Have you ever referred to yourself as a perfectionist? Fussing over little details, reaching toward the highest of standards, forcing yourself to do the best you can; these traits can help us become better people and push us toward growth. So who did you speak that phrase to – “I am a perfectionist” – and why did you need to? Was it to validate your actions to a concerned peer who was watching as you obsessed over the smallest details, or a way to explain to a boss why you hadn’t finished your project on time because you felt it wasn’t good enough? Perfectionistic tendencies can be helpful, but they can also speak to deeper processes happening within us. This phrase, “I’m a perfectionist,” is often a cover for feelings of shame, stemming from the belief that what we do – or cannot do – is a direct reflection of who we are.
Shame is one way we make sense out of the complex and often mixed messages that we receive about what is “good or bad” within our society, culture, or family; if we do not fit within those socially prescribed boxes we can internalize the disconnect and translate it into a problem of self. We feel anxious, vulnerable, judged as “different,” and we begin to say to ourselves “I’m stupid,” “I’m unworthy,” or “I’m unlovable.” And if we believe these to be true, then surely other people will judge us just as harshly as we judge ourselves.
In order to combat this feeling of shame, we develop ways to subdue it, or mask it. Perfectionism is one such method; by shielding our imperfections and our insecurities from ourselves as well as those who might look down on us, we can keep the shame hidden. By achieving impossible standards, producing exceptional work, saying the most intelligent phrases, or by having an immaculate, beautiful home and/or personal appearance, we push away any opportunities for shame. We eliminate the chance for vulnerability or connection, thus lessening the opportunity for scrutiny or judgement. We are isolated.
Adaptive and Maladaptive Perfectionism
Let’s take a step back and talk about some ways perfectionism can be healthy. It is possible for perfectionism to take root and become a positive driving force in our accomplishments. This happens when we learn to overcome shame in the sense that we can separate our failures from our self-worth, and instead see failure as a chance to learn and try again. Our desire for things to be “just right,” or even “perfect,” in this mindset is not contingent on any societal expectations, but rather on our own awareness of what we are capable of accomplishing.
Maladaptive perfectionism happens when we just cannot shake the shame. Instead of striving for greatness because we believe we can take on the challenge, we strive for perfection because it is the only way we can mask the feeling that we are incapable of greatness. But there is no such thing as perfect, so we ultimately set ourselves up for failure. We put massive amounts of energy into upholding impossible ideals, but no matter how hard we work they slip away and leave us vulnerable. Or maybe we do succeed in maintaining an illusion of perfection, and for years put a lot of effort into constructing a version of ourselves that we think we want to be, and think others want us to be. We take great pains to keep up our façade, and the longer it is in place the further away we push people who might get close enough to call our bluff. It is lonely, it is exhausting, and it eats away at our true sense of self.
Combating maladaptive perfectionism means tackling shame. It is allowing yourself to just be, rather than expecting to be something better, someone who fits in. It is opening up to being vulnerable, first with yourself as you build up resiliency, then with others while you practice loving yourself despite how you are perceived. You can do this in small steps, selecting a small stone in your façade that will not reveal you to the world just yet but will allow you to practice having compassion for yourself. Maybe you let the dishes pile up for a few more hours than usual, wear mismatched socks, or let yourself be 5 minutes late to a social engagement. These small practices give you the chance to become enamored with your quirks and imperfections, using them as positive, somewhat silly, intentional reflections of your true self. Then, perhaps, the next time someone gives you a sideways glance that makes you want to fall back on the phrase “I’m a perfectionist,” instead you can shrug and say, “I’m human.”