The High Price of Perfectionism

 

Dear Liz,

I feel as though my need to be “perfect” all the time is truly starting to have a significant negative impact on my life. It has a huge impact on how I feel about myself which is probably why I view myself in such a negative way. Logically, I know that these thoughts are all silly, but I still can’t help but to let them control my life in a lot of ways. Are there any “cures” for perfectionism, or is it just part of who I am as a person? Thank you in advance for your help.


Dear Friend,

I am impressed that you were able to discern that your need to be perfect is taking a toll on your life—often times we know we’re struggling, but we can’t name why.  You’re in tune with yourself, and that is healthy.  The short answer to your question is no, being a perfectionist is absolutely not who you authentically are as a person.  Being a perfectionist, like so many of our behaviors, is merely a reaction to manage a negative, threatening, feeling.

No one is born a perfectionist—perfectionism is a defense mechanism, so as with all defense mechanisms, we need to ask, what am I defending myself from.  More often than not, we will come to realize that it is actually a feeling we are trying to avoid feeling, and the “perfection” stands guard, so to say, making sure that feeling doesn’t break through.  But the real fear that always accompanies perfectionism is the fear that others will catch on to the “truth” about us:  If I present as perfect in all areas of my life, no one will see the truth, which is that I’m an imposter…A perfectionist will do her best to avoid losing control, to avoid rejection, as well as failure, because these experiences can also bring us face to face with that terrible feeling of worthlessness.  And as you have already discovered, investing our energy in perfection will inevitably interrupt the quality of our life; the practice of perfectionism will eventually depress our interior life.

Commitment to excellence, always trying your best, hard work, dedication, taking pride in your accomplishments, wanting to be healthy and feel attractive…these are all healthy.  But striving for perfection, by its very definition, is unhealthy because it is unattainable, and therefore, in the constant attempt to reach the unattainable, we eventually grow tired, and inevitably anxious and/or depressed.   It can zap the joy and spontaneity out of life, because a perfectionist’s life is often a very controlled and self-critical life.  Perfectionism is a “compensating behavior,” a brilliant defense mechanism to give us the illusion that we are worthwhile, when all the while the deepest held belief is that we are not.  Perfectionism compensates for shame, thus it is not the perfectionism per se that is the true problem, but the shame—that is what will corrupt our life if we don’t tend to it.

What made me this way?

Perfectionism usually arises in reaction to our childhood environment, an environment where love was in short supply and/or needed to be earned.  Parents are meant to be healthy enough to have boundaries—to be capable of allowing their children their chance to bring forth their true Self and chart the course of their life.  Parents are not meant to have agendas regarding their child’s life choices, so long as those choices are life affirming.  Ideally, our parents remain emotionally connected to us, supportive of us, accepting of us, joyful with us, without becoming tethered to us.  When the boundary between the parent and child is blurred—when the parent’s sense of worth is enmeshed in the child’s life—love is no longer available without condition, and instead becomes a bargaining chip.

Because no child can feel good about themselves unless they feel loved and accepted, children unconsciously participate in the bargaining, and in so doing, sacrifice their sense of Self and their sense of worth.  If the parent’s sense of worth is tethered to the child’s choices, accomplishments, as well as failures, the child loses out on the opportunity to feel the experiences of their life and to discover their own value through their own lens.  Instead, the child internalizes the parent’s reactions, and those reactions come to determine how the child feels about herself.  In so doing, instead of deepening their connection with their true Self, they connect instead to the reactions of others.

How do we cope with this awful feeling—this disconnection from Self?  By seeking to control the reactions of others, by becoming perfect.

Perfectionism is the bargaining chip we bring to the table in order to preserve the illusion of well-being, but an illusion will always disappoint and leave us aching for the truth.

Happiness is only possible when we feel genuinely good about ourselves.  If we don’t feel like we are enough, just as we are, then no matter how much external success we create, happiness will be elusive.  Blessed are the children who grow up in homes with parents capable of offering genuine respect, as well as having healthy emotional boundaries—those children will grow to be adults who experience well-being as a matter of course.  For those of us who were not so blessed, ours is a path fraught with insecurity, and the only cure for insecurity is to reconnect with our true Self.  Like most good work, this work is spiritual in nature.

Several weeks ago I posted a column on depression. There may be some useful information for you in that piece, because I talk about reconnecting with our true self.

Let me end by sharing with you that I know how threatening the prospect of failure and rejection can be.  Because I understand this, I will not simply suggest that you abandon your perfectionistic inclinations—rather, may I invite you to confront the fragile sense of self-worth you likely possess?  It’s work we can do with a therapist, and it is work we can venture into independently.  I highly recommend Louise Hay’s book, You Can Heal Your Life, if you are more inclined to begin this work alone.

It is wonderful that you are confronting your perfectionism.  You will be happier for it, and you will be a better parent for it.  I’m really proud of you.

Love, Liz

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