Are you a self-proclaimed “perfectionist”? Or do others often put you on a high pedestal to achieve and always be on top of things? Perfectionism, while not a diagnosable mental illness, can wreak havoc on those who wrestle with the nagging thought of “Am I good enough?”
What is Perfectionism?
Merriam Webster defines perfectionism as “the doctrine that the perfection of moral character constitutes a person’s highest good b: the theological doctrine that a state of freedom from sin is attainable on earth 2: a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable” (https://www.merriam-webster.com/)
Brene Brown, author of “The Gifts of Imperfection” explains this further: “Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfectly, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. It’s a shield. It’s a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from flight.”
What Causes Perfectionism?
Those struggling with perfectionism are usually coming from a place of fear and insecurity. A false belief of their value being attached to something achievement-based. Typically this begins as a learned behavior, meaning that at one point this served as an effective strategy for self-esteem or for security. It is important to evaluate whether this strategy (perfectionism) is no longer serving you effectively before taking action steps. If you have come to the conclusion that you are ready and have support to begin digging into this then good news… Anything that is learned can be unlearned!
Common signs of perfectionistic behaviors:
- Feeling like what you do is not good enough
- Anything less than perfect (in school A+, for example) feels like a complete failure
- Constant procrastination or compulsively overworking
- Being told you are too hard on yourself
- Commonly found in “type A” personalities
- Focusing on outward appearance (must be a certain weight, body type, clothing brand)
- Feeling devastated if things don’t happen just right
- Might co-occur with minority stress, trauma, or past survival skills
Three Tips from a Perfectionism Therapist to Begin Healing from Perfectionism:
1. Stop “Shoulding on Yourself”
Do you have a case of the “shoulds”? Sorry, therapist humor here. Let me explain what I mean. “Shoulding” is when you place expectations on yourself and/or others to do something in a particular way. Which in the case of perfectionism, equals perfection. For example, “I shouldn’t have said that” or “I should have gotten an A+ on that exam”. You may feel down on yourself, ashamed, or distressed about the unmet expectations. You might feel depleted or in some cases defeated when the “shoulds” come into play. Does this sound like you? If you are unsure, begin to practice tuning into your inner thought monologues throughout the day. Chances are, if you do have this thought pattern, it will pop up again and again.
- Pay attention to absolutes in your thinking (should, must, can’t)
- Aim for the “70%” rule if you notice this thought pattern. This means if 100% equals perfection, try aiming for 70% effort
- Practice flexible thinking. This can be achieved by holding two truths at once such as “I can be successful and make mistakes from time to time”
2. Break the Cycle!
This is easier said than done. But, in order for perfectionism to be unlearned, some things will have to change. Did you know that we have the ability to change the thought patterns in our brains over time? Yes, it is difficult but it is also possible. Our thoughts become hardwired as neural connections in our brains. The more the thought occurs, the more the pathway is strengthened. However, we have the ability to create new pathways and to even slowly weaken old ones. The first step to doing this is to be aware of the patterns that may no longer serve you (like the above “should” examples). Cultivating awareness takes a patient and non-judgemental stance. This can look like thinking to yourself “I am noticing a ‘should” thought happening right now” or “I am noticing the urge to strive for perfection”.
- Set a daily intention to practice noticing your thoughts in a non-judgemental way
- Practice self-compassion. You do not have to be hard on yourself.
- Celebrate small victories! Even having the intention to begin this process is a victory deserving time and attention
3. Talk To a Perfectionism Therapist
If perfectionism is plaguing your day-to-day life, talking to a professional may be helpful. Healing from perfectionism is not a cookie-cutter one-size-fits-all formula. Perhaps your patterns are protecting factors and you need some consultation to find other techniques to manage trauma, self-esteem, anxiety, depression, or other life challenges. Getting help is not a sign of weakness but is a sign of strength and can serve as an action step to tackling perfectionism. You can begin by talking to your support systems such as individuals you trust in your family, friend group, or community. Begin by asking if they have any recommendations of who to talk to. Or you can research therapists in your area who specialize in helping people overcome old thinking habits that no longer serve them. A therapist can help you get to the root of your perfectionism and can help you work on incremental steps to heal from it.
- Reach out to someone you trust to ask for recommendations for therapists (friends, family members, religious leaders, Primary Care doctors, etc)
- Consult with a therapist to see if they feel like a “good fit”
- If a therapist does not feel like a fit, ask for referrals or more recommendations
- Count this as a small victory in your healing process
Begin Overcoming Perfectionism with Anxiety Counseling in Scotch Plains, NJ
Overcoming perfectionism takes time, commitment, and support. Our caring therapists would love to assist you in recognizing that you are good enough! We offer support from our Scotch Plains, NJ-based therapy practice. In addition, we also provide online therapy to the residents of New Jersey. To start your counseling journey, please follow these steps:
Other Services Offered at Brave Minds Psychological Services
Anxiety counseling isn’t the only service provided at our Scotch Plains, NJ-based counseling practice. We also offer therapy for children, teens, and adults. This includes trauma therapy, EMDR, online therapy, and CBT. For kids and teens, we offer online therapy for children, child anxiety treatment, child sexual abuse therapy, teenage therapy, social phobia therapy, OCD, equestrian anxiety, and food allergies. For adults, we offer anxiety counseling, couples counseling, counseling for parents, postpartum counseling, birth trauma therapy, and sexual assault counseling.
About the Author
Julie is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who is passionate about helping her clients overcome depression, anxiety, and stress. She incorporates a mindfulness-based approach into her sessions, helping clients’ courage and strength shine through. Julie specializes in treatment for tweens, teens and young adults.