A lot of us have a streak of perfectionism. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. What’s sometimes called “normal” perfectionism means taking pride in what you do, especially when doing something challenging.
Serious perfectionism can become quite troublesome.
It eats away at our self-worth and leaving us disappointed and unhappy. High standards become a problem when our thoughts and conversations are full of words like “should” and “have to.” Small wonder that anxiety, guilt and shame often shadow the perfectionist’s life. As children, they may have brought home a report card with lots of A’s…only to have Mom or Dad interrogate them about the lone B on the report and ask why they didn’t try harder. Nothing was ever quite good enough.
If we secretly doubt our own self-worth, we may try to be as fabulous as possible in an attempt to ease these doubts. We need higher salaries, better vacations, bigger muscles. And we can find ourselves on a treadmill, constantly needing more and better and never being able to relax into good enough.
That’s a rough way to live. It takes a toll on self-esteem and happiness and often means we’re never truly satisfied with our accomplishments, even if we’ve done something very well. The fear of failure can turn perfectionists into procrastinators who are afraid to start a project they may not finish flawlessly.
Perfectionists are their own harshest critic.
While perfectionists sometimes turn their evaluating eye on others, it is for themselves that they typically reserve the highest standards. “Don’t sweat the small stuff” is an alien thought for perfectionists. Perfectionism often sabotages progress in life. There is a saying that the perfect is the enemy of the good – that is, that in striving to be flawless, we can overlook opportunities to take a step forward that moves us towards our goal.
In exercise and diet, missing one day at the gym can lead to feeling “What’s the use? I’ve blown it.” Giving in to the urge for a donut isn’t a setback; it results in a sense of failure and giving up completely.
Some gay men are particularly susceptible to this way of thinking. Call it the “Best Little Boy in The World” syndrome, an urge to magically overcome imaginary shortcomings as boys by excelling at everything else. We become very competitive. This is great training for becoming a critical, unhappy person later in life.
Perfectionism is something we learn, not something we’re born with.
Habits that are learned can be unlearned and replaced by healthier ways of living. Here are some suggestions for unlearning perfectionism:
- Learn to relax. Life is not a series of tests. Make time to enjoy yourself – maybe even doing something imperfectly if you enjoy doing it.
- Set achievable goals. If your expectations are unrealistic, you’re much more likely to fail. Focus on what you do well, not on your imperfections. Give yourself credit for your accomplishments.
- Accept yourself. No one’s truly perfect, and you’re going to make mistakes. Let go of unrealistic expectations. Stop self- criticism by focusing on your strengths, not your weaknesses.
- Learn from mistakes. Failure can be a powerful teacher. Too often, needing to do things perfectly the first time means fearing trying anything new because we’re not likely to master it on the first attempt. Give yourself credit for trying if you fail at something new, and give yourself permission to make mistakes.
- Listen to others. What could it hurt? Having mutually satisfying relationships is often much more important than always being right.
If you find yourself tending toward perfectionism, take a look at whether it works for you or not. If it isn’t working for you, counseling is a great way to get yourself on track.
I have been licensed by the State of Georgia as a professional counselor for more than 25 years. My areas of specialty are relationships, intimacy, sexuality, anxiety and depression. My passion is helping people build happier lives and stronger relationships.
I know it isn’t always easy to talk about problems. My approach to counseling is nonjudgmental and compassionate. If you have questions, I welcome the opportunity to talk with you about working together.
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