An Introduction to Perfectionism
I loathed the word "Perfectionist."
To me, it always represented a "Little Goody Two Shoes" who couldn't leave the house without everything being perfect.
Someone who required a significant amount of time to prep themselves before appearing.
I watched the movie The Stepford Wives when I was younger and although I desperately loved elements of Nicole Kidman's character, I was not impressed with what the women turned into and questioned whether that was the real life that someone actually wanted.
Then, one day, I started noticing that I was becoming very frustrated when things weren't in a specific place or something appeared out of order. More than usual, of course.
As a creature of habit, I stuck to routines. When I was in my Master's program, I learned about Personality Disorder Diagnoses and when Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCDP) came up I did what every student does: Medical Student Syndrome. Maybe I had this, too?
One day, I researched what a Perfectionist actually is: a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable (Merriam-Webster). My first thought was, well, as a therapist certainly nothing I do is perfect. So, I dug deeper.
Perfectionism can cause us to create unrealistic expectations and standards that can prevent us from actually getting anything done and/or overdoing things multiple times. (Procrastination Station, anyone?) It also relies heavily on basing our self-worth on task completion.
I quickly ruled out most of the other diagnoses and realized that I was struggling with a case of Perfectionism with a nice sprinkle of anxiety. But let me tell you, I didn't fall into this decision. I did what every great research junkie does: I got into a deep, deep hole of information and denied everything the first time around.
Turns out, Perfectionism has three primary parts according to R. Shafran, S. Egan & T. Wade (2010):
Demanding standards and self-criticism.
Striving to meet demanding standards despite negative effects.
Basing self-evaluation on achieving high standards.
These parts can come from our caregivers, society, or how we see ourselves. It's an internal soundtrack we maintain in order to meet an unachievable standard.
Perfectionism also leads to other frustrating DSM diagnoses, like depression, eating disorders, or social anxiety. When things internally feel completely out of control we strive to control everything that we can around us. Notice that you can't get a lot of work done if the house isn't clean? Or you need to take all of the towels out of the closet so you can reorganize them to put them back in the right way?
Perfectionism is a sneaky constant. It prevents us from doing so much more. Add on anxiety and we are in for a spiral of anxious frustration or going back to bed, because guess what?
Perfectionism isn't attainable.
Admitting that the constant mental spiral of anxiety that promotes perfectionism isn't actually doing much at all, but it's the first step. I talk about this more in my Inner Critic post.
But now what?
I often tell my clients that they are too close to a situation to see the solution. It's like standing at the edge of a forest: you can see some trees up close but you're only looking at those trees, not the whole forest.
Perfectionism is the constant desire to control. Accepting the idea that perfectionism does nothing but cause you stress starts with identifying that perfectionism isn't possible.
Our culture does a horrible job at suggesting that we are only worthy or good if we are performing or achieving something. "Doing nothing" is a really hard concept for perfectionists.
I want to challenge you, because I noticed how much of a change it made for me. I realized that the anxiety I was experiencing was not because of something I wasn't doing, but rather because I felt like I constantly needed to do something. That is not the case.
Anyone that loves physical fitness understands this concept: recovery. It is essential for breaking parts of perfectionism and deflating symptoms that go with it.
You have to sit down.
Just like your body needs time to rest, so does your mind. You are more in control than you think you are. You cannot keep pushing your mind to do better without understanding that recovery needs to occur. Please note that I am not referring to avoidance as recovery but real recovery.
What does your recovery look like?
For me, it is the idea of doing nothing. Sometimes that means laying out on my hammock, putting on a nature soundtrack, and just laying there with my dogs. Sometimes I sleep, sometimes I meditate, sometimes I just stare up into the sky.
It also looks like being present. Really holding onto the moments instead of running past them. Fixate on something: your pet, your significant other, something you love, and really sit with the object and reflect on what it does for you, how it helps you, how it makes you feel.
Healing from Perfectionism is not about ridding it from your life, but rather learning to manage it in a way that allows you to live in this life.