Jul 2, 2018
Just trying to get everything right sounds like a good thing, right? Well, it depends. How far do you push yourself to make sure that there are no mistakes, nothing left out, and you are above reproach? What are your motivations for seeking perfection and what toll does it take on you personally?
On the surface, perfectionism can sound like a responsible and admirable trait. The problem is staying on that surface level of how things look rather than the reality of how things actually are. Social media for instance only shows the results of achievements. The months, years, or even decades of incremental progress and learning from mistakes isn’t often celebrated publicly at all. We can get caught in the trap of thinking that we should be able to do things perfectly right out of the gate. Who are we after all, if we aren’t the award-winning student, highly-paid employee, respected father, or coveted colleague?
Perfectionism often involves basing our self-worth on how well we meet self-imposed standards and high expectations. It starts out as a way to improve ourselves and bridge the gap between what we consider the ideal and where we are now. When it’s adaptive, we understand that we’re going to mess up along the way. Adaptive (flexible) perfectionism presents as setting realistic goals, but accepting ourselves and appreciating our efforts even if things don’t turn out the way we hoped.
Alternatively, maladaptive (rigid) perfectionism shows up as a need to be in control of every aspect of our lives and environment. When it becomes clear that this isn’t realistic, the reaction is extreme and self-critical. When we struggle with maladaptive perfectionism, we are highly self-conscious and develop negative attitudes when things don't go as planned. We assign ourselves tasks to prove to that we meet rigid standards. The trouble is that the more we achieve, the worse we can feel about ourselves. If we meet the standard, it’s not good enough. We should have done it faster, better, and with more panache. If we didn’t meet the standard, we aren’t good enough. We didn’t work hard enough and aren’t smart enough. Either way the result is self-criticism.
Rigid perfectionism increases the risk of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other mental health issues so it’s important to challenge the negative beliefs we may hold about ourselves. In the next article, we’ll look at ways to change patterns of limited thinking that lead to maladaptive perfectionism.