Through my own life experiences, along with coaching thousands of people around the world, I am convinced that, just like oversharing, perfectionism is a trauma response. It is an emotional defense mechanism/reflex that we believe, will heal a pain so embedded within our DNA, we don’t know how to even begin addressing it.
It’s much easier to keep avoiding our un-dealt with trauma, habitually hold ourselves to a standard of impossibility and then, punish ourselves for not being able to achieve what we already know is impossible.
Here’s an example of perfectionism in action:
I decide that I want to get out of the winter cold and go on a warm vacation by the beach. So, I go to Aspen, Colorado (a landlocked state) in the middle of a snowstorm. And I convince myself that if I look good enough in the new designer bikini I just bought (that needs to fit me *perfectly*), the weather and conditions will magically accommodate my efforts.
When the weather doesn’t get sunny at all and it begins to snow even harder, I beat myself up.
“If you looked better in this bikini, the sun would shine!”
“You need to try harder!”
“I told you that you’d never be good/lucky/cool/attractive enough to have a warm vacation in nature!”
“How could you be so stupid to think that just a bikini would get the sun to come out and the beach to appear? You look terrible in this bikini!”
“Get in better shape and then, MAYBE, you’ll have the luck that everyone else has.”
This example sounds obnoxious to you because it is. It’s exaggerated. But perfectionism is really THAT obnoxious – no matter what the situation.
What Is Perfectionism?
According to Wikipedia, “perfectionism, in psychology, is a broad personality style characterized by a person’s concern with striving for flawlessness and perfection and is accompanied by critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others’ evaluations.”
My personal definition of perfectionism is when you put yourself in an environment of impossibility/unpredictability (which is basically, LIFE) and then, tie your value as a human being to the impossible being achieved.
It is the most self-defeating way you could ever set yourself up.
Perfectionism is about the necessity of proving worth to the outside world that you can’t locate within. This is why so much of perfectionism involves the superficial. It is a deep-rooted dependence on acquiring validation as a means of emotional oxygen.
It’s also about control. Although you are in pain and suffering, at least YOU are now the one with the remote control (unlike when you were a child or in that last dead-end, one-sided relationship).
Perfectionism is the root of self-sabotage; the mechanism that kicks in when we think we have no choice but to internalize the behavior of others and make it all a definition of our worth. It is the reason why I couldn’t break the most destructive habits or end the most toxic relationships.
When you suffer from perfectionism, the keyword is “suffer” because suffering is the only thing it breeds.
What Causes Perfectionism?
Un-dealt with trauma that most likely occurred when you were at your most voiceless, defenseless, and helpless.
Trauma in my childhood wounded me. My solution became holding myself to the lowest standard I ever could – one of perfection.
Imagine holding your pet – a defenseless animal that relies totally on you for survival – to a standard of perfection. You would most likely be jailed for animal cruelty and your pet would be taken away.
So, why on earth do we continue to do this to ourselves?
Because it is all we know.
For me, I always knew deep down that no matter what, I could never reach perfection. So, perfectionism became a way of filling my self-fulfilling prophecy; reinforcing the negative and limiting beliefs that I was worthless and not capable of ever achieving success.
There’s Always an Upcoming Event Where You Can “Redeem” Yourself. (It Never Happens).
I don’t know if you’ve experienced this but when I was in the thrones of perfectionism, my life became nothing more than constant preparation for the next event (it could be the most casual get-together) where I could finally, “redeem” myself for the last “fail.” I would plan everything – my nail polish, outfit, tan, hair, how I was going to behave, what I was going to say/not say (most of which were LIES), etc., etc. I convinced myself that if I could check every proverbial box, THEN my new life could start.
But by the time the event rolled around, I had exhausted myself so much that I deviated from “my plan.” And of course, no one is perfect. I inevitably disappointed myself, never reached perfection, and subsequently, took a heartbreakingly harsh and unfair inventory of what I needed to adjust, achieve, and tweak for “next time.”
My life became nothing more than “next time.”
I was also so hard on other people. I expected them to achieve what I could only hope and pretend to.
Perfectionism and Anxiety
Of course, perfectionism causes anxiety. It caused me such anxiety, that anxiety ended up metastisizing into what I believe was full-blown OCD.
In both of the cultures that I come from and was raised in, perfectionism is actually ADMIRABLE. It’s encouraged.
And sadly, it’s used as a barometer for the love and leeway that is given to you. Others in the family who performed better than me would thus get a slap on the wrist for what I’d get crucified for.
Those who raised me had the absolute best of intentions. They just failed to see that holding me to a standard of perfection (that they themselves could not even achieve) held me back because I was always second-guessing myself; always beating myself up for failing to meet the bar they set impossibly high. This created a dependence on their validation, approval, and love – love that should never have been given to me conditionally as a child (I don’t say this from a victim mentality whatsoever).
How to Overcome Perfectionism in 7 Steps
1. Boundaries are essential – with others AND with the critical audience in your own head. Boundaries are a recognition of value. Standards are the criteria that need to be met in order for that value to be accessed. When you recognize (at the very least) that you have basic value as a human being on this planet, you’ll stop relying on others to tell you what you’re worth.
2. Learn how to say “NO.”
3. Do some cost assessment. When you go to the mall and see something that you really want (and may feel like you deserve) but can’t afford, what do you do?
Do you steal the item? No.
Why? You can’t afford the cost (reputational, financial, moral, etc.) of stealing.
How are you benefitting from adhering to perfectionism? What is perfectionism actually costing you? Can you continue to emotionally afford that cost?
I always say, “care to the point of cost.” The moment something starts costing you your sanity, health (mental and physical), happiness, and soul, it’s time to declare bankruptcy on bullsh*t.
4. Be the kid that you never got to be. It is OKAY to mess up. To be real is to be flawed. True love and true beauty cannot exist in an environment of perfection. What makes them feel and seem “perfect” is the beauty found in the truth; in reality. And reality is never perfect, but it will serve you more than delusion ever will.
Let yourself mess up; non-gratuitously share something that humanizes and makes you more approachable, human, and accessible. You will be amazed at how your life transforms.
5. Self-compassion is key. You’ve become a perfectionist because of a wound from your past. Go back to that person you were; forgive them and forget to remember to hold a grudge against those who caused you pain.
Have some compassion for your younger self (who was primed to perform). And also, have some compassion for your adult self. Your only available modality of self-protection has been holding yourself to a standard in which you can never win. How unfair and uncool is that?
Be kind to YOU. Through this all, you’ve never let yourself down. Your heart is still beating, isn’t it?
6. Delete/remove any accounts that make you feel less than + all negative people in your life from social media (that may include friends and even family). Anyone who drains you is out, anyone who uplifts you is in.
7. Limit your time on social media (and your phone in general). One of the best investments I’ve ever made was recently getting a flip phone. I take it with me 80% of the time I go out and am not working. If there’s an emergency, I have a phone. But to be disconnected from emails, photos, social media, and texts… I can’t begin to describe how wonderful it has been. I am noticing things in my environment that I never noticed before. I feel calmer. I’m happier and fully present.
Just because you’re able to answer people at light speed because they can reach you, that does not obligate you to engage – never forget that.
Stop trying to achieve something that you already are.
Your humanity, your humility, your heart; your imperfections are what make you feel *so perfect* for healthier relationships, high-quality people, and your dreams to be actualized.
Written by: Natasha Adamo