“The perfectionist exhausts herself playing the greyhound running after a mechanical rabbit called the “perfect performance.”
~ Dr. Kevin Leman
Perfectionism, is it your friend or foe? On one hand, it is a good thing to put forth your best effort and strive to do your best. However, when despite the great effort you feel as though you keep falling short, always need to have things just right, fear ever making a mistake, suffer from self-doubt on a consistent basis, and have difficulty with how others do things then it has become your foe.
Types of Perfectionists
There are two distinct types of perfectionists. The first is inward-oriented and feels that there is something basically wrong with them and that they are not good enough. Take Claire as an example, she constantly feels like a failure and is prone to depression. Although to the outside she is a superwoman, juggling a high-powered career as a lawyer, being a mother to three, and a devoted wife. She exerts so much energy trying to always do her best but she never lives up to the standards she is demanding from herself. Her biggest fear is that someone will find out that she is not perfect.
Then there is the outer-directed perfectionist who feels frustrated that other people can never do anything right. Brenda is a classic example of this type. She is always so irritated with her colleagues at work, her husband, and her children. They just never seem to be able to live up to her standards. She tends to see things as either black or white. She is feeling the pain of this type of perfectionism due to her difficult relationships with others. Co-workers and her family find her controlling. Brenda is putting distance between herself and others unintentionally by demanding perfection not only from herself but also from others.
So, what are some of the causes of perfectionism?
1. Parental Influence
If you’re inward-directed, most likely you grew up with parents who either directly or indirectly communicated you were not good enough Psychologists suggest that over time the child’s need to please her parents becomes internalized, so that she no longer needs to please her parents, she now demands perfection from herself.
If you had a parent or parents who were superstars in some way also could lead you to think that you’ll never be as good as them. Even though you think you will never be good enough, you keep on trying. It wouldn’t be right to give up. Mommy or Daddy never gave up.
Maybe, in an attempt to protect you from being criticized your parent or parents placed an emphasis on having you feel that you always have to do things just right or look the right way to be accepted.
2. Seeking Control over Chaos
If you had a chaotic childhood, this is what could cause some perfectionist behaviors. You didn’t have control over your life. Some of the ways that you may have tried to restore order were through keeping a tidy room, paying close attention to details, organizing things, excelling in school, or controlling your younger siblings.
3. Positive Reinforcement
There is considerable positive reinforcement for having things done perfectly. So, if you are fearful that you will be criticized, ridiculed, humiliated, or punished for performing less than perfectly, doing the job just right lowers your anxiety and keeps those bad things from happening. Praise is a positive reinforcer that is validating, boosts self-esteem, makes you feel accepted, and confirms that you are a worthwhile individual.
Punishment during childhood also shapes perfectionism. If a parent verbally or physically punished you for not doing things their way you then learned that there is a right way and a wrong way of doing things. To deflect the punishment, most likely you learned the “right way” and then continued this behavior into adulthood.
Now that you are familiar with some of the root causes of perfectionism you can begin to disarm this tendency. You do not have to let perfectionism dictate your life!
Ways to Minimize Perfectionism
1. Catch Yourself In the Act– Become aware of when you are engaging in perfectionist behavior. By raising your awareness, you can begin to disarm it.
2. Learning to Love Yourself Unconditionally– Reassure yourself that you are lovable and worthy. If this is too challenging seek out professional help.
3. Lower Your Standards– Instead of shooting for perfection shoot for excellence. This means setting standards within reach.
4. Ridding Yourself of Others’ Values and Standards – Let go of standards and values imposed upon you by others. Gain a clear understanding of what yours are.
5. Practice Positive Self-Talk– Most perfectionists are programmed to use negative self-talk. Make an effort to replace negative self-talk with positive self-talk. It will take practice but once learned new neuro pathway will form in your brain and accept this as truth.
6. Look For Shades of Gray– Things are rarely black or white. Begin to look for the shades of gray.
By freeing yourself from the chains of perfectionism you can live a more relaxed and fulfilling life. It does not have to define you!