the computer screen, and try to find literally anything else to do but write this blog.
And that my friends, is perfectionism at it’s freaking finest.
I know I am not alone. So many of my close friends have shared that they also are feeling the weight of perfectionism recently. This is not unusual in times of disruption, turmoil, uncertainty. When we feel out of control, it can be easy to slip into the belief that making things perfect, controlling our surroundings, will ease the pain and uncomfortability of that uncertainty.
I first found a definition of perfectionism that shook me to my core in 2017. I started looking into Dr. Brené Brown’s work; specifically, her book Daring Greatly. I read that book and am not exaggerating when I say it changed my life. It was an awakening to myself, and a realization of the ways I had been limiting myself by not embracing my vulnerability and instead, letting my life be ruled by limiting beliefs. Dr. Brown talks extensively about perfectionism and how it is a sort of armor against vulnerability. She says about perfectionism, “It is not healthy striving, it is a thought process that says if I am perfect, I can avoid or minimize shame, blame, and criticism.”
In America, I live in a culture where shame, blame, and criticism runs rampant. And honestly, I think across the world humans are disconnected from ourselves, from each other, and to top it all off, the rise of capitalism has taught us that we are only worth what we can produce. This is reflected in our schooling: learning and evaluation that usually attaches a numerical value to the work we produce. Achievement and performance can be highly praised and especially when we are young, we are susceptible to creating the story that we are what we can accomplish, and our value directly relates to the level of that accomplishment. All of this can lead to perfectionism I think, but perfectionism was also a survival mechanism for me. I want to share with you my story.
I first named my perfectionism in 2017, but had experienced it for many, MANY years before I was able to finally put a name to the belief. I am an oldest child, and I was a smart little kid (a recipe for a perfectionist disaster). I was really good at learning in the way it was encouraged at school, and I quickly came to associate the traditional grading scale with good and bad. I saw specific grades as good or bad, and would identify myself with them. If I got a good grade, it meant that I, Rachel, was good. If I got a bad grade, it meant that I was bad. My family situation also enforced this belief system. As an oldest child, I was expected to be an example. I was someone my sister, and other kids, looked up to and it was my responsibility to do things correctly. To not make mistakes. I think as a kid I was hard on myself because I felt like people expected things of me, but I didn’t always know what those expectations were or how to meet them. Looking back (after plenty of years of self-work), I realize I was probably projecting onto the people around me, but as a young human, I didn’t have the awareness to recognize that. So I would try to avoid making mistakes in order to prevent my parents, or sister, or friends from being mad at me. I was ashamed when I made mistakes, and began to assume that if I didn’t do things perfectly, I would be harshly criticized. Moreover, that criticism wasn’t just about whatever I had done; it was about me as a person. If I made a mistake, it’s because I was a mistake. That was the story, that was the inner voice rolling over and over and over in my brain. As I got older, and especially after a traumatic incident around age 12, I began to see this idea of being perfect as a way to control my world, a world that at the time felt unsafe and scary and judgmental. If I could do everything perfectly, I would feel safe. I would be loved. This subtle perfectionist belief infiltrated my life. In college I really started to find myself and come into my own--my perfectionism blossomed as I strove to prove that I could handle everything thrown my way, as I tried to fit in and be liked by a new community.
Fast forward: March 2020. A global pandemic hits and all the therapeutic work I have done for the past year and a half seems to fly out the window. I am depressed, anxious, my income continues to decrease from small business closures and the complete shutdown of the arts industry. Nothing is in my control, what the actual fuck is happening...I just need to survive. My survival patterns kick in. Perfectionism rises up within me again, because shame was rising too. Shame that came from being unemployed, shame about old habits coming back, just a big shame storm. And remember; perfectionism is a thought process that says, “if I am perfect, I can avoid shame, blame and criticism.”
For me, this manifested as a need to work….a LOT. I threw myself into work after two weeks of barely leaving my bed. The story: “If I can work really hard on literally anything I can, if I can devote my time to work, I will be more worthy of love and acceptance. I won’t feel shame anymore if I can prove to others that I can do things perfectly, and control my life when things feel uncontrollable. I won’t start any new projects because they’ll be shit and what’s the point. If I can’t do it perfectly, I better just not do it.” And so on.
These stories are so, so damaging. Not only to my self esteem and feelings of worth, but they were inhibiting my art. They were keeping my power locked away, and I was judging others harshly when in reality, we are all struggling right now, and everyone is just doing their best. And god knows your best does NOT have to be perfect. Rarely will it ever be, and honestly what’s the point of perfection? To be in a place where you can’t grow, can’t improve, can’t expand? Perfection sets a cap on what we can actually achieve, and a limit to how much love and acceptance we can extend to ourselves.
As a recovering perfectionist, I still see perfectionism manifest in a few ways within myself. Luckily, I have also found ways to lessen the impact of those manifestations- keep reading to see how you can do the same:
This one is huge. I feel this when I don’t want to deal with something; could be a project, a person, etc. The story that runs through my head is, “I can’t start that today, it’s not the right time. I don’t really know what I want to say yet, so, I’ll leave it until later in the week. I don’t really know enough to do that...I’m not ready...” And on and on and on. I figure that if I just don't do something, I can avoid the shame and criticism that I assume will come when I share whatever I’m procrastinating on. I see this professionally as well. Emails sometimes take me ages to send because I want to make sure everything sounds “just right.” It’s a way for me to avoid putting myself out there, being vulnerable, because being perfect tricks you into thinking it’s better than emotional risk. Guess what? It’s not.
