Perfectionism, the relentless pursuit of flawlessness and the fear of making mistakes, is a common struggle that many individuals grapple with. It can infiltrate every aspect of one's life, leading to stress, anxiety, and a diminished sense of self-worth. It can show up us as over-working, people-pleasing, or being overly critical of yourself and others. As a therapist, I've witnessed the debilitating effects of perfectionism on countless clients. Perfectionism is nefarious in the way that it always sets us up for failure because perfection is something that no one can achieve. In this blog, I'll explore the origins of perfectionism, its negative impact on mental health, and provide practical strategies to combat this pervasive issue.
Understanding the Roots of Perfectionism
Perfectionism often originates from a combination of internal and external factors. For some, it may be rooted in childhood experiences where unrealistic expectations were placed upon them by parents, teachers, or peers. These expectations can set the stage for a lifelong quest for perfection. In other cases, individuals may have a deep-seated fear of failure, rejection, or criticism, which drives them to constantly strive for flawlessness as a means of self-preservation. In this sense, perfectionism is often the symptom of deeper negative beliefs about ourselves, which is why it can be so hard to combat.
Perfectionism is also sometimes difficult to overcome because our perfectionistic behaviors are rewarded by others. Perfectionists are praised for their work ethic, their success, or people-pleasing behaviors. All the while, the compulsion to be perfect is slowly eating away at the perfectionist and keeping them from truly resting, giving themselves and others grace, and being content with their life.
Negative Impacts on Mental Health
Low Self-Esteem: Paradoxically, perfectionists often suffer from low self-esteem. Because they believe they are never good enough, their self-worth becomes contingent on their achievements, leaving them feeling inadequate when they inevitably fall short.
Procrastination: Perfectionism can lead to procrastination, as the fear of not meeting their high standards can paralyze individuals from even starting a task. This procrastination further fuels their anxiety and stress and becomes a horrible negative feedback loop.
Relationship Struggles: Perfectionists may have difficulty maintaining healthy relationships because their unrealistic expectations extend to others. They may be overly critical and demanding of their loved ones, leading to conflict and distance. Their fear of failure in relationships can also lead to isolating themselves due to feeling they can never measure up or social anxiety due to overthinking social situations. Perfectionists might also overextend themselves in relationships to be the perfect friend, partner, or family member. This can further lead to exhaustion and even resentment as the relationship begins to feel unbalanced. In my work with clients, I have found that perfectionists often struggle with setting boundaries and feeling like they cannot say no.
Challenges with Faith: Perfectionism often makes it difficult to feel connected to God. Many perfectionists struggle with legalism, thinking that God will only love them if they are without sin or fault. This makes it very challenging to experience God’s love, grace, and forgiveness which are so important to a Christian faith. Perfectionism keeps us from God’s peace and experiencing God as a loving Father.
Combatting Perfectionism: Practical Strategies
Self-awareness: The first step in combating perfectionism is self-awareness. Recognize that you are a perfectionist and acknowledge the negative impact it has on your life. Self-awareness is the foundation upon which change is built.
Challenge your inner critic: Perfectionists often have a relentless inner critic that constantly reminds them of their flaws and shortcomings. Challenge this inner voice by asking yourself, "Is this thought based on facts, or is it an unrealistic expectation?" Replace negative self-talk with self-compassion and realistic self-appraisal. I often find it helpful for clients to consider if they would hold a loved one to the same standard that they are holding themselves to.
Set realistic goals: Instead of aiming for perfection, set achievable goals that allow for mistakes and setbacks. Embrace the idea that making mistakes is a natural part of the learning process and a pathway to growth. Give yourself room for error and room to grow.
Prioritize self-care: Make self-care a non-negotiable part of your daily routine. Engage in activities that promote relaxation and reduce stress, such as mindfulness meditation, exercise, or spending time in nature.
Practice self-compassion: Treat yourself with the same kindness and understanding that you would offer to a friend. Remember that nobody is perfect, and it's okay to have flaws and imperfections. Not only is it okay, but it is part of being a human.
Challenge the need for external validation: Perfectionists often seek external validation to feel worthy. Work on building your self-esteem from within and focus on your intrinsic value rather than relying on others' approval. It can be helpful in this process to identify the people in your life who care for you without strings attached. Those are the safe relationships that will be there for you as you work on combating perfectionism.
Embrace failure as a learning opportunity: Instead of fearing failure, view it as an opportunity to learn and grow. Each setback is a chance to develop resilience and gain valuable experience.
Seek support: Don't hesitate to reach out to a therapist or counselor who specializes in perfectionism if you find it challenging to overcome on your own. Therapy can provide valuable tools and support for breaking free from perfectionism's grip.
Develop a growth mindset: Embrace a growth mindset, which involves the belief that abilities and intelligence can be developed through effort and learning. This mindset shift can help you focus on improvement rather than perfection.
Practice gratitude: Cultivate a sense of gratitude for the progress you make, no matter how small. Reflect on your achievements and remind yourself that it's okay to be proud of your efforts.
Perfectionism may be deeply ingrained, but it is not an insurmountable challenge. By understanding its origins, recognizing its negative impacts on mental health, and implementing practical strategies, individuals can break free from the suffocating grip of perfectionism. Remember, you are not defined by your flaws or your mistakes. Embrace your imperfections, for they are what make you beautifully human.
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Our team knows you may experience more than perfection issues. This is why we are happy to offer a variety of services including teen therapy, anxiety treatment, and EMDR therapy. In addition, we also offer life transitions therapy and depression counseling, and more all under a Christian counseling lens. By using online therapy, these services are available to anyone in Georgia. Learn more about our team of dedicated therapists and contact us for more information.