Do better.” These words have echoed in many of our minds, driving us to strive for more, whether it’s related to a short-term work project, the wider scope of our career, or even our performance as a parent or partner.
But, for many, that motivating spark can cross the line from helpful to hurtful, generating anxiety, spirals of procrastination, and an unfillable hole where a healthy sense of self-worth is meant to reside.
“Perfectionists tend to be more personally critical of themselves for not measuring up to their own ideals, and then punish themselves for that,” says psychotherapist and executive coach Marilee Adams, PhD. “They tend to have a judgmental attitude toward themselves, and expectations that often exceed what’s humanly possible.”
The negative impacts of perfectionism are all around us: a boss who can never be pleased, a friend obsessed with every self-perceived personal flaw.
The trend seems especially prevalent among young people. One study of college students’ responses to the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale from 1989 to 2016 found a major generational rise in what’s described as “socially prescribed perfectionism,” a pattern of high social expectations that has been linked to depression, anxiety, and thoughts of self-harm.
“Perfectionism is very harmful. It hurts emotionally,” says former Harvard psychology lecturer Tal Ben-Shahar, PhD. “It takes away from our happiness and it harms our relationships. If I am a perfectionist, I have to maintain an image — and if anyone dares criticize me, this is a deviation, and so I become very defensive.”
And that gets at the root of what causes perfectionists to suffer: the constant, ongoing weight of an inner judge who won’t ever declare them good enough; the outward-looking eye that sees everyone else as happier and more successful; and the need to always defend a bubble of flawlessness against attacks from within and from the outside.
“You will always fall short, because that’s the definition of being human,” says University of Texas, Austin, psychology professor Kristin Neff, PhD, author of The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook. “The perfectionist always feels anxiety. In the long run, it’s not even good for your motivation. You’ll start to give up or procrastinate rather than make an attempt, knowing it’ll lead to beating yourself up.”
Of course, when perfectionists recognize this dynamic in their lives it might lead to even more self-criticism and negative feelings — but this doesn’t have to be the case. If perfectionism is holding you back, there are concrete steps you can take toward more balance and ease.
Psychologists make a crucial distinction between adaptive perfectionism — valuing success, doing good work, acting responsibly — and perfectionism in its maladaptive form.
“Adaptive perfectionists embody what I call optimalism,” says Ben-Shahar. “But maladaptive perfectionism is about an intense, debilitating, and harmful fear of failure. It’s when I have to constantly sustain an image of perfection and flawlessness, both in my eyes and in the eyes of others.”
Failure, however, is largely just a state of mind. Seen from a more adaptive (or optimalist) perspective, it’s a temporary state that arises from the kind of risk and exploration that is intrinsic to personal growth. When things don’t go as planned, the adaptive perfectionist will often find great opportunity for learning that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
“When I would start my class on perfectionism, I would say: ‘Full disclosure: My objective is that by the end of this workshop you will fail more, and embrace failure,’” Ben-Shahar explains. “And that involves a behavioral shift in terms of putting yourself on the line. It means taking more risks, within reason, and even if you have to fake it at first, you will ultimately make it. Even if failure is torturing you, as it does, you will get used to it and realize it’s not that bad after all.”
Give Yourself a Break
Perfectionists often view themselves as extraordinary people: more successful, more driven, and more talented than their peers. The problem is trying to live up to such an idealized version of the self, which doesn’t always accommodate the inevitable ups and downs of life.
“Common humanity is the understanding that everyone is imperfect, and everyone lives an imperfect life,” says Neff. “Everyone struggles. Everyone makes mistakes. But it can feel like everyone else is living a problem-free life and it’s only me who’s struggling.”
If that sounds familiar, Neff suggests counteracting the feeling by cultivating a sense of care for yourself. By focusing on warm intention, with actions such as placing a hand over your heart and saying something encouraging, it’s possible to find a more stable sense of self-worth that isn’t so closely associated with fleeting achievements and illusory standards.
“It also means not getting carried away with the dramatic storyline of how badly things went,” she adds. “You need to make yourself safe, with some unconditional self-acceptance, encouragement, and support.”
Shift the Script
Those displaying perfectionistic patterns may feel tempted to believe that continually comparing, judging, and evaluating the self and others is necessary for a happy life. But it’s worth questioning whether that extreme mindset is truly creating happiness, and if it’s even appropriate for the moment.
“It’s one thing to need to be perfect if you work at NASA and you need the rocket to launch perfectly,” says Adams. “But we’re talking about how we treat ourselves and how we treat others in our everyday lives.”
In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW, explores some of the narratives that perfectionists use to describe their habits of mind and spirit to themselves, noting that they often frame them as a healthy emphasis on achievement and self-improvement.
“Perfectionism,” she writes, “is a 20-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from taking flight.”
Learn From Your Inner Critic
We all have that internal voice to some degree, telling us that we’re not good enough, that failure is around the corner, that other people are going to let us down. While it’s tempting to imagine that life would be perfect without that critical storyteller inside, it’s not possible to banish it entirely.
“My mindset model is one of wholeness, not one of positivity only,” Adams says. “Wholeness means we accept all parts of ourselves. I get concerned when people talk about getting rid of the inner critic. That’s not a possibility because it’s part of the amygdala and how we’re hardwired for survival.”
Adams distinguishes between a “learner” and a “judger” mindset. The judgmental mind, most associated with perfectionism, becomes mired in preoccupations like finding fault and making negative generalizations.
Cultivating a learning mindset involves focusing on questions that clarify the situation at hand, the opportunities for growth, and the best possibilities for health and happiness.
“You can notice when you’re in ‘judger,’” says Adams. “And it’s also really important that you do that nonjudgmentally. Just ask yourself: Do I want to stay here? Is this what I want to be feeling or doing? And what empathy can I bring to myself in this moment?”
Look Outside Yourself
The habits of mind that characterize perfectionism — comparing, harshly judging, focusing on bad outcomes — all tend to focus strongly on the self and the self-image, which includes protecting it from what others might think.
Finding a more healthy balance starts with forgiving ourselves for our negative patterns.
“We’re all recovering judgers,” Adams admits. “And one of the things about the judger mindset is a perception of separateness from other people. In the learner mindset, there is always connectedness.”
That treadmill of harsh evaluation and catastrophic thinking is a punishing one, but finding ways to abandon it can be a great gift to the self. Strengthening friendships, developing a spiritual practice, trying cognitive therapy, and volunteering in their community can help perfectionists break out of the isolation they suffer.
Once you’re reminded of your connection to others, it might be more possible to develop a healthier relationship with yourself.
“Say something kind to yourself — it’s a practice of intention,” suggests Neff. “You’ve already learned how to be a good friend. Now give yourself permission to be that for yourself.”
This article originally appeared as “Nobody’s Perfect” in the March 2021 issue of Experience Life.