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The Tyranny of Perfectionism

Are you experiencing more pressure than pleasure?
Is your life a constant exhausting doing?
Are your high expectations of others affecting your relationships?
Is your plate always full to overflowing?
If so, perhaps you will benefit from reading further.

Perfectionism has three primary characteristics.

  • The tendency to set unrealistic standards and goals.
  • The tendency to use all or nothing thinking to evaluate ones actions.  One either succeeds or fails.
  • The third characteristic is the tendency to focus on small flaws and errors rather than ones overall progress or achievement.

These tendencies can be restricted to one or two areas of life or can dominate ones entire existence.  Accomplishments are often considered inadequate therefore deep feelings of discouragement and self-condemnation follow.

The primary feeling shared by many perfectionist is pressure, so little time so much to do.  Always pushing, pushing, pushing leaves little time to relax and enjoy life.  Chronic trying leads to a full gamete of negative emotions including chronic anger or chronic anxiety.

Over time, our bodies absorb the stress and symptoms such as headache, fatigue, gastro-intestinal distress, insomnia, panic attack, high blood pressure and any number of other physical problems can occur from ongoing pressure and anxiety.

Three common irrational beliefs tie one to the dis-ease of perfectionism.

  • Perfectionism is possible.  This is the first and most basic irrational belief to be challenged.
  • A person's worth is determined by achievement.  This presents a no-win situation in which one feels worthwhile only when they achieve and yet those achievements most often fall short of ones standards, ones desires, ones yearnings.
  • All mistakes are terrible.  Mistakes are seen as one of the worst things that can possibly happen even if the mistake is minor with few to no negative consequences.  However, mistakes are an indispensable and a natural part of the learning process.  They offer wonderful opportunities to gain knowledge and develop skills.

A complex trait like perfectionism carries with it a number of irrational beliefs and, unfortunately, of which we are often unaware.  These core beliefs and subsequent habits developed as we grew up from what we observed or experienced.  They are also a product of living in a world of unrelenting competition.  Competition from without and within,  we “should” be successful as our culture defines success.  In the workplace one “should” excel, make more money, and get promoted.  Our homes “should” favorably compare with what we used to have,  according to current style and design, and frequently we ”should” meet the expectations of groups to which we wish to belong.

Children feel it early on.  From early life one “should” make high grades.  One “should” be pretty or athletic or popular.  No wonder our children are stressed and worry.

There are frequently painful relational consequences from living in the tyranny of perfectionism.  It can be really hard to love a perfectionist and to feel loved by one.  You “could have, should have, must” says the critical inner voice of the perfectionist, either consciously or unconsciously.  The accusation can be either situation specific or pervasive.  This line of thinking and verbalizing can block desired relationships and devastate existing ones.  As it is to the perfectionist, so it is to the people around us.  Being driven is not only painful and exhausting to self and others, it erodes confidence around what we/they do and, more importantly, who we /they are.  The message is that we/they never quite measure up, are never quite good enough.  The fallout can be escalating conflict and de-escalating connection.

Change is not easy.  Change happens from the inside out.  Change involves ones whole system.  Change requires intent and action.  Change that is deep and lasting calls on spiritual resources in addition to commitment to move from life under pressure to one of inner peace and outer harmony. 

  • Awareness is always the first step.  Create a space to, with honesty, name your emotional  pressures and the thoughts and habits that fuel them.
  • Belonging and being loved are core needs.  Honestly evaluate how your perfectionism gets in the way.  Soul search whether or not you really want to modify your way of being in your world.
  • Commit to a course of action both inside and out.  Elicit a few people you trust to walk your journey with you.  Consider your friends, consider spiritual direction, consider a skilled experienced therapist.

If we can walk a part of your journey from the tyranny of perfectionism toward a path of peace with you we would like to do so.  We wish you well.