Ashley Gilmour, Clinical Psychologist, BPsych(Hons); MPsych(Clinical)
9 min read
Many people around us are constantly striving for what I call “the pursuit of perfection” where the person sets their personal bar as achieving nothing less than 100%. Perfection may be for their every goal, or just one particular area of their life, or one particular aspect of that area of their life. Striving for the pursuit of perfection can be highly exhausting and overwhelming, with perfectionism oftentimes leading to burn out, stress, anxiety, depression, a worsening of self-esteem and self-confidence, and a giving up attitude. Breaking the pursuit of perfection is not as challenging as it might seem.
Typical mindset and behaviour traits of perfectionists:
People with perfectionism tend to spend too much time thinking about the task that they need to get done before they actually start the task. Oftentimes in this space the person feels a lot of anxiety, stress or heaviness hanging over them, or report feeling as though they are constantly weighed down by pressure met by minimal productivity. This results in avoidance = procrastination.
Not being able to get ahead
Oftentimes the perfectionist will tend to feel that no matter what they do, they can never get ahead in their work/tasks set to get completed. This can tie in with procrastination because if you’re not actually taking action to get the work done, you’re not going to get ahead. On the other hand, the perfectionist can be doing the work, however all too often they tend to spend far too much time on the finer and usually unnecessary details of the project drawing out the length of time it takes to get the job done. That it will only be “done” when it’s “perfect’.
There is no room for mistakes mentality
There being no allowance for making any mistakes at all is a core feature of “perfectionism”. In fact, there is typically a strong fear of making mistakes. People whom experience perfectionism tend to have an all-or-nothing or black-and-white mindset where their performance is only “good enough” if they’ve done it to 100% without makes or error, otherwise it’s full of flaws and “not good enough”.
Typically, when a person whom experiences perfectionism makes a “mistake”, they commonly feel that they need to punish themselves in some kind of way because they’ve been “bad” or done “wrong”, or they’re “not acceptable”. Self-punishment can be in the form of mentally beat themselves up, not allow themselves to engage in or experience a pleasure/reward, overeat on food, to physically hurt themselves (e.g., hit themselves), or intoxicate themselves on drugs/alcohol.
Compare self to others
The perfectionist can frequently compare their own performance with that of other people, generally seeing other peoples’ quality of work as being “perfect” or better than their own, which almost always makes them feel like they’re a “failure” or “not good enough” even more.
Care too much what other people think
What other people think of them; how they view them, whether they “approve” of or “accept” them is highly important for people whom are perfectionists or experience traits of perfectionism. whether they consciously realise this or not. Compounding this further, they tend to determine their value or self-worth as a person based on what other people think about them; whether they’re worthy or acceptable in the eyes of others.
The success set is never enough
The perfectionist may find that the success goal they’ve now achieved is no longer “enough”; they’re quickly no longer satisfied and will set an even higher benchmark goal to achieve keeping them on the same merry-go-around of being dissatisfied again.
Too much attention to detail
There is typically high attention to detail in their own work and others for those that are perfectionists. As part of their perfectionism, they will typically notice any “mistakes”, “imperfections” or “errors before anyone else notices them as they strive for perfection, and when pointed out, other people may not really quite understand the extent of issue the perceived flaw is often saying that it’s fine as is.
Poor self-worth/self-esteem / not accepting yourself
Perfectionists feel a deep sense of feeling like they’re a “failure” or “not good enough” or “defective” full of flaws in some kind of way, again whether they’re consciously aware of this or not. They base their worth as a person on attaining a “perfect” performance. In other words, the perfectionist does not love or accept themselves wholly.
Anxiety, Stress and Depression
It is not uncommon for a person with perfectionist standards of themselves to experience heightened levels of anxiety, stress and depressed mood or depression. Generally, this is because such high-standards that one places on oneself is oftentimes unattainable that they end up setting themselves up for failure, and then take this personally reinforcing their whole belief system within them that they’re “not good enough” in some kind of way. It’s hard to feel happy, positive and good about yourself when you’re constantly letting yourself or others down right! This perpetuates perfectionism and continues a cycle of needing to achieve perfection.
So what’s the cause of all this perfectionism?
