Never Good Enough: A Discussion on Perfectionism

By Shannon Prebil, AMFT
Staff therapist with CalOCD

Do you ever feel an enormous amount of pressure to do everything perfectly? Or, do you believe that if you are not perfect at something then you are not worthy to be accepted by others? It is completely normal if these questions have ever crossed your mind, but it is important to take time to reflect on what perfectionism means to you and how much control it has over your life.

Individuals who struggle with being perfect typically have strong fears and anxiety fueling their excessive and exhausting efforts. While it can be part of other disorders, perfectionism is closely associated with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), which is known as excessive anxiety and worry, occurring more days than not for at least six months and could be related to several events or activities (such as work or school performance). An individual diagnosed with GAD finds it difficult to control the worry. These anxious feelings could have originated in one’s environment, or the feelings could be linked to biological sources, but more often the cause of the anxiety is a combination of the two.

Symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder include:  

  • Restlessness
  • The need to escape
  • Feeling easily fatigued
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension
  • Sleep disturbance

Common Perfectionist Statements:

“If I do not dedicate every waking moment of my day to getting my assignments done perfectly, my mentors will give up on me.”

“I need to be able to completely reach my goals, which leaves no room for making mistakes or even the motivation to try.”

“If I do not succeed in being perfect, I will feel like a failure, become so embarrassed, and no one will ever believe I can succeed.”

Woman looking at a computer and biting a pencil out of anger
The familial or cultural pressure to perform well in school can feed overwhelming perfectionism that can lead to burnout and resentment.

Above are some collective fears and narratives that surround someone who struggles with perfectionism. Many of these themes stem from the evolution of society and how the media has exemplified what a perfect life should look like. We see it in movies, TV shows, and ubiquitously through social media. People avoid putting out imperfect media content, which causes others to be deceived by what it means to be happy. A perfectionist will believe that they are a bad person and feel that they are never seen for the good parts of them. They will start clinging on to someone else’s narrative in hopes of trying to make it their own. Additionally, they will obsess over what others think of them and who they are allowed to be in other’s eyes. All of these negative comments are preventing them from moving forward and respecting themselves and their true identity.

Ways To Re-Route Negative Thoughts:

What would happen if you did not have to worry about that voice in your head anymore telling you that you will never be good enough? Would you feel free? Or would you miss the constant voice pushing you to “do better?”

We can address these fears of not being perfect by acknowledging that you have the power to overcome these thoughts and emotions by retraining your brain to have more realistic expectations. When you start to worry about how others will perceive you, think about the danger of that thought. Humans are not mind readers, and humans are also not the best at deciphering communication when emotions are high.

Man practicing the high bar gymnastics exercise.
Striving for perfection in sports is often grueling and can end in injury or burnout.

The first thing you can do as someone who overthinks or struggles with perfectionism is to take a deep breath and be curious about where these thoughts are coming from. Did someone in your life tell you that you had no choice but to be perfect? Did someone use statements that were targeted towards you in a way that made you feel less-than? Or can you identify another reason motivating this behavior? Being aware of events, interactions, relationships, or needs that contribute to perfectionism can help you begin to break down the function it serves in your life.

What do you think the word perfect means? One definition of perfect is being entirely without fault or defect. Wow. That seems quite difficult to live your life entirely without making one mistake. It actually sounds impossible; because it is. Humans make mistakes every second of the day because life is not meant to be lived in a contained environment such as the definition identifies.

The truth is that life is messy, and each mess or challenge strengthens and guides you to learn something new about yourself and how to overcome resistance. It is frustrating when no one sees you at your core and makes you feel that your ideas are not worth their consideration. You may feel guilt and shame for even attempting to express yourself. However, judging yourself and feeling weak or lost are transitory thoughts and emotions that you should oppose dwelling in or else the perfectionist mindset will continue to do more damage.

Mourning The “Perfect Me

A person striving for perfectionism has a set of expectations that they feel must be met in order to not feel worthless. They falsely trust that being perfect will bring them a sense of purpose and help them strive to be their true authentic or successful self. This is a defense mechanism to protect them and their beliefs from pain and defend what they feel it means to be worthy and desired by others. These expectations have to be peeled back so that an individual can accept that it is not humanly possible to be perfect. Once individuals can acknowledge this, the mourning process of letting go of the persona they needed to achieve perfection can begin.

Man giving a presentation in front a room full of co-workers
The results of perfectionism at work is often praised by employers and colleagues.

This practice is not to deny a perfectionistic person of their feelings, only to help them focus on how they can leave their old views behind and build a stronger base of values that help them to be kinder to themselves. They have not realized that they gave up on these core values in the false hope of achieving perfection.

If you have struggled with similar thoughts about being perfect, what values have you minimized while letting perfectionistic views guide you?

Esteemed author and researcher Brené Brown highlights that we need emotional courage to align with our values. Finding courage is intimidating, but it leads to the process of becoming real. People who strive to be perfect fear the idea of becoming authentic and genuine because it means that they have to pull down the façade that they have used in the past. This is where Identity vs Imposter Syndrome comes in. Taking time to reflect on what parts of your identity you have been hiding from the world and what characteristics you have tried to emulate in others who you believe are perfect or better is crucial to distinguish what pieces make up the true you.

Be Thankful and Feeling Thankful

Journaling and focusing on gratitude and vulnerability are helpful tools to accept where you are in the present. You can start by listing five personal characteristics or qualities for which you are thankful, then practice vulnerability by allowing yourself to feel the weight of those items and how they have gotten you this far in life. Ask yourself: what currently feeds your soul and what may be damaging it?

Grounding and Meditation

Knowing that you can never achieve “perfect” is uncomfortable. So how can we get more comfortable with this fact? Connecting with your body through grounding and meditation exercises is another great way to bring yourself back to the here and now. Someone who is trying to be “good enough” can waste so much time thinking about the future and what they can do to change themselves to live up to certain expectations. They may also be dedicating their time to focus on the past; wishing they could go back to a certain look, relationship, or career. What would happen if you chose to focus on the day ahead of you and forgave yourself for not having a perfect day? You would likely feel lighter, less overwhelmed, and motivated to get things done.

Take A Load Off

Muscle relaxation exercises are also helpful to shake yourself out of the negativity surrounding perfectionistic thoughts. Start by closing your eyes, squeezing your fists as tightly as you can so that you can feel the tension in your fingers, your forearms, biceps, and shoulders, then release this grip all at once and open your eyes. Notice how you feel, and what thoughts remain.

Putting It All Together

All of these tools can be added to your toolbelt overtime. Do not feel pressure to try to do each of these recommendations today, but take these ideas at your own pace and work through the changes you would like to make with someone who keeps you accountable. Recognizing the people in your support system is going to help you to open up to them about this process and how they can help you stay on track to reach any new goals you have set for yourself. Practice kindness and forgiveness to yourself as much as possible when you are ready to make these changes. And remember, it is okay to not be perfect. You are so much more than how that word has defined you in the past and how it has driven you towards future thoughts and behaviors.

To learn more about perfectionism and how to treat perfectionistic behaviors, please reach out CalOCD by calling (714) 423-3779, or by sending a message through the contact page. Staff therapists at CalOCD treat perfectionism online or in-person in our offices in Fullerton, Ca.

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