The Perils of Perfectionism

I frequently hear my clients, colleagues, family, (and admittedly myself) use sentences containing the word should. Who wrote this book of “shoulds”? It’s the perfectionist’s bible, so to speak.  Anne Lamott writes, “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people.”

If we were to actually achieve perfection, I guess our work would be finished, wouldn’t it? But this is the bind; there is no concrete definition of perfection. Instead, it is a carrot that we chase. The chase has no end; thus we are left unsatisfied. It is this sense of emptiness that feeds into depression and anxiety.

Perfectionism loves to gnaw itself into the young female. I’ve worked with 8 year old girls who have panic attacks before going to their gymnastics practice, in fear of being “yelled at” by their coaches. I’ve ached while listening to 17 year olds voice their yearnings to have bodies like Mary Kate Olson. I’ve counseled female college students who read their textbooks cover to cover, highlighting nearly every sentence, and then crying their eyes out when they receive an 87% on their final. The fantasy of perfection frequently turns into nightmare: impairing confidence, negating satisfaction, and tunneling our visions.

Why do we become imprisoned? Is it because of a serontonin imbalance? Do we have an anxiety disorder?

Who’s the culprit? Was it a stage-mom who required a daily weigh-in before attending ballet class? Maybe it was a family lineage of doctors who pushed too hard for Med School.

When did it start? Was it employed as a survival technique in response to sexual abuse? Or did it develop slowly as a method to prevent further chaotic people from dominating our emotions?

Its causes are typically multi-systemic, both organic and environmental, and become further compounded with time. And while there is no easy answer for this, there is also no easy solution. Perfectionists will drive themselves mad working to “fix” their perfectionism!

BUT if you are feeling trapped in those “should-woods”, allow these basic principles to guide you back into the messy world of reality:

  • Life is not black and white; there is a huge spectrum of color in between.
  • Strive for Excellence, not Perfection.
  • Be pulled to your goals by your passion. Do not be pushed to them by your fears.
  • Be your best every day. Sometimes that means, sitting on the couch and restoring.
  • Stumbling gives you practice for a better and better landing with each fall.
  • It’s fools gold unless it’s a rainbow getting there.

To read more about perfectionism: