Perfectionism is setting you up for failure
I owe it to Brene Brown’s work to be able to share one of the most helpful insights regarding the need to be perfect, “From perfection, there is nowhere to go but down”.
Compulsive perfectionism is a recipe for failure and many people seek it without even knowing. It can be overwhelming when things don't go exactly as planned, and it's a struggle that many people face. Perfectionism can take many forms, and it's important to understand where it comes from and how it affects us.
In this article, we'll explore the root causes of perfectionism, examine practical examples of how it shows up in our lives, and most importantly, learn what a healthy alternative can be. If you're ready to let go of the impossible pursuit of perfection and start living a growth-oriented life, keep reading - you're not alone.
The ironclad logic of being perfect
At birth children encounter an unknown world and a mode of life which they have to learn. Above all, they have to learn the rules of the human community, to perform functions and master the tasks set by life. At first, children see only that part of life and of the human community which is bounded by their environment - the family in which they are living. To them, this environment means “life” and the members of the family seem to be “society”. They attempt to adapt themselves to them.
Now imagine a child who is small and dependent on everyone around for basic survival. All it takes is a caretaker's whim and the child’s life is in jeopardy - that is what a child feels. With appropriate emotional nourishment and support from the adults, the child overcomes those feelings and learns the skills of cooperation and contribution. But what if the family created unspoken rules about being perfectly disciplined, perfectly disciplined, perfectly gifted, and perfectly pretty? Children are bound to get the impression that the difficulties they experience are absolute difficulties in life. Their growing intelligence prompts them to overcome the challenges of their position, so far as this appears possible, unaided and alone.
This explains why children grow up with the internalised command of representing a perfect image of something. They intuitively pick up that the caretakers insist on them being perfect, and their psychological processes conclude that they will only find safety and significance if they comply. When parental acceptance and love are dependent upon performance, perfectionism appears. Perfectionism is learned when children believe they are valued only for doing or producing something. Moreover, they develop a strong sense of inferiority from the repeated experiences of being shown that they failed to deliver on the caretaker's expectations.
This sense of inferiority places us on what some specialists call “the slippery pole”. Imagine a vertical pole, with inferiority at the bottom and superiority at the top. We go through life moving across that pole, dipping in and out of inferiority. The movement of attaining superiority as a result of painful inferiority feelings is called compensation. The deeper the inferiority feeling is, the bigger the swing towards achieving superiority. If perfection represents the utmost point of the slippery pole, then the movement to get there probably starts from a very low inferiority point.
The fear of not being enough
Perfectionism can be a coping mechanism for managing intense anxiety emerging from an unconscious conflict between who we are and who we strive to be. We seek to attain an ideal version of ourselves, unconsciously adopted from our external environment. Do you remember a moment in your past when you told yourself “I’ll never ever be like that in my life”? That probably influenced the shape of your ideal self. Because it’s mostly emotion-based, our ideal self does not fare well in the reality test.
We construct an ideal that is error-free, which is not compatible with what happens in real life. We realise we fall short of that ideal and we are reminded of our real self, which causes anxiety and uneasiness. Perfectionism comes in as a tool to keep us “safe” and alleviate the anxiety - if we know we’re trying our very best, we are superficially reassured that we’re on our way to turning into the ideal self.
When perfectionism becomes an unconscious life goal, we set ourselves up for one of life’s most cynical pranks: the self-fulfilling prophecy. How many times have we tried to do something perfectly, only to fail, and to tell ourselves “Well, that feels terrible. I must try harder next time”? And when next time comes, we might do a little bit better, but it still falls well beneath our self-imposed standard, so it’s rinse and repeat.
That is the slippery pole in painful action. We get caught in the “I must be more” vicious cycle and that only leaves us exhausted and miserable. When we try to attain personal superiority like this, there’s an imminent comparison with others. For the perfectionist, the result is always “I’m less than - must do better”.
Recognise the perfectionism deception
The psychology literature on perfectionism is constantly growing. The Internet is filled to the brim with resources to check out, so let’s have a look at practical ways perfectionism can crop up in our lives. Because it is such a deceptive way of figuring out life, perfectionism can rear its head virtually in all areas of life.
Perfectionism can mean trying to be the partner that is always supportive and imperturbable. You feel you must never display any sign of negativity or low mood, otherwise, you fail to reach the standards you set for yourself in the relationship. If you get upset by something, you feel you aren’t being a good partner and you must block out any negative thoughts for the sake of the other.
A classic perfectionistic work behaviour is being highly critical, especially of yourself. You find it painstakingly hard to accept a genuine compliment because there’s always more you can do. There’s always an extra inch you can go. When you are being told something you could improve at work, you have a harrowing feeling that you let everyone down and next time you must do more.
The archenemy of perfectionism
A mindset of growth and cooperation with others is where perfectionism comes to die. The alternative to the “slippery pole” is the horizontal plane, where we live in a way that aims at achieving personal mastery without being exaggeratedly competitive. Becoming more aware of others helps us see we’re not alone in our struggles, and that life is not a competition to win at all costs.
If we ask ourselves “How can I improve this about myself without disrespecting the needs of others” we shift towards a place of flourishing. We open our eyes to where we realistically are - that is the best place where we can ascend from. We discover that our idea of perfection was a ruthless game of give or take, instead of the empathic give and take that life requires.
It’s a long and winding road
Having faced and (mostly) defeated perfectionism, I understand how difficult it is to shed these strategies we’ve spent our entire lives using. It is an ingrained facet of our being and there’s no shortcut to slowly chipping away at the perfectionism wall. In my work with clients struggling with perfectionism, I use a model inspired by John Bradshaw’s work which roughly entails the following stages:
- Recovery: new awareness, identifying feelings, sharing stories, risking not being perfect.
- Uncovery: processing unresolved feelings, corrective experiences, reorientation towards more love and assertiveness.
- Discovery: experimenting with new modes of being.
Achieving resilience can be an arduous journey. You don’t have to do it alone. I’d love to use my experience to help you overcome the perfectionism trap. Get in touch to discuss how you can benefit from recovery, uncovery and discovery.