How to lessen procrastination: Practice taking action. Begin to identify the messages of your specific perfectionism. What’s on the tape that plays in your brain when procrastination begins to come up? Hear the story, and put yourself out there anyway. This takes great courage. This is in no way easy all of the time. Trust that putting yourself out there is the only way you will grow; and perfection allows no room for growth. These actions do not have to be large. Perhaps you write a few sentences of the novel you’ve been putting off starting. Maybe for a day, you answer every email within 2 hours and practice trusting what you have to say in every moment, not three days later. Remember this is a practice, and be kind to yourself. You cannot perfectly eliminate procrastination (see: the first paragraph of this blog).
This is the spiral of thoughts, a whirlpool getting larger and larger and larger until things lose their joy, and you get lost in the deepest corners of your own mind. Over-thinkers attach to a thought or story and follow it, spinning the story over and over in their minds and this can have a few different effects. At times, I just freeze; the overthinking leads me into procrastination. Sometimes, overthinking makes things less enjoyable, they lose joy. If I’m overthinking every sentence of this blog, and constantly telling myself it’s not perfect yet, and comparing it to other blogs I’ve read recently, that would TOTALLY take the joy out of writing. And I love to write! I love to write and create and share and when I overthink it, I don’t enjoy it anymore. This can also manifest in having a ton of ideas, and becoming overwhelmed at how to make any of them actionable.
How to lessen overthinking: Mindfulness is key. Start to become really aware of this perfectionist voice, and try to get good at identifying it. When you do, you can even have a little conversation between the perfectionist voice and your true self, the part of you that knows you do not have to do anything perfectly for it to be worthy. Observing your mind can help slow down and calm the spiral of thoughts. Becoming aware of your body through mindfulness is also a helpful practice; this can help you sort through an abundance of ideas, if that’s part of your overthinking. Feel into your body--what feels good to start working on? What brings a rush of joy, of excitement? Is this the right choice?
If you are just discovering mindfulness practices, an easy way to begin is by following the path of your breath. Sit comfortably and bring all of your awareness to your breath. This can be done for as long as you wish.
3. Judgement of others--seeing others’ mistakes
When I am in perfectionism, I can fall into the comparison trap, and judge others as well as myself. Perfectionists tend to have high expectations of themselves, and in my experience (because I’ve done it), those expectations can be projected onto others. Have you ever found yourself nitpicking others’ behavior or actions? Maybe delegating in a group is hard because “they won’t do it as well or as perfectly as me?” By pointing out others' mistakes, we can avoid seeing our own, and in fact, avoid making our own. Those people we might be judging did have the courage to put themselves out there, while our perfectionism is keeping us on the outside, providing the judgement of not reaching perfection we are so afraid of getting ourselves.
How to lessen judgement of others: There are a few practices I have found successful in lessening my judgement when I’m in perfectionism including gratitude, affirmations, and practicing forgiveness. Gratitude, or appreciation, allows us to see our wins- even the small ones! A practice of gratitude invites compassion for ourselves and others, and I find it helps me accept and cherish my unique path. I also love affirmations; sometimes, I just need to remind myself how badass I am, you know? Affirmations redirect my energy inward, to my true self and inner light. Reminding myself “I am powerful, I am creative, I am living in abundance, I have all I need” brings me back to myself and my power, and also able to honor that in others as well.
Lastly, forgiveness. Truly, a practice, especially since perfectionism can cause us to be very hard and unforgiving towards ourselves. When I can forgive myself for my mistakes and send compassion inward, the more easily I forgive others mistakes as well. I see our shared human experience a little more clearly, and I see the people around me as messy humans that make mistakes, just like me; and I still love them. Why wouldn’t I extend that towards myself as well?
4. All or nothing mindset
Perfectionists, I bet this sounds familiar: “I’m gonna do it well or not at all.” Or, maybe the story is, “I can’t do that well, I'm bad at that, so I’m not going to try. It’s not worth my time.” I have definitely been there friends, and let me tell you, it’s not really that fun. Here’s why: perfection is not attainable. Read that again: perfection is not attainable. It is an unrealistic expectation that you’ll do everything perfectly, or be good at everything. We need to take risks, have new experiences that challenge us and push us outside of our internalized beliefs. Perfectionism keeps us from really taking risks, really putting ourselves out there. And failure is necessary for growth. All or nothing really turns out to be just, nothing.
How to lessen the all or nothing mindset: When we have the courage to do something and know that whatever the outcome, we are worthy and lovable, this mindset starts to fade away. Practice taking risks, putting yourself out there when you start to think if you don’t do it well, might as well not do it at all. Keep in mind that you don’t need to come in with or at 100%--you can come in at 70% and take care of smaller details later. All of your ideas, everything you have and want to offer is worthy of being shared and seen, whether you consider it an accomplishment or not.
I recently recorded a mindfulness meditation on perfectionism; you can find it here. Please remember: you are not alone. You do not need to be perfect to be worthy of love. Humans are meant to make mistakes. And being you, in all your human messiness, is already the best and most perfect gift you could ever give to the world.