Perfectionism is an example of a symptom usually rooted in trauma and dysfunctional experience that society has rewarded and viewed as helpful. I can tell you as a perfectionist in constant recovery, it has it’s significant downsides just as any symptom would.
Where does perfectionism come from? As mentioned above, while perfectionism may have some genetic roots, it is typically also paired with environmental experiences that can be generally described as trauma or dysfunction. Growing up in a home with absent, neglectful, or abusive caregivers seem to be the most common root of perfectionism that I have observed. Most perfectionists describe early childhood experiences where they felt either neglected and ignored, so perfectionist approaches to life and achievement became the way to get attention and validation, or else feeling pressured to perform and achieve at high levels and perfectionism became the way to uphold this expected standard, though again the driver behind this is to get attention, love, and validation. Noticing a theme? In a nutshell, perfectionism is a maladaptive coping mechanism used to help an individual gain love, attention, and validation. Because, at the end of the day, we’re all just after these things in our life. Care to challenge me on that? Please, go ahead. Actually, no, please don’t as I am sensitive to criticism as a result of my perfectionism and view that as your disapproval and lack of validation (a little gentle perfectionist humour for you).
What makes perfectionism maladaptive? If you’re asking yourself this question, you either haven’t struggled with perfectionism (congratulations) or you are still in the throes of active perfectionism and have not yet seen it’s full dark side. While I hope it does not get to that point for you, chances are it will. Chances are it already has but you are so used to living with a high amount of anxiety, stress, and tension that you do not even know this is abnormal. As a sidenote, did you know that there are people out there who can do a task and be satisfied with whatever result they get? Did you know that there are people who can put in a modest amount of effort to something and feel that is enough? If this seems crazy to you, you are likely quite deep in the bowels of perfectionism. I see you, I feel you, I’ve been there.
Perfectionism for me showed/shows up in so many areas of life: Grades, school, career choices, professional knowledge, personal development, body, fitness, health, hair, skin, parenting, being a wife, partner, caregiver. The list is truly endless, or it ends when I run out of areas of life to list. The downsides of perfectionism have been: Missing out on a childhood, not knowing how to have fun, being lonely and isolated, struggling with anxiety and crippling fear, staying in situations that were toxic way too long, being cruel and unkind to myself, pushing myself to unhealthy limits, and probably others that I can’t think of as I write this. I feel sad as I make this list as I have experienced life that is fun, balanced, anxiety-free, and rooted in kindness and compassion for myself and I empathize for that past version of me who was struggling.
How does one heal from perfectionism? I’m not going to lie and say I have it all figured out and everything is “perfect” (haha), but I will speak from my blended personal and professional knowledge of what can help move someone from perfectionism to health and healing. Here are some suggestions to assist you in your journey:
- Recognize where perfectionism shows up in your life
- Identify the harms that perfectionism has caused
- Identify how you want life to look with perfectionism being less active
- Look at how you take care of yourself and develop a revised self-care plan that incorporates physical, mental, emotional, relational, and spiritual health
- Explore your motivation for doing things. If it is to perform or seek validation, consider pausing and seeing what other options present themselves
- Learn how to rest. Truly rest. Not rest before taking on the next big task, but resting to rest
- Learn how to have fun. Embrace your silly side. Whimsy. Laugh
- Learn how to feel your feelings. Perfectionism is a great way to avoid the reality of your pain. It won’t dissipate until it’s felt
- Consider therapy or other professional support. Unlike your whole life before this, you don’t have to go through this alone
- Challenge your toxic independence. Most perfectionists have this as a side feature. Learn to ask for help and be open to receiving it
- Explore your self-talk. Learn to think of yourself in kinder, more compassionate terms
Know that healing and recovery from perfectionism is possible. You will still be a productive, goals-oriented, high achieving individual, but it will be done in a context of balance, boundaries, and compassion that won’t result in you being burnt out and carrying high amounts of stress and anxiety.