Perfectionism – what is it, why do we strive for it and how do we break free from it

When considering writing this article about perfectionism, I thought it would be easy to define what perfectionism is. The notion of someone being a perfectionist is something we are all familiar with and yet trying to describe it I ended up going around in circles. One definition said a refusal to accept any standard short of perfection, but what is perfection? It fascinated me that in trying to find the definition it evaded me, very much in the way that perfection does in reality. How many things in life are without flaws or faults? One definition described it as a belief that perfection is attainable and in fact should be attained. Yet the real struggle with perfectionism or trying to do something perfectly is in the striving for something, that in reality, is actually unattainable. Behind it is the notion of something concrete that we can agree is perfect, something that is rarely found. Maybe it is possible in the context of things that we can define as right or wrong, such as adding up numbers.

I believe a lot of us struggle with more subtle forms of perfectionism that come from a belief that somehow it is possible to achieve it in areas of our lives where we clearly can’t. It can take time and reflection and repeated struggles with our own inner critic before we begin to appreciate, we are striving for something unattainable. In my experience a lot of us don’t realise that we are in fact setting ourselves up for failure. We often don’t know why we set such high standards for ourselves, but we do. Most of us will have at least one area of our lives that has this unspoken notion. A common one is our attitude towards ourselves and our appearance, another is what we “should” be achieving or doing with our lives. Social media has not helped this situation in all fairness, we are often set impossible and unrealistic images, some of which have been digitally altered. How it shows up in your life may be different from how it shows up in mine. Maybe you feel your house needs to look this way, or your garden needs to look that way. Maybe you have standards about how you should behave, that you should always be feeling positive. I often find that when people come for counselling, they are seeking a way to have a life without struggle, or without feeling awful some days. Why am I feeling like this, as though there is this perfect version of ourselves where we are totally sorted, have no problems and sail through life knowing how to always be on an even keel, physically, emotionally, and mentally.

Why do we strive for Perfection?

If striving for perfection is an impossible task, why do so many of us get caught up behaving as though it is possible. We will each have our own individual experiences that shaped us and gave us the feeling that somehow, we weren’t good enough, or we weren’t acceptable. A generalised feeling that somehow something is missing in us. We all share a fundamental need to belong and feel accepted and yet the process of growing up and developing provides so many moments that challenge that feeling for us. It doesn’t have to be some major traumatic event in your life that shaped you, it could be a simple throw away comment by someone that impacted you. Life at school is never easy and I often feel grateful that I didn’t have the additional challenge that social media brings as young people grow and navigate learning to understand and accept themselves. A fear of failure can be underneath our need to do it perfectly, a sense that we can relax knowing that we have it all sorted now. Yet uncertainty is a constant in life, we can never really know what is around the corner. Sometimes it is pleasant and sometimes it is challenging. Perfectionism is often a way we try and avoid negative emotions like shame, or exclusion or abandonment. Making mistakes and feeling comfortable with that as part of learning and growing is a skill a lot of us need to learn and develop. Often we wont try something new in case we can’t do it or look stupid or feel embarrassed.

Lacking a solid foundation of self-worth we look to validate ourselves in a different way. We look for absolutes and guarantees that we falsely believe will finally allow ourselves to know our worth. Yet self-worth comes first, if we base our self-worth on anything external or some achievement then that will change. We get caught up in the cycle where we have to do the next thing and the next thing and we keep going.

How to break free from Perfectionism?

Maybe it isn’t about breaking free or having something else you perceive as faulty about yourself. I wonder what it would be like to understand that all of us to varying degrees can struggle with this one. If we are all seeking approval and acceptance then we can all be vulnerable to the fantasy of perfection.

One option you may want to consider is how perfectionism is creating problems for you in your life, how is it holding you back? For some of us we postpone things until we can do them perfectly. What about facing your fear of failure and just giving it a go? The first step, as is often the case, is to notice when we have that need in us, to see it for what it is. I think just reflecting on your intentions often throws up a lot of information about your motivation. A simple example could be thinking about a project you are doing, whether it is for school or work such, as a presentation. Asking yourself what do I want to achieve, or what do I want to communicate, may be useful. In writing this article my thought was what do I want someone reading this to take away, rather than I need to write the perfect article about this topic. There is a real difference between doing your best and perfection and usually we find this when we examine our motivation.

Consider alternative ways to improve your self-esteem and build your self-compassion. Embracing failure as part of the learning process, including learning to live with your tendencies towards perfectionism. Take some time to reflect, in whatever way works for you. I like to write, or often I find someone to talk things through. Alternatively, if I get really stuck I find that going for a walk or spending time in nature helps. A good question to ask yourself is:

Am I being reasonable, what would I say to anyone else, especially someone I loved and cared for?   

Final Thoughts

This article is designed as a beginning, something to consider and reflect upon. I have noticed that as I grow and change and accept myself more, I notice more quickly when I have been sucked into that vortex of striving for perfection again. A sense of humour has always been useful in this process. What ways work for you, maybe start a journal or chat with a supportive friend. There is always more to learn.

I will leave you with this quote that I found useful to remind yourself as you start to untangle yourself from the straitjacket of perfectionism:

“Welcoming imperfection is the way to accomplish what perfectionism promises but never delivers. It gives us our best performance and genuine acceptance in the family of human—and by that, I mean imperfect—beings.”   Martha Beck

Brigid Errington

Brigid Errington

Brigid Errington is an experienced BACP accredited counsellor providing online and in person therapy to adults and young people over the age of 13. She is currently working at Holt Consulting Rooms