At first glance. perfectionism sounds kinda nice. It sounds like a common since to pursue perfection. Why wouldn’t you want to be the best in school, the best at being a good friend, the best at looking good inpictures, etc? We’re taught from an young age to do are best, after all. Shirley only perfectionists make it to CEO or olympics or Grammies. With out it, how does any body achieve any thing?
If you’re having heart palpitations over all the typos in that first paragraph, congratulations. You’ve caught the perfectionism bug. While this commitment to eradicating mistakes is often rewarded by parents and teachers as we grow up, perfectionism is actually incredibly harmful, even detrimental, to our mental health and development. Any perceived “benefit” of perfectionism is either short-lived or comes at such a steep cost that, in the end, it’s really a disadvantage.
As Dr. Brené Brown says in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, “Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. It’s a shield. It’s a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from flight.” Unless you learn to cope with perfectionist thought patterns, it could hold you back from living fully. If any of these potential pitfalls of perfectionistic tendencies sound familiar, that’s a sign that your own perfectionism is already negatively impacting your life.
1. It keeps you believing in an illusion. At the core of any perfectionist’s way of thinking is the belief that perfection is attainable. It is not. There is no perfect student. There is no perfect instagram picture. There is no perfect athlete. There is no perfect boyfriend. Every attempt to hide or remove flaws from your efforts, your appearance, or your personality is one step further into the delusion and further away from who you really are. You become unable to authentically connect with anyone or to feel authentic joy.
2. It’s self-abuse. The amount of negative self-talk that goes on in a perfectionist’s mind is astounding. You become hypercritical of every move, every breath, every word, every decision, and there is always something you should have done better. No error escapes your inner critic. You are essentially being tormented 24/7 by an inner bully, and that’s a recipe for poor mental health.
3. It’s stressful! If you can’t fully see that perfection is unattainable, then you’re always going to have unrealistic standards and set unattainable goals. If that isn’t stress-inducing, I don’t know what is. You expect more of yourself at all times. More work. More work. More work. The feeling of constantly being just short of where you want to be creates stress rather than inspiring excellence.
4. It leads to burnout. Living in a constant state of stress and anxiety isn’t sustainable. At some point you will falter. Your brain and body will get tired. You will crash, sleep through an alarm, miss work, drop a deadline, or even get sick. From there, it’ll be even more difficult to maintain your perfectionistic expectations of yourself. Burnout leads to people quitting their dream jobs, dropping out of school, or even losing relationships that once mattered to them… without a break from constant stress, perfectionism sets you up to fail.
5. It leads to procrastination. When you accept nothing less than perfection, any task becomes gargantuan. Rather than treating a homework assignment as an exercise in practicing a skill or learning something new, it becomes the next way in which you could potentially convince your teacher that you have no intelligence whatsoever. Those kinds of anxious thoughts make it difficult to be brave enough or motivated to face such a challenge until the pressure of the deadline forces you to do so.
6. It’s disappointing. When you expect perfection, nothing will meet your unrealistic expectations. Prom will be a huge letdown because it will not happen exactly the way you imagined. Your dream job will not be your dream anymore because it isn’t as fulfilling or exciting as you thought it would be. Your girlfriend will get on your nerves because she won’t treat you exactly the way you always dreamed you’d be loved. You will not live up to the standards you had in mind for yourself, leaving a void that self-loathing can easily creep into.
7. It can stifle achievement and growth and creativity. Those things involve risk. When you’re so determined to be a high achiever that you’re constantly evaluating the potential for failure, risk isn’t worth it. You choose the things that are safe and easy to achieve, rather than striving for new heights.
8. It can stifle your relationships. Whether your impossibly high standards make you feel unworthy of anyone else’s time and attention or keep you in a state of chronic disappointment in others, perfectionism keeps you from authentically connecting with people. You can’t stand mistakes, whether they’re yours or someone else’s, and the only way to keep mistakes out of relationships is to simply not have relationships.
9. It creates isolation and feeds social anxiety. Similarly to #8, any kind of community puts you at risk of exposure to imperfection. Perfectionist thoughts may drive you to avoid people altogether, or they may make you miserable anytime you do hang out with friends. Am I overdressed? Underdressed? Was my joke not funny? Am I coming off as rude or shy? Did they look at me just now? Does that mean I have a pimple or that they like me? Your inner monologue never shuts up long enough for you to simply enjoy the time.
10. It can lead to depression. Constant anxiety and chronic disappointment, along with the belief that you are always falling short, are a recipe for depression. When perfectionism gets out of control, it’s not uncommon for symptoms of depression like hopelessness or fatigue to start showing up.
Wait, where’s number 11? Can you challenge yourself to accept that what you’re reading may still have some value despite any mistakes you’ve picked up on? Does the fact that this article has repeated that same joke twice now annoy you to the point that you want to close the page? Breathe through it. Keep reading. Perfection doesn’t exist.
What Can I Do About My Perfectionism?
Overcoming perfectionism isn’t just about letting go of typos. It’s about recognizing your unhealthy thought patterns and working to build new habits—it’s not easy and takes practice. Even accepting that you may struggle with perfectionism is hard for some perfectionists. On the one hand, a perfectionist might not want to admit their struggle because that would let everyone in on the fact they are trying so hard, breaking the illusion that they’re just naturally, effortlessly good at life. On the other hand, your perfectionism may even try to tell you that you should be ashamed for struggling with it—no really perfect person would be struggling with perfectionism, right?
Perfectionism can be a symptom or a sign that something else is off kilter with your mental health. If you’re struggling with perfectionism, it’s a good idea to connect with a licensed therapist so that they can help you get to the root cause of your perfectionism and how to tackle it.
You can also use self-care as a weapon against these perfectionism attacks. Develop a routine in which you are kind to yourself and practice the belief that you don’t have to earn your own worth. Over time, your brain may start to listen and realize that you don’t deserve all this negative self-talk and deprivation. Practice knowing that you are still a valuable person, friend, student, partner, sibling, child, etc. if you miss a homework assignment, if you don’t get someone’s joke, if you forget to take out the trash, if you find a typo in your paper, if you miss that goal or hit a fly ball, if you get tagged in a photo where your hair’s messed up, if you spill soup all over the table, etc.
What’s Faith Got to Do With Perfectionism?
Maybe your struggle with perfectionism started in church. For some, it’s incredibly difficult to see past some of the rules or laws listed in scriptures to understand that, actually, God’s love is not dependent upon your behavior. The Ten Commandments, the Fruits of the Spirit, The Golden Rule… there are a lot of things we’re taught to commit to memory in Sunday School that, if you’re not careful, perfectionism will tell you are the only way for the people at church or Jesus Himself will love you or see you as a “good Christian.”
If that sounds familiar, you’re not alone. And that’s certainly not how Jesus ever wants us to feel. Be reminded of verses like Ephesians 2:8-9, which says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” There is nothing you need to prove, nothing you can mess up so badly that God’s grace will not cover it. Perfectionism will not help you achieve more when it comes to Jesus, so you can rest. You can let go of the pressure.
If you’re curious about how faith can help you let go of perfectionism, chat with one of our Hope Coaches today. You can also check out the other resources we offer on our website, and we hope they help you get started on your journey toward healing from the oppressive weight of perfectionism. We’re always here if you need someone to talk to!
Do you find yourself constantly comparing yourself to others? Find out how to silence the voice of comparison.
- Cara Beth