Golden star glitter

Greetings, fellow perfectionist! I assume you are one because you took an interest in this topic. Also, since you got hooked by this article’s title, I will assume that you have problems with your perfectionism as well. I will try to help – at least, I will share with you what have helped me.

What is perfectionism and how it manifests

Perfectionism has many faces – not all of them are nice. Some people want to look immaculate and can come off as narcissistic. Some need to possess only the best of everything and keep updating their gadgets, redecorating their flat and even see people around them as accessories always striving to have “only the hottest” partners, only the coolest friends, and only the smartest kids – they lean more towards being vain. Some tamer forms include an obsession with cleanliness at home or fastidiousness in work. Perfectionism even may look good on a resume and characterize you as a diligent detail-orientated employee.

Despite many articles written about the effects of perfectionism of one’s mental health, it isn’t a disorder per se. Rather, a character trait that can complicate your life if you give in to it. Perfectionism can, however, induce depression or accompany disorders like OCD.

How can it be harmful?

I’m glad you’ve asked! Perfectionism is an enemy within. Imagine never being satisfied, always striving for an unattainable ideal and feeling painfully mediocre and generally a waste of skin just because you are not perfect in every respect. The disparity between what you can do and what you think you must do leaves you frustrated and ultimately leads to depression.

Red-haired girl steepling her hands
What if they will stop respecting you for not being perfect, for not making it in life? What if they will discover you for what you are?

Still, it must have its bright sides, mustn’t it? Doesn’t perfectionism also urge you to better yourself constantly? Isn’t it the force that elevates you, propels you forward? Um… no.

First of all, people grow and learn from their mistakes. If you are terrified of mistakes and imperfect things and do everything to avoid them, you cannot learn. Your risk-aversive way of living keeps you tethered to the things you are already good at and prevents you from ever trying anything new.

Toxic perfectionism causes the paralysis in the face of any unfamiliar task. You just loathe the thought of performing less-than, so you freeze. Want to see me stressed and panicked? Ask me to play a new videogame with you. Honest to goodness, I will be terrified of looking stupid and exposed (“She can’t even play!”), my trembling hands will be sweating and slipping on the controller and I will certainly not enjoy the game.

Second, all people are flawed. Yet perfectionism urges you to hide it from the world. You can never be yourself unless you are completely alone. The way you are in reality is your guilty secret. To become the best version of yourself you must first embrace yourself. Whereas perfectionism precludes you from this, steering your instead towards generic and faceless “perfection”. So you settle for things that are supposed to be good and positive, even if they don’t excite you that much. Compliance with social expectations, peer pressure, gender stereotypes, and other such like can be laid at the door of the perfectionism as well.

Where does it come from?

Like so many problems, this particular one starts very early in life. Parents and teachers want us to succeed in life and that’s a noble sentiment. However, they are not always skilled at communicating it in a concise and nuanced way, so often perfectionism is a result of broken communication.

Parents and teachers want us to succeed in life and that’s a noble sentiment.

You know how they sent you to preschool and wish you get all those golden stars? Well, I was a kid who took it as a request. And I took it to heart.

When you are a straight-A student they assume you like school. Even if you are miserable and there is nothing you’d like more than to read comic books or hang around the block with your friends. Somehow no one thinks that getting those As is a grueling chore you would be happy to give it up… only you fear to disappoint your loved ones. They’ve sent you off to get those golden stars, remember? They said it would make them happy. They said you are a good girl for doing so well. And when you had been doing not-so-well, they were disappointed.

Also, they expect a straight-A student to be if not stuck-up then at least confident, owning her success. Yet when I was struggling to brainstorm ideas for my admissions essay back in high school, I couldn’t think of anything to show myself in a flattering light. “Passions, interests, beliefs?”  I thought, “Everything you need to know is in the attached papers. See how flawless my record is, how high my GPA is, how positive my character references are. What more do you need?”

Under all the shining crust was only exhausted and insecure imperfect me and I didn’t want anyone to see that. Not exactly what you would call “accomplished”, right?

And even long after you realize that you don’t have to be the best, you still harbor this fear, semi-consciously. What if they will stop respecting you for not being perfect, for not making it in life? What if they will discover you for what you are? Hello, imposter syndrome – another face of deeply internalized perfectionism.

How do you beat it?

Good on you for asking! I like your attitude. You realize you have a problem – that’s the first step. The second is to identify the source of the problem. We all have our own unique reasons to place so much value on our performance. Usually, however, they are all tied to the feeling of being constantly judged by some demanding external witness. Here is what you can do:

Young woman looking in the mirror smiling
Affirmations will help you to reconcile with yourself.
  • Try journaling. Document your ups and downs. Why do you feel good when you take that proverbial cake? Why do you feel bad when you are close but no cigar? Who judges you? Whom you supposedly let down? Work that out.
  • Embrace your imperfections. They don’t hold you back, they make you who you are – a unique and wonderful human being.
  • Try these ten powerful affirmations:
    • My worth isn’t based on my achievements/grades/appearance/salary (choose any marker of success that is your sore spot).
    • I don’t have to be perfect for people to accept and love me.
    • My health is more important than my performance/grades/appearance/salary.
    • Everyone makes mistakes and I will give myself grace next time I will have made one.
    • Mistakes are growth opportunities.
    • I value learning more than being always right.
    • Done is better than perfect.
    • Doing my best is all I can ask of myself.
    • Having fun isn’t a reward you have to earn.
    • I’m am flawed and I’m still enough.

Remember, this is a journey. It starts with the realization that you are a perfectionist. It heads towards embracing your imperfection. It never ends. Don’t try to win this game as well. There is no medal for the first one to the horizon.

It would be great if we had some sort of Perfectionists Anonymous, where meetings would help us to stay on the right track. However, too often this journey is a lonely and a secret one. Anyway, now you know you aren’t really alone. Keep moving, I believe in you!