Laura* often feels stressed out and tries to be the perfect employee, a partner, and a mother. She is the one who puts 110% effort into everything and always thinks of others. She feels ashamed if she is not able to achieve her standards. She feels that her world would collapse if she didn’t beat herself up all the time. Her partner often says that she should relax but Laura finds it almost irritating that her partner does not understand her and he should aim for more too. Laura often finds it difficult to wind down and struggles with anxiety, insomnia, and digestive problems.
Laura grew up with a mother who often criticised her for being the child she was and in the family order and tidiness was followed at all times. Fun and relaxing times with the family were a rare occasion instead of being hard-working, useful and compliant was praised for. Her father was an alcoholic but it was never discussed in the family and her mother tidied up the mess created by her father so that the elephant in the room did not need to be addressed. The house always looked immaculate.
Do you resonate with Laura’s story? Do you often engage in thought and behaviour patterns that aim for perfection? Perhaps you see perfectionism as something desirable? It may be a survival tactic for you.
This post talks about the different feelings and emotions that perfectionism may be covering. It may serve a function in your life but how is it leaving you feeling? What does it feel like for you when you don’t meet your standards? Anxious? Depressed?
Brené Brown described perfectionism in this way:
Healthy striving is self-focused: “How can I improve?” Perfectionism is other-focused: “What will they think?
Perfectionism can be used to hide or control unwanted feelings:
1. Fear of rejection
- In personal relationships: if we worry about fitting in with friends, neighbours, colleagues or even family members, we may try to portrait an image of perfection to the outside world: Being the perfect partner, parent, friend and surrounding oneself with material things to accompany this image one is trying to create, e.g. having the perfect house, car, children always immaculately dressed, buying designer clothes even if one cannot really afford them…Pretending to be someone one is not in order to be liked.
- At work or studies: Work and studies reward for aiming for perfection, yet no one can achieve this and when mistakes happen, if we find it difficult to be self-compassionate this can be devastating. Perfectionism at work can be demonstrated by, for example, always staying late at work and going beyond the agreed duties, and/or always being available to help everyone else, and criticising oneself even if things are going well and never being satisfied.
2.Feeling either emotionally or physically unsafe
- It may feel easier to set high standards for self than address difficulties in a relationship for fear of the other person reacting to your communication negatively. If you are in a toxic relationship, it may feel easier to try to be perfect yourself than acknowledge the pain your relationship is causing.
- If it feels that the outside world feels unsafe, it may feel easier to e.g. keep the house in immaculate condition and focus on that rather than finding support in addressing the underlying fear and/or even changing the environment. If you have experienced childhood emotional neglect or trauma, you may spend hours on trying to control your environment increase the sense of safety.
- You may feel angry at someone crossing your boundaries either in present or your past and this may feel so overwhelming that it feels easier to focus on, e.g. building the perfect home, career and to impress others. Directing your attention towards critiquing your body and modifying it.
- Perhaps you have experienced loss in your life and it is so overbearing that you focus on e.g. improving your body rather than accessing the painful feelings.
- Perhaps you have lost a loved one and you haven’t had a chance to grieve. You may have become focused on another area in your life, such as work that you solely dedicate yourself to rather acknowledging your loss and the pain that comes with it.
- It is perhaps the most painful of feelings, as it states “there must be something wrong with me”.
- Various life experiences could have contributed to shame and aiming for perfection can be used as a way to try to relieve this uncomfortable emotion in the body. However, perfectionism is often re-shaming as it gives the message: “I am not good enough unless I am/have X”.
- Shame may have been a protective mechanism if you experienced childhood trauma. For a child, it may have been easier as the rational brain was not developed enough to blame oneself for whatever was happening than questioning the behaviour of others. If you have experienced childhood trauma, it is best to seek professional help to address this.
Aiming for perfection – trying to control the environment and setting high standards for self (or others) – won’t take away the underlying difficult emotional experiences.
What can you do about perfectionism?
- If you recognise that perfectionism may be covering underlying feelings that have been too painful to acknowledge, take you time to reflect on those. It may feel too difficult to do it alone so you may wish to seek support from a trusted friend. It may be helpful to see professional help to do this as often we have blind spots and only when we can reflect in a supportive environment we can allow ourselves to see these.
- All we can ever do is try for “good enough”. What does that mean for you? Think about your standards and how could you lower them.
- Practice self-compassion (Kristen Neff)
- Become your own best friend
- Acknowledge that suffering is a part of human condition
- Be mindful of your feelings – observe them without getting caught in them and consumed by them
I hope you have found this thought-provoking and it has got you thinking about your areas of life where you may be asking too much of yourself and criticising yourself for not meeting your too high standards. Therapy can be helpful in understanding the underlying pain that you may be covering by perfectionism. If you are looking for a psychological therapist to help you with addressing your tendency to aim for perfectionism, please take a look at my services page.
Brown, B. (2010) The gifts of imperfection
Neff, K. www.self-compassion.org