I’ve been a perfectionist all my life, although I never really thought about that label much until recently–until I started considering how much it can get in the way.
For me it can show up as the desire to write the perfect article, complete the perfect project, handle a sticky situation flawlessly, look as best as I can when I go out, or take the perfect picture.
I am happy to say, that perfectionism has never ultimately kept me from doing what I want to do. I have found a way to break through each time I’ve been caught in that state of non-doing, because I’ve been afraid of failure. This is so important, because each time I break through, I am telling myself that not doing whatever I want to do perfectly is not the end of the world. And failure is only how I define it.
In some ways, perfectionism has been a good strategy for me. It means that I don’t settle for less very easily, so I usually end up pretty happy with my results.
But there’s a down side too. It means that I can be hard on myself.
And that I often wonder if I could have done even better.
But maybe worst of all is the realization that being a perfectionist can actually make everything worse!!!
Isn’t that horrible? To think that you are putting in all this perfectionistic effort, even when it means being hard on yourself, and instead of getting the perfect outcome, it may actually be sub-par? Worse than what it would be if you hadn’t tried so hard at all???
I didn’t believe it at first…
But then I started reading and learning more about perfectionism, and now I do believe this is true!
Having high standards can get us closer to perfection, but there is definitely a line that can be crossed where these thoughts and behaviors lead to dangerously perfect and are not serving us.
So I want to share with you what I’ve discovered.
The first step to fixing a problem is becoming conscious of it. So if you’re wondering if perfectionism might be getting in your way, I’m going to share with you some examples of how it might be showing up.
First of all, perfectionism may be directed at yourself (high standards you hold for yourself), or it might be directed at others. When it’s directed towards others, it can show up as being highly critical of people around you, trying to change them, or getting upset when they don’t do things your way.
There are two main functions of perfectionistic thoughts and behaviors:
1) To help you meet unreasonably high standards
2) To avoid situations where you desire perfection
In the first instance, being perfectionistic means that your thoughts and behaviors are no longer helping you do your best, but are actually getting in your way, because your standards are unreasonably high. There is a fear of being less than perfect, so you work harder than you need to. This is what’s going on when you over-think how well your relationship is going, whether you handled a specific situation the best way, or how great you look. Or when you work harder and longer on a project than you need to, or expect to be able to do too many things all at once.
In the second situation, perfectionistic thoughts and behaviors are about doing nothing in an attempt to avoid failure. This may show up as either procrastination or not taking any action at all. It’s when you can’t even get started on a project because you’re so afraid of failing.
3 Ways Perfectionism Works Against Us
Perfectionism affects us physically since the emotional states it is associated with (like anxiety, fear, anger, and depression) negatively impact hormonal and immune systems. A feeling of being clenched, on guard, and experiencing muscle tension is also common with these emotions.
Many perfectionists are also addicted to adrenaline. The desire to be able to do too many things at once or one thing perfectly can create enough pressure for a constant adrenaline rush. For many people, cutting back on this pressure can be like experiencing restlessness or withdrawal from a drug.
And of course, perfectionism can interfere with health if it involves under-eating or over-exercising to achieve the perfect figure.
Perfectionism affects us emotionally by creating stress which blocks positive emotions. It is most often accompanied by anxiety, depression, or anger, but can also be the cause of the emotion toxic guilt, which can be associated with perfectionism and not feeling good enough.
Perfectionistic thoughts and behaviors seem to be a disconnect from emotion and direct experience. There is evidence that worry (often part of perfectionistic thinking) is a mechanism to reduce anxiety by distracting us from the physical discomfort of the emotion. Interestingly, people who worry a lot tend to be very calm when dealing with stressful situations in the moment. I see this as further evidence that worry is a distractive mechanism, and that we can feel our emotions fully more often with increased awareness.
I also suspect that perfectionistic thoughts and behaviors are the result of too much left hemisphere activity in certain parts of the brain. The left hemisphere is associated with activities like attention to detail, rules, and steps to a logical conclusion, while the right hemisphere is associated with seeing the big picture, intuition, and emotions. I believe we can train ourselves to move into more right hemispheric styles of thinking to break this pattern when necessary–to see the big picture, so to speak!
Perfectionism also affects performance, since it can increase the time it takes to do things and it can make others uncomfortable.
I think a great example of perfectionism gone to extremes is the main character Nina in the movie Black Swan. Nina is a ballerina who dies in the process of giving what she considers to be the perfect ballet performance. I feel the big takeaway from the movie is that the perfect performance is really one that is good enough, and that doesn’t kill you in the process.
Stay tuned for next week, where I’ll be sharing some solutions for dealing with perfectionism.
If you have any helpful tips you’ve used yourself for dealing with perfectionism, leave a comment below.
Check out Post II on this topic: Your Guide to Perfectionist Rehab
If you’d like to read more about perfectionism on line, my friend and former Coach Celes Chua has a series on perfectionism at her blog Personal Excellence. Go check it out–you’ll get a lot of additional valuable information there! :)
Would you like to find out the best way you (and only you) can create a targeted plan to manifest your dream and remove emotional blockages that are getting in the way?
Call me for a private coaching session to find out the easiest way to get clear and take your life to the next level.
Call 610-420-3040 or email me at Christina@CoachingWithChristina.com