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The Pursuit and Perils of Perfectionism and How to Let Go for a Healthier You
The pursuit of perfectionism isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, there is a dark side involving self-defeating thoughts or behaviors.
Recently I decided to “let myself go” a little more and noticed I have more free space in my brain as a result. What does this mean? Most of my life I have always had projects and I am the type of person who must finish every project I start. I am not a perfectionist, so maybe that’s why I can finish my projects, LOL! But, seriously -- because I realized a long time ago I am not perfect -- I have met many perfectionists who enjoy being my friend. My perfectionist friends feel free when they are around me.
Perfectionism can be difficult to define. The pursuit of perfectionism isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, there is a dark side involving self-defeating thoughts or behaviors. While being “perfect” is often associated with a positive trait, Brené Brown, a professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, says, “Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfection is not about healthy achievement and growth.”
Certainly, most people strive for perfection from time-to-time in certain areas of life. However, to be considered a ‘perfectionist’ there are a number of other qualities often associated with one’s attempt to be perfect.
Some examples of perfectionism might include:
-Spending 30 minutes writing and rewriting a two-sentence email.
-Believing that missing two points on a test is a sign of failure.
-Difficulty being happy for others who are successful.
-Holding oneself to the standards of others' accomplishments or comparing oneself unfavorably and unrealistically to others.
-Focusing on the end product rather than the process of learning.
-Believing that anything less than a perfect or ideal outcome is not worth achieving.
Perfectionism is considered to be a personality disposition in terms of psychology. Extremely high-performance standards and a compulsion to strive for flawlessness is common among perfectionists. When these behaviors are exaggerated, perfection can become destructive. To set unattainable or unrealistic goals, the only possible outcome is failure, leading to low self-esteem and depression.
The three types of perfectionism
According to Psychology Today, there are three types of perfectionism:
This type of perfectionist is driven by the need to avoid personal failure by setting rigid standards for themselves.
This type of perfectionist is overly judgmental and critical of others setting unrealistic expectations on their spouses, children, friends, and co-workers.
- Socially prescribed
This type of perfectionist believes they can never measure up to the high standards set for them by others.
Perfectionists are synonymous with a number of specific traits, some positive, some negative.
-Prone to depression
The problem with perfectionism
The problem with perfectionism is feeling like one never measures up. The ideals perfectionists hold themselves to do not match the reality of what is truly possible. Perfectionism is truly an issue in which various aspects of life become consumed. Many perfectionists develop crippling fears which lead to the refusal to even try anything, simply because the fear of failure is so great.
Whether it be their struggle with acceptance leading to failure or the fear of failure itself, perfectionists get stuck in a vicious circle of failure, lowered self-esteem, depression, and feelings of despair. There are various factors contributing to the development of perfectionism. However, perfectionism often stems from childhood as a learned behavior.
Perfectionism may be encouraged in children by parents driving a child too hard to succeed and expressing disapproval when their children's efforts do not result in perfection. Additionally, children of parents who are perfectionistic are more likely to become perfectionists themselves.
The feelings of overwhelming pressure to live up to achievements can lead to perfectionist behavior. Over-praise for accomplishments may also lead to feelings of pressure to continue achieving, which usually leads to perfectionism.
Anxiety, depression and stress
Research increasingly shows that perfection is highly correlated to anxiety, depression, and stress. Because of the nature of perfectionists, they are less likely to share their pain with others, as doing so would mean their appearance is less than perfect. As I stated earlier, anxiety and depression can be serious conditions that result from perfectionism.
These conditions need some form of treatment. When untreated, other conditions can develop including:
-obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
In some cases of unhealthy perfectionism, obsessive compulsive disorder can be linked when there is a strong need for things to be done “just right.” In these cases, it’s a common belief that if the compulsion is carried out perfectly, a feared outcome will not take place. OCD perfectionism may perpetuate and reinforce obsessions as well.
We all exhibit a certain amount of perfectionism, however, as we’ve just seen, perfectionists’ behaviors also have a dark side. If you’re a moderate perfectionist watch out for the following signs which can increase and bring you to a harmful level.
-You know your drive to perfection is hurting you, but you consider it the price you pay for success.
-You’re a fulltime procrastinator.
-You tend to be highly critical of others.
-You do things in the extreme or you struggle with purely black-and-white thinking.
-You have a hard time opening to other people.
-You take everything personally.
-You are overly defensive when criticized.
-You’re never quite “there yet.”
Strategies for reducing negative traits
Now that we have a better understanding of perfectionism, let's look at strategies for reducing the negative traits associated with being a perfectionist.
To start, let’s review some common negative consequences associated with perfectionism we want to prevent or change.
... can reduce overall well-being by causing you to worry about tiny mistakes, creating unnecessary stress.
... can negatively impact behavior by creating defensiveness in response to suggestions from others.
... can lead to procrastination, as ‘the right moment’ or right conditions are needed to start a project.
... can create an all-or-nothing mindset, paralyzing progress of a project or task.
... can lead to the development of self-loathing by reinforcing the belief of “not being good enough."
... can exasperate a fear of failure.
... can lead to being overly judgmental and critical of others.
... can hold one back from actually excelling!
How to know if your high standards have become a problem
It’s important to remember that having high standards is okay, but when these standards impact enjoyment of life, it’s time to consider a change.
Here are a few questions you can answer to help you figure out if your high standards are a problem:