Perfectionism; how does it develop and how does it sustain itself?
Perfectionism often starts with low self-esteem. The paradox is that perfectionists are hardworking and do achieve a lot. But the starting point is that the person feels really low. Perfectionism is there to cover up the gaps. Very high standards are imposed on oneself like ‘You should always be friendly’.
When you have a task to complete three things can happen:
- You achieve the goal → perfectionism answers: Everybody can do that, it’s not good/fast enough.
- You don’t achieve the goal → perfectionism answers: See, you aren’t good enough.
- You avoid the goal → perfectionism answers: You are a total loser, you didn’t even try!
The end result is always the same: we feel bad about ourselves because what we’ve done is not good enough. Our self-esteem is attacked by rigid standards on one hand and by self-criticism on the other.
Perfectionism has this ground rule: ‘The harder you work, the worse you feel about yourself’. The mood we feel, the thoughts we think and the things that happened are not positive. And then it is very easy to become depressed.
Imagine you want to be ‘the perfect mom’ and you say to yourself: ‘I want/need/must be the perfect mom’. You bring your toddler to the supermarket. The toddler is just a toddler. And what do toddlers do? They yell or they run around. They take all things of the shelves that they ‘want’ in that moment. And when they don’t get it, they make a scene. (sometimes but imagine) The perfect mom is now exposed and isn’t perfect anymore. She can comfort the child but immediately she thinks: ‘I’m a shitty mom because I’m giving in’ Or she can not comfort the child and feels shitty about herself because ‘What mother can’t comfort their child?’ ‘A bad one!’ Or she thinks: ‘We won’t go to the supermarket anymore! And we will eat baked beans for a week.
What small things can we change to make the self-criticism become softer and our mood more protected?
Let’s have a look at the rules that undermine our achievements: Rigid standards and expectations.
We need goals in our life but sometimes goals are competing. ‘I want to work hard but I also want to be with my family’. We got pulled into many directions. Sometimes we want to be better at something but we can’t control everything. We can try and put our best foot forward. We need to belief that we don’t need to be thé best or unique in our achievements. With choices come losses and life has ups and downs.
When our goals are rigid we’re unhappy.
‘I always want to be good’ means we are in trouble. We will not be good /friendly /helpful or witty all the time. ‘I should never … be angry, be crossed, stay in bed, …. means that we’re in trouble too. With rigid rules we’re setting ourselves up for failure. We are human beings and things do happen.
What about beliefs?
What about the belief that ‘you can’t fail’. Is failing part of life or do you beat yourself up that you haven’t done enough or even more to achieve it?
‘I can get whatever I put my mind too’. Yes you can, but at what cost?
‘I need to be perfect to be loved.’ Then we are in real trouble. Because we can be human, we can be good and we can be good enough but we can’t be perfect.
The flexible goal would be to be ‘sort of good, some of the time’. It’s ok to own that good part. ‘I’m pleased with it, thank you’. You don’t need to run down everything you do and you don’t have to be unique in what you do.
In perfectionists the fear of failing can be so present that they avoid doing it at all. If I can’t be perfect at it, I won’t do it. They need to have it all, or they do nothing. Perfectionism freezes you but half of an achievement can be good enough also.
Anxiety associated with failure stops us and this reinforces low mood and low-esteem. ‘Three months have gone by and I haven’t done it still’ or we do something else instead ‘The office is so dirty that I should clean it first’ or ‘I can’t do it, because I’m too overwhelmed’. When we take a new step or learn something new, we will feel anxious. First days of everything are frightening. We should take the first step. How do you eat an elephant? Piece by piece! (Please don’t eat elephants, it is just so to speak)
People are very aggressive in their heads. They say things to themselves that they never would say to a friend or a neighbor. They do that because they have the belief that perfectionism is a good thing, it is used as a driving force. ‘Come on stupid, do what you ought to do.’ This kind of self-talk chips away from your happy mood. Your confidence goes down with your ability to tackle things.
Speaking about confidence; we can distinguish two sorts of confidence.
Swing confidence : when things are going good, we feel on top of the world. When things are not good, we’re not feeling good, we fall apart. This kind of confidence is easy to learn and to maintain. A bit more difficult but more sustainable is core confidence when you know that you’re good anyway, even on a bad day. Don’t criticize yourself on bad days. ‘I’m doing my best despite this being a bad day’. That kind of self-talk is really important.
Self-criticism is easy to develop and comes from things we’ve heard in our lives. In kindergarten we get smiley faces for achievements, not for effort. In life we need effort to achieve something. Achievements alone will not make you happy. We need to be ok with how we are; we can teach this to our children but also ourselves.
The tips that were discussed in this post to diminish perfectionism and to build a ‘happy’ shield.
- When you have a bad day, try to be ok with how you are.
- Set goals but make them adjustable. Sometimes life or the world will prevent your goals, you need your goals to be flexible.
- When you meet your goal, you need to praise yourself. This is so very important and it’s not ‘spoiling’ yourself!
- Don’t avoid but work in small steps.
- Own the positive events and step back from the other ones. ‘Owning the things we do well and not take to heart the things we didn’t do well’.
- If we can work like this, we can build a robust self-esteem, protect our mood from becoming low and overcome the obstacles that life throws. We can be happy with the things we achieve.
Resources and further reading.
More in-depth talk about perfectionism by Dr Keith Gaynor.
Picture 2 credits click here.