February—Identifying and letting go of perfectionism

The month of February will be all about perfectionism. Understanding what it is, identifying it, and learning how to let go.

Perfectionism is still sometimes characterized as a good thing. It can be that go-to humble brag answer when asked “what are your weaknesses?”. As more and more people are becoming aware of mental health issues, however, it does seem that perfectionism is finally being recognized as an unhealthy and damaging mindset.

In a lot of the self-improvement space, you will hear people refer to themselves as “recovering perfectionists.” Though I tend to identify with these people, I don’t think I have ever really dug into it more than to recognize that my standards are too high and to joke with other type A folks about it. I keep on setting those high standards, and beating myself up when I fall short.

So, what is the true definition of perfectionism and why is it so unhealthy? What can we do to identify it in our lives and let go of it?

What is perfectionism?

Perfectionism is commonly defined as the need to be or appear to be perfect. Essentially, it means holding unattainable standards for yourself.

If you are a perfectionist, even when you do something well, you still feel like you could have done better. You beat yourself up for little mistakes. You excessively knit pick your own work, your appearance, everything about yourself.

Brené Brown is the author/researcher who comes up most frequently around this topic and her book Gifts of Imperfection is an easy read that is jam packed with helpful information.

She defines perfectionism as “a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect, live perfectly, and do everything perfectly, I can minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame.”

To paraphrase the rest of her definition, perfectionism is self-destructive because it is unattainable. At the end of the day, it is about how others perceive us—and we have no way to control how other people perceive us. It is addictive because when we inevitably experience shameful feelings, we believe it is because we were not perfect enough. In reality, these shameful feelings are part of being human. Perfectionism has the opposite effect. It makes this worse—it often leads to self blame. (p. 57).

She differentiates perfectionism from healthy striving and self-improvement. When we strive for perfectionism, we are focusing on what other people will think about us. Healthy striving is when we want to do something for ourselves.

Brené also digs into the roots of perfectionism, which she says often comes from, “being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule-following, people-pleasing, appearance, sports). Somehow along the way we adopt this dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it” (p. 56).

Based on her research, perfectionism exists along a continuum, with some people only experiencing it when they are feeling vulnerable and others having a compulsion for it. Other sources say that perfectionism can come up for some people only in certain parts of their lives, such as at work, around body image, or even in their social lives. Personally, I feel that my perfectionists tendencies are definitely the strongest around my work, however, they can creep into other areas of my life as well.

The challenge:

For the month of February, I will keep track in a journal all the times that I find myself engaging in perfectionist thinking. Through journaling and the blog, I will aim to figure out the line between what is “good enough” and the unattainable perfect standard that I am striving for. Through the month, I will work to reduce these behaviors.

I will report back at the end of the month to let you know how the challenge goes. I would love to hear from anyone who feels they are a perfectionist, or has any tips for letting go of unrealistic standards.

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