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The lure of perfectionism

Many of us hold the belief that the only way to improve is to hold high standards for ourselves. Consequently, letting go of this yardstick might put us in danger of underachieving.

Perfectionists go further by setting extremely high or unrealistic expectations of themselves in various domains of their lives. There is also an unspoken badge of honor with being labelled a perfectionist in fast-paced, achievement-oriented societies. Many assume that perfectionism runs synonymous with success.

Psychologists, as a collective group, are no strangers to perfectionism. Even as students, most of us resonate with 'unrelenting standards', surrendering to the stereotype: perfectionistic, highly self-critical, extremely motivated. Fast forward a few years, the same unrelenting standards become a risk factor for burnout, and chronic feelings of anxiety and shame.

Striving for perfection can be addictive. It makes us believe that “if only” we were more perfect, we can be happy, and that there is a solution to all our pain and unwanted feelings. However, perfectionism is not the same as healthy striving. In “The Gifts of Imperfection”, Brené Brown clarifies that perfectionism is about earning the approval and acceptance of others rather than healthy growth or self-improvement.

Perfectionism dictates that we do not mess up, that we cannot allow for any mistakes, that failure is unacceptable, as any of these will expose the underlying belief that we are not good enough. We constantly look to others for validation of our self-worth. The journey is fraught with fear, anxiety, and trepidation. And when you do get there, perfectionism sneaks up on you and asks doubtfully, “are you really there?”.

Healthy striving, on the other hand, focuses on being a better version of ourselves, without the harsh self-criticism, unattainable goals, and over-identification with mistakes in the process. It is recognising that we are not perfect, learning to be gentle with ourselves when we do mess up, and continuing to show up and be better.

The dark side of perfectionism 

Perfectionism has been called by many other names. Karen Horney called it the “tyranny of the shoulds”. Albert Ellis gave it a cheeky spin with “musterbation”.

Contrary to the alluring myths, perfectionism is the roadblock to success. Research has linked perfectionism to an array of mental health disorders, such as depression, eating disorders, anxiety disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, to list a few (eg., Egan et al., 2011).

Pursuing perfectionism comes at a cost not only to our mental well-being, but also costs us opportunities in life. The self-limiting beliefs that perfectionism perpetuates – as well as the fear of being not good enough, being a failure, being a disappointment, being unlovable – stop us from taking risks in life and saying yes to opportunities that fall outside our comfort zones.

We may opt out of taking on leadership roles or hesitate to try something new, because they make us feel highly anxious and afraid. Even if we do, cognitive biases make us constantly hypervigilant towards rejection or judgment by ourselves and others. We become paralysed by our fears, living in a constant state of self-critical anxiety and restlessness, worrying that someday our secret fears might be confirmed.

Despite the perils of perfectionism, it has become a modern-day phenomenon. By holding onto these unrealistic, inflexible ways of measuring our self-worth, we have become trapped in a constant state of self-doubting anxiety.

Changing our relationship with perfectionism through self-compassion work

Breaking out of this vicious cycle of perfectionism involves acknowledging that we have our imperfections and accepting that it is okay. It means cradling our feelings of shame and learning not to be afraid because of shame. It means making mistakes and learning not to define our self-worth through them.

Kristin Neff’s (2003) definition of self-compassion comprises three elements: self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness. Self-kindness is about being gentle instead of critical towards ourselves. Common humanity is the reminder that we are not alone and that our pain is a shared human experience. Finally, mindfulness is the open awareness we bring to thoughts and feelings that arise in the moment.

Self-compassion practice invites us to establish a new relationship with ourselves that is not defined by perfectionism’s partner-in-crime: our inner critic. This frees us up to focus on healthy striving and growth.

Aiming for good enough

Is it so bad to make mistakes? Is it worth spending hours editing a project to “perfection” just so others would not judge us? The law of diminishing returns tells us it is probably not a good use of our time, yet perfectionism tells us we cannot slow down, that we must do more.

As psychologists, it is often easy to get caught up in measuring our self-worth based on how our clients are doing. Much as our intentions are good and we want to help everyone, not every session goes the way we hope. Sometimes sessions go awry, and clients may not resonate with us, or perhaps progress might be slow. Therapists may end up blaming themselves and questioning their abilities, forgetting that there are multiple factors for therapy not going the way we expect.

Perfectionism creeps in and convinces us that we are “frauds” or “imposters”, that we are “useless”. It makes us forget about all the times therapy went well, instead magnifying all the mistakes that we made and sessions that went south. In the long term, such dysfunctional thinking patterns may lead to fatigue and job dissatisfaction, making us forget why we became psychologists in the first place. Ultimately, the irony is that because of perfectionism, we are unable to perform to the best of our abilities.

Perhaps we need to allow ourselves to fumble a little, to experience vulnerability, to be less than perfect. Perhaps good enough is good enough.


This article was written by clinical psychologist and founder of Illuminate Psychology Practice, Amerie Baeg.

Find out more about her services or book a 15-minute complimentary phone consultation with her by visiting the Illuminate Psychology Practice website


Featured Contributor: 

Thumbnail_Wellness_Amerie

Amerie Baeg is a registered clinical psychologist and founder of Illuminate Psychology Practice. Since completing her clinical training in Sydney on a government-awarded scholarship, she served as a Senior Psychologist at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH) for about seven years. She was also Lead of the Adolescent Psychology Team. 

Her clinical expertise spans across a broad range of presenting issues, including anxiety, depression, eating disorders, OCD, attachment/relationship difficulties, complex trauma, parent-child conflict, deliberate self-harm, suicidal behaviour, psychosomatic disorders and personality disorders.


References

Brown, B. (2010). The gifts of imperfection. Hazelden.

Egan, S.J., Wade, T., and Shafran, R. (2011). Perfectionism as a transdiagnostic process: A clinical review. Clinical Psychology Review, 31, 203-212.

Neff, K. D. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and Identity, 2, 85–102.

(Article also featured in Singapore Psychologist, Issue 3, 2020)