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Understanding The Toxicity of Perfectionism

By Shannan Blum, LMFT, CCATP-CA

Having worked almost a decade with clients who suffered from eating disorders, severe anxiety and depression as well as trauma, one of the common themes among many was this push for “perfection” across many areas of their lives. This showed up in body image and appearance, school performance, friendships, relationship status, work environment or achievement, athletic progress and goals, obtaining several degrees, promotions, etc. It also manifested in ‘being the best’ at various roles in their lives such as ‘the best wife or father.’ I noticed that if a client was prone to experience perfectionistic beliefs – it impacted almost every area of their life. 

In this blog, I’m adapting much of Brene’ Brown’s work from her book The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are relative to this concept of perfection – and adding some of my own observations from my own life and my work with clients. 

To start off, here’s how I’ve adapted & defined perfectionism: 

  • Self-Destructive – it is the fuel for the essential belief: “If I look perfect and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of blame, judgement and shame.” This causes us to betray the wholeness of who we are and self-betrayal is destructive. 
  • Unattainable – because it’s about perception rather than internal motivation…there is no way to control someone else’s perception, no matter how much time, effort or energy is spent trying – so it is an unattainable pursuit. 
  • It’s an Addictive Cycle– because we all DO invariably experience shame, judgement and blame at some point, we incorrectly believe it is because we ‘aren’t perfect enough.’ Rather than question the faulty logic behind perfectionism itself, we simply try harder at being perfect and become more entrenched in our quest due to thinking, “It’s all my fault, I’m not good enough, not perfect enough and that’s why I’m feeling this again.” 
  • Perfectionism is the foundation or birthplace for continual shame/blame and judgement. 

A major challenge in working with clients who have perfectionistic beliefs and behaviors, is challenging this idea that perfectionism is how they view self-improvement, the illusion that it ‘helps me be better in some way.’ Many clients believe if they don’t engage in perfectionism, they will fail, be lazy, unmotivated or ‘I’ll just be a slacker,’ or even worse to a perfectionistic-thinker, “I’ll just be average.” 

This is not the case and our own negative thinking can demotivate and even threaten our internal nervous system to the point we are in a constant state of fear and anxiety. 

For myself growing up, perfectionism and achievement was definitely a way in which I received attention, praise and validation. It surely felt good…but it wasn’t for who I was, it was for what I did. This proved problematic, of course, for years to come – because that quest is endless and empty. 

Here’s what I’ve learned and experienced perfectionism really is:

  • It’s defensive protection – it’s a ruse, it is ‘looking like I’m striving for excellence,’ but guarding against the idea that underneath that defensive protection is the belief that “Without all that effort, if I’m seen for who I am – I will be rejected.”
  • It’s earning approval through achievement – it disguises itself as ‘self-improvement’ but in truth, as result from early praise for achievement/performance, a deep-seated belief formed, “I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it, please, perform, perfect, or prove.” This is how we learned what to do in order to ‘fit in’ rather than ‘belong’ into primary groups. 
  • It is correlated to higher rates of depression, anxiety, addiction and ‘life paralysis,’ or missed opportunitiesIt increases fears of failure, of making mistakes, of ‘not meeting the expectations of others’ and fear of receiving any criticism which is where real learning and growth takes place. 
  • This framework relies on shame, endorses it and fuels it. 

Additionally, from a relational standpoint, perfectionism is: 

  • Dishonest –  it obstructs authentic and vulnerable connection. I’m connecting to others through a ‘false self,’ an ‘achieving-pushing-fearful-defended me,’ that is doing all of this in order to be accepted by the group or person. It doesn’t allow the ‘true self’ to connect to others:
    • The people we are connecting with think they are connecting with an honest version of us, and it really is NOT a true version at all. 
  • shield, a mask – we use perfectionism thinking it will help us, when in fact it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from connecting to others and being seen.
  • Creating disconnection and isolation – because we aren’t allowing true, authentic connection we feel empty & isolated in relationships.
    • This is tremendously important to understand in order to reduce perfectionism, increase authentic connection and engage in healthy striving and self-improvement. 

So how do we do that? Beginning to understand the difference between the two is key: 

Perfectionism is:

  • Other-focused
  • Hustle-based – approval of others/groups or self-worth based on achievement 
  • Perception-based, ‘what they think of me,’ is most important and becomes an endless chase.

Healthy Striving & Improvement: 

  • Self-focused – addresses personal circumstances, gifts and challenges
  • Connection-based – Addresses overall process of growth and learning within self and others, NOT only outcomes or achievement
  • Action-based rather than perception based, reasonable, attainable and achievable.

Here are a few suggestions from various sources, clients and other professionals, take what works for you and leave the rest:

  • Mindfulness & Self-Compassion are essential emotion regulation skills – Attuning to our embodied feelings with the same respect, kindness and love we extend to others:
    • Deep belly breathing
    • Guided meditations/mindfulness practices
    • Practicing non-judgmental observing & describing of surroundings & experiences
  • Foster Emotional Connections – acknowledge that as humans we require authentic connections with others, and we do this through our emotions:
    • Validate all feelings, there are no ‘good/bad’ feelings
    • Learn the purpose of emotions
    • Learn & practice emotion regulation skills
  • Affirmations – focus on themes of self-acceptance, connection, capability and radical acceptance to tolerate difficulties:
    • Practice affirmations by various categories to reinforce healthy thinking and behaviors.
  • Small actions & goals – “done is better than perfect,” “good enough is ‘good enough’”, etc.
    • Small actionable ways are how we ‘show up’ for ourselves daily
    • Actions help us move forward toward reasonable outcomes rather than chasing the perceptions of others
  • Challenge cognitive distortions – unhealthy thinking patterns can get us off track:
    • Identify & challenge distortions
    • Create & practice using dialectical statements

Here are some examples of Affirmations about worth/process: 

  • » I let go of the need for other people’s approval. 
  • » I love and accept myself. 
  • » I am enough. This is enough. I have enough. 
  • » I am worthy. 
  • » I am whole. 
  • » I focus on my own journey and my unique path. 
  • » My worth does not depend on my work or productivity. 
  • » I own my story. 
  • » I trust the process.

Here are some examples of Affirmations about Small Actions & Healthy Behaviors: 

  • » Done is better than perfect. 
  • » Progress, not perfection. 
  • » One day, one step, at a time. 
  • » Stop thinking about what could go wrong and get excited about what could go right. 
  • » What you do today can improve all of your tomorrows. 
  • » There is no such thing as perfection, only improvement. 
  • » I am not afraid to make mistakes. 
  • » I embrace mistakes as learning opportunities. 
  • » There is no such thing as failure, only learning.

Letting go of the trap of perfectionism is a powerful process of becoming whole, authentic and genuine in our own life. It empowers us to be authentically and wholeheartedly connected to those around us, and as parents can inform how we are encouraging and raising our children. Additionally, we can help them to have healthy beliefs about striving and improvement versus hustling to feel acceptable. If you are struggling with letting go of the toxicity of perfectionism, give us a call at 281-210-6677 and schedule an intake!

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