Perfectionism has become quite a popular buzzword these days. It can be worn as a badge of honor in the context of, “I have high standards” or “I am highly successful and settle for nothing but the best.” While this might be well-intentioned, the perfectionism label does not really do justice to what the experience of being locked into a perfectionistic mindset and belief system truly entails.
The irony is that perfectionism is more of a prison than a high horse to sit on or a badge of honor to wear proudly. And even more ironic is that perfectionism is less about being perfect and more about attempting to avoid feeling the fear, self-consciousness, and shame that surrounds making mistakes.
What is perfectionism?
While the label might infer it is about being perfect. The experience is mired with fear; fear of:
Making a mistake
Being judged or criticized
Seen as inadequate or incompetent
Rejected or abandoned
These fears that lie underneath a perfectionistic attitude and belief system are the drivers that lead people to go to extremes to avoid feeling the shame, judgment, and inner attacks that follow any sort of error. Shame is a deep sense of feeling unworthy, inadequate, or unlovable. Shame is the underlying belief that “I am a mistake,” while guilt is “I made a mistake.” A deep sense of shame is often underneath the habits, beliefs, and attitude of perfectionism. Acknowledging these feelings can be an important first step in having a new experience in your life.
The reason that a perfectionistic belief system and approach do not work and are not sustainable is because it is filled with fear, pressure, and unreasonable expectations. It is like being asked to walk along a tightrope between two skyscrapers. As long as perfectionism is bought into and held onto, it will never bring a sense of calm, peace of mind, or feeling self-assured. In fact, the thought of having to walk a tightrope every day becomes so daunting that it often leads to feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and depression.
A huge aspect of moving beyond perfectionism is being able to separate your worth and value from your behavior, actions, performance, and results. The following are three steps you can take to begin to move beyond the crippling nature of perfectionism.
3 Ways to Free Yourself From the Prison of Perfectionism
1. Intentionally make a mistake.
Yes, you read that right—purposely make a mistake. By intentionally messing up, it can be incredibly freeing. It will open up a sense of emotional freedom that is liberating and exhilarating. It can be the first step out of the prison of perfectionism and the very action that helps to conquer the fear that can be crippling and agonizing. By intentionally messing up, you’re also beginning to create a new belief that you are not your results or performance. You are beginning to separate your sense of worth and value from your actions and behavior. Learning to laugh at yourself and not take yourself so seriously can be the antidote to perfectionism and shame.
2. Open yourself to trying something new and drop all the expectations.
Self-proclaimed perfectionists often describe how they hate to try new things because they don’t like the feeling of “not knowing” or not being good at something. Often, this leads one to stay in their comfort zone of what they know and what they are good at. Engaging in a new hobby or task where you expect to stumble and not know everything can be a powerful step in confronting rigid perfectionistic beliefs. Another variation of this is to engage in goal-less activities just for the fun of it. Perfectionism is all about performance and by allowing yourself to have fun, be messy and explore, you are turning the tables on the seriousness and “life and death” nature that underpins perfectionism.
3. Start something and don’t allow yourself to finish it.
Perfectionism is an “all or nothing” belief system that can be obsessed with completion and producing a flawless final product. This frequently leads to a pattern of procrastination that can be crippling. Set a timer for 5 or 10 minutes and start a task or activity you have been putting off. Once the alarm goes off and the time is up, stop what you are doing and allow it to be incomplete. Building the habit of starting something (without finishing it) and working in smaller chunk sizes will disrupt the “all or nothing” nature of perfectionism and perhaps help to break the habit of procrastination that you may be struggling with.
As I sat down to write this piece on perfectionism, I intentionally set a timer for 45 minutes to practice what I preach. While there is so much more I want to write, I realize the inner critic in me trying to take over. While I want to share the many experiences of clients who have freed themselves from the grips of perfectionism, I realize that no amount of words I could write on this page can serve as a substitute for the first-hand experience of taking the first step toward addressing one's struggle with the paralysis and prison of striving to be perfect.
Xavier Heditsian, MA, LPCC
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About Sam Nabil
Sam offers therapy in Boston and Boston Marriage Counseling for adults suffering from relationship challenges, life transitions and anxiety. Sam Nabil was featured in many prestigious publications. Check out his interview with Aljazeera English, The Washington post, The Boston Globe, Fatherly magazine, Women's health magazine, Cornell university, Yahoo News, USA Today, Marriage.com
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