The Plague of Perfectionism

Many messages include that they aren’t okay being themselves. People are denied what they need, and their experiences are invalidated. They must be different, they must be better. As messages stack up, it leads to the extreme version of being better – they must be perfect.

Western civilization is built on values such as individualism, independence, a strong work ethic, and capitalism. Misconstrued messages can come from these values that teach people that bigger is always better. Make more money, do more, work harder, be indepedent, and so on. Patriarchal values, gender roles, and sex differences teach men and women about unrealistic versions of masculinity and femininity.

Additionally, living in the Internet age has created an ocean of information constantly at our fingertips. Content creators have to compete for our attention. What captures our attention is the extreme, so we are barraged with exceptionlism 24/7. This becomes our new average, the standard to which we compare ourselves.

Then add in personal experiences and parenting styles. Whether your childhood rearing was healthy or tumultuous, our parents will fail us and our needs will go unmet at some point. Children internalize this as a message that they aren’t good enough or deserve to get what we need. So, we hide our emotions and needs while trying to perfect our behaviors to not get hurt again.

We learn that it’s not okay to be ourselves. We have to be better. Average is not okay and no longer beautiful.

Whether or not you call yourself a perfectionist, you have a dose of it. You may know that you can’t be perfect, but you don’t feel it yet. Here are a few ways to combat it:

Contemplate your own limitations.

You’ll only be so tall, run so fast, live so long, travel so far, meet so many people, earn so much money, be so strong and attractive, etc.

Grieve your limitations.

Feel the sadness – that’s how you accept them.

Go easy on yourself.

I cannot emphasize this enough.

Go easy on yourself for not being able to go easy on yourself.

This is difficult for most people, so start where you are. Accept yourself for who you are in this moment.

Give yourself permission to produce garbage.

“Every great wizard in history has started out as nothing more than what we are now: students. If they can do it, why not us?” -Harry Potter

Start a new hobby, then bathe in the awkwardness of doing something new.

Realize the awkwardness and frustration is the substance of growth.

Notice when your emotions become heightened.

This is a great thing to journal. It’s likely that the fear of failure is present, so dig into this moment and find the pain.

Practice committing for a few moments to experience EVERYTHING that you’re experiencing, pain and all.

The only way to heal is through the pain.

Understand that if you were perfect, you wouldn’t be you at all.

The essential nature of humanity is limitation.

It’s okay to want to be perfect, but it’s bad to need to be perfect.

If you don’t strive for perfection, you’ll definitely not get it. Just don’t require it.

By no means is this list exhaustive, and I will develop this topic much further. The reason I write about this is because it seems to be at or near the root of the pain my clients bring to therapy. Working through perfectionism has been incredibly helpful to me both personally and professionally, though I still have a long way to go.

I’ve learned that accepting my limitations reduces my need to get things right, gets me out of my head, and feel much more present, relaxed, and open with my people. I am able to find peace with myself.

Battling perfectionism has made me wonder: if everyone thought they were good enough, would there be any neuroses?

Ben Hoffman

Ben Hoffman

CSW, Marriage and Family Therapist Associate