Good question! Somewhere along the way, the perfectionist has learnt a set of beliefs or programs about themselves, typically along the lines of:
- I must be perfect to be loved
- I cannot make mistakes otherwise I’m bad
- If I don’t get it 100% I’m a failure/useless/worthless/not good enough
- I must always give everything 100% otherwise I’m not trying hard enough/being lazy/useless
- If I make a mistake this will result in punishment/ridicule from others
- If I make mistakes, other people won’t accept/love me
- If I make a mistake, then it’s going to lead to catastrophe
- No matter how high I achieve, it’s never good enough
- I will never be successful enough
So where does all of these beliefs/programming come from? Typically between the age of 0-7 years old is where we acquire most of our programming from. Generally, in our years we would have experienced some kind of life situations or “trauma” where we took on these limiting beliefs e.g., being proud of accomplishments but then having a significant person ie., parent, teacher frequently tell you how you didn’t do good enough or how you could have “done better”, or being constantly told that you’re “useless” a “failure”, that “you won’t amount to anything” etc, or being subjugated with punishment e.g. being ignored, or beaten if you made a mistake, amongst other possible scenarios.
When we experience trauma, our subconscious mind holds onto this trauma and it tends to keep affecting us without us even realising it. Thus we engage in these behaviours as adults out of habit and not really know why, but it’s because it’s our past stuff still lodged in our subconscious and not healed. To read more about the subconscious mind, click here.
How do we break the pursuit of perfection?
- Have awareness that of how you might engage in perfectionism
- Amazingly, 95-98% of what we do is out of habit, coming from our subconscious mind. This means that very little of what we do we are actually doing consciously! Spend some time paying conscious awareness of how you might tend to engage in perfectionistic type behaviours. You may find that you tend to do this a bit more often than you actually realised! It’s important to have self-awareness because we can’t change what we’re not aware of.
- Become aware of your beliefs/programming driving this behaviour
- It’s important to be aware of what beliefs or programs that you’re operating your day to day life by, like your behaviours, majority of the time you’d be living by these programs subconsciously. To identify your limiting beliefs or programs, start to notice what your theme of thoughts are particularly around your need for and attainment of perfection, and then ask yourself “what is my belief around this?” Pay attention to what comes up, even grab a notepad and jot stuff down that comes up for you so you remember what you need to work on.
- Challenge these beliefs/programs by shifting your mindset and changing your behaviour
- Once you start to become aware of your thought processes and beliefs around these perfectionistic tendencies or pursuit of perfection, instead of automatically buying into everything your mind tells you, start to question what it tells you first. For e.g., your mind might tell you “I have to make sure that I’ve put in 110% into this task otherwise my colleagues are going to think that I’ve slacked off and don’t care about the project or can’t do the work properly, then they’ll probably never invite me to do a project with them ever again”, but ask yourself, is any of this really true or likely to happen? Does the person expect you to do 110%? If they do expect you to do 110%, are they just projecting their own stuff onto you? Is it really necessary to perform the task at such a high standard? Will the outcome really be as bad as what you’re making it out to be if its not done 110%? Are you determining your value or worth as a person based on your performance of this task? Are you forgetting that at the heart of it all you’re already amazing and good enough anyway, regardless of your performance but perhaps it’s just you that doesn’t believe this yet? How is striving for perfection going to add value and quality to your life, or will it actually make your life more fulfilling? Is all the extra anxiety, stress and pressure to achieve the high standard you’ve set for yourself worth the happiness it sucks out of you?
- Start to make some behavioural changes: instead of doing what you’d normally do at 110%, maybe just do 80% instead and see what the outcome is and then ask yourself, was the outcome really as bad as what you expected it to be? Do you people still like you just as much anyway? If someone doesn’t like you for it, is this their stuff or your stuff going on?
- identify where some of these programs came from (the past situations) so you can then release/shift these traumas at the subconscious level which will shift your beliefs/programming and consequently your behaviour.
- This is something that requires working with a trained Clinical Psychologist in doing as the Psychologist will help you to go back to your past subconscious memories using regression techniques while also keeping you safe.
- Learn to love and accept yourself for all that you are, for you are perfectly imperfect as nobody is “perfect”.
- Remember that at the roots of perfectionism is a belief/program system around how you think you’re not worthy/good enough/loveable/defective in some kind of way, and that this is nothing but a mere program that you learnt from some past situation that you probably took the wrong way, or someone projected their own stuff onto you. That really, at the true inner essence of you, you’re already amazing and good enough, and loveable just as you are. You just need to believe it first. When we learn to fully accept ourselves for all that we are, then we are free. So when you feel the need to put yourself down with some hard words, tell yourself “I am proud of myself” or “nobody is perfect, I did the best that I could in this situation and that’s good enough”, or “I am enough”.
- Realise that you don’t need to prove your worth to anybody.
- When you love yourself unconditionally rather than striving for perfection, you will attract people into your life that also love you unconditionally. If you attract people into your life whom are critical of you, look within yourself to see what parts of yourself that you do not accept – they’re merely just reflecting back at you what’s within you.
Having trouble overcoming your own perfectionism or have a question or query? Contact Ashley your Gold Coast Psychologist via email [email protected] or on 07 55743888. We are more than happy to help you!