Dear Chronic Perfectionist
Let’s be flawed, and happy together.
It is a pet peeve of mine when someone tries to use the idea of not being perfect as an excuse for questionable behavior and decisions. Human fallacy does not absolve us of accountability. There is a huge difference between errors in judgment and willful shenanigans. The latter of which is undeserving of imperfection as a cop-out.
That being said, YOU ARE NOT PERFECT. Neither am I. Neither is anyone, and that’s ok.
There are few conditions as self-harming as chronic perfectionism. The inability to accept perceived flaws or areas where we may fall short will kill our self-esteem. Because we will, inevitably, fall short sometimes. Being in a place where we cannot tolerate this will leave us feeling as though we are not good enough. We will take even the slightest lapse of character, skill or behavior as an indictment on who we are as a person — due to the fact that we are not allowing ourselves the space, and more importantly the grace to be human.
Many of us view striving for perfection as a positive thing, not considering that what we are ruthlessly pursuing is an illusive state that is completely unachievable. We set unrealistic expectations and then feel like a failure when they are not met. It is an unrelenting cycle of personal conjecture and disappointment. No one lands on the bullseye 100 percent of the time.
Clinical Psychologist Dr. Paul Hewitt has this to say about perfectionism:
Often people confuse perfectionism with achievement striving or conscientiousness. Perfectionism is distinct from these attitudes. It is a maladaptive pattern of behaviors that can result in a large number of problems.
Achievement striving and conscientiousness involve appropriate and tangible expectations (often very difficult but attainable goals) and produce a sense of satisfaction and rewards.
Perfectionism, on the other hand, involves inappropriate levels of expectations, intangible goals and a constant lack of satisfaction, irrespective of performance.
Perfectionism alone is crippling. Because as Dr. Hewitt mentioned, there is rarely an outcome that will lead to inner contentment. Chronic perfectionism implies that we never give ourselves a break. It’s downright debilitating. In addition to the aforementioned ways that it wears on our sense of self-worth, chronic perfectionism leads to being overly cautious in tasks. Such as taking three hours to complete something that should have been done in 20 minutes. It goes beyond a healthy sense of vigilance and causes the overthinking of every decision.
While shopping, if it is always extremely difficult and takes an inordinate amount of time to decide on gifts for others or even what to purchase ourselves, and often ends in leaving the store empty handed, that’s analysis paralysis — a result of chronic perfectionism. It’s the need to feel as though we made the absolute best decision possible, no matter how insignificant. It involves laboring over things such as getting the red jacket or the blue jacket, even though they are the exact same style. And no matter which is chosen, the decision will almost always be second-guessed later.
Chronic perfectionism gives way to excessive procrastination, difficulty completing tasks, obsessive-compulsive behavior, or giving up easily because it’s all just too much to handle. It can open the door to profound anxiety, and even depression.
Why do we chase perfection in the first place? For many of us, it could be having grown up with a feeling of inadequacy. So, as adults we overcompensate to prove our worth to both others and ourselves. More reasons include fear of judgment, conflict, letting others down or failing them altogether. We want to be the perfect parent, friend, daughter/son, sibling and spouse. This is admirable, but simply not possible.
Regardless of how great you are and how hard you try, you will make mistakes. You will hurt people and they will feel you’ve wronged them in ways you’d never imagined. You can’t please all the people, all the time.
We may also be afraid that people will no longer love or look at us the same if they see the cracks in our armor and realize that we are, in fact, flawed.
A burning need for everything that we do and all that we are to be perfect could stem from a number of things. Sure, we should always strive to do our best. It’s when our best never, ever feels good enough, and the assessment of our efforts is not based on logic or merit that there may be an underlying issue.
Embracing our imperfections is not a license to go and be reckless with our lives and the feelings of others, throw our hands up and say, “nobody’s perfect.” It is an invitation. It is permission to be forgiving and accepting of ourselves as we are — as we sincerely work to become better in those areas that could stand to be improved upon.
For the record, chronic perfectionists are usually very high achievers because they are aiming for such a tall target. It’s just … the price paid for triumph will often be chronic unhappiness.