Dealing with Perfectionism
What do you think of when you think of perfectionism?
While many people have certain ideas about what perfectionism looks like, it can manifest in more ways than you might think. It often comes up around work or completing tasks. Maybe you think of someone who is productive and produces quality work? Or maybe you think of someone who is meticulous and follows all of the rules?
Outwardly, a perfectionist’s life or way of doing things may seem...well, perfect - or at least intentional and controlled. But what many people don’t realize (especially those who don’t have perfectionistic tendencies themselves), is that perfectionism is incredibly draining - and often manifests when you feel a lack of control in your life.
And chances are that if it shows up in one area of your life, such as work or school, it is also present in other areas of your life, such as in your relationships with others. Perfectionistic tendencies are much more complicated and deep-seated than we tend to give them credit for.
If you’re someone who feels that their perfectionism sometimes does more harm than good, then you’ve already taken the first step to become more aware of how perfectionism impacts your life, energy and goals.
While this information can be helpful to anyone, it may especially be relevant to highly sensitive people (HSPs), as perfectionism is especially common amongst HSPs. Below we’ll cover some of the aspects and issues of perfectionism - and some helpful ways to think about it so that you can begin to recognize it in its many forms.
Fear and Lack of Self-Esteem
Much of perfectionism is fear-based in one way or another, whether it’s a fear of judgement, a fear of rejection, feeling threatened in some way, a manifestation of trauma, etc. We may feel that if we can perform at a certain level, we cannot be hurt or at the mercy of other people’s judgement and criticism.
On a deeper level, this is tied to our sense of self-esteem. And for those of us who try to control our environments and the results that we produce through perfectionism - we do not trust ourselves to handle whatever the world may throw at us. In this case, perfectionism is sort of a safety net or crutch.
By choosing to manage our perfectionistic tendencies, we are choosing to trust ourselves and our performance in life, as well as to become more resilient and able to handle criticism, rejection, competition, conflict, and cycles of trauma.
Lack of Control
Perfectionism often manifests when we might be feeling a lack of control somewhere in our lives, whether it’s directly related to whatever we are being perfectionistic about or not. For example, maybe you feel very disempowered in your workplace, so you try to be an exceptional employee (even if it doesn’t actually make you more empowered). Or maybe it shows up somewhere else - like you may spend a lot of time agonizing over being the “perfect” partner, the “perfect” parent, etc.
Being perfectionistic and having control over all of the details or outcomes of a project or a situation can give us a sense of control - even if it is false or temporary. In situations like this, it may be really important for you to hold onto some sense of control - but it is also important to be aware of this and try to address the real issue you are dealing with.
Burnout and Apathy
A key side-effect of consistently engaging in perfectionism is burnout. Doing things well - to an extreme all the time and feeling worthless if you don’t - is incredibly exhausting. While burnout has many ways it manifests, a common expression of burnout amongst perfectionists is APATHY - or a lack of desire to do anything at all.
This usually comes from a place of “if I can’t do something well (or perfectly), I may as well not do it at all.”
However, this often isn’t true. This is a self-limiting belief and causes us to not show up consistently in our work, lives and commitments. In order to maintain our habits and wellbeing, it is better to show up consistently and do what we can, rather than always strive for perfection.
Excellence vs. Being a Perfectionist
An important distinction to make when talking about perfectionism is the difference between showing up with excellence and being a perfectionist. Many of us tend to think that our perfectionistic tendencies are our ways of being “excellent” or going above-and-beyond, whether in our work, lives, relationships, health and fitness, etc.
However, there are key differences between perfectionism and excellence. Perfectionism is tainted with anxious and fearful energy, and is not something that people generally strive for - but struggle with. When we are perfectionists and think that we are doing things to the best of our ability, it often takes up so much of our time and mental/physical energy that it never feels good enough.
Excellence, rather, is what we should strive for. Excellence means that we show up in ways that make us feel good and accomplished, rather than at the mercy of the judgment of others or ourselves.
In an ideal world, true productivity and life satisfaction is untainted by anxiety - because it includes self-care. I would argue that productivity where you're constantly feeling overwhelmed or burnt out is not really productivity at all. True productivity is showing up as your best self - full of confidence in everything you do.
It’s also worth mentioning that taking your focus off of striving for perfection doesn’t mean that we shouldn't do things well or that we shouldn't do things with care. It simply means that you care more about yourself than how you do things. If you focus on yourself and your wellbeing, you will naturally do things with excellence.
ACTIONABLE EXERCISES TO MANAGE PERFECTIONISM & STRIVE FOR EXCELLENCE
- If you’re starting to feel overwhelmed by a certain task or situation and notice yourself trying to “fix” or “perfect” it, step back and ask yourself what about that situation might be triggering your urge to do it in a certain way. Is there a feeling or emotion attached?
What may seem to simply be a desire to do something “right” might actually be an expression of insecurity, jealousy, sadness, feeling out of control, etc. These things won’t be addressed through perfectionistic tendencies. Once you can identify where your urge is coming from, you can work towards resolving it.
- Remember that battling perfectionist tendencies is all about energy management. Start testing out ways to do or think through things in a way that take up less of your time and energy, instead of working on or thinking about it until it’s “done” or “feels right.”
Often, this leads us down a path of endlessly working on a task or pondering a situation. The problem is that we start getting caught in situations that aren’t actually worth our energy - or won’t be improved by overworking and overthinking.
Question whether what you’re asking of yourself is necessary or reasonable. Set an achievable goal regarding the situation that will not overwhelm you - and focus on that instead.
- A more task-based mind hack is to try following a “percentage” rule. As perfectionists, whenever we do tasks or work - we often go far above what is the standard or necessary.
So to try to reduce the amount of time and stress you spend on something. Tell yourself that you will do it 50% as “well” as you normally would (or 60%, 70% - whatever feels good).
You might notice that you are able to complete something faster with less stress - with the additional realization that your work is likely a similar quality to what it would have been normally - had you put in your “full” effort (been a perfectionist). At the very least, it often is at least adequate to the actual needs of the situation.
To use this tip in a more situational context, give yourself some sort of threshold, where once you complete certain things, you can let the situation go. This might go something like, “If I do A, B and C - I will have done what I needed to do in order to feel good about the situation and move on.”
The best thing you can do is to start taking back your time and energy over perfectionism - to practice being mindful of how it gets activated in your day to day life. Remember, there is nothing wrong with wanting to do things well or with care, but holding yourself to an impossible standard of perfection will only harm you, your energy, and therefore, your goals. Treat yourself with kindness and understanding as you explore your perfectionism and its impacts on your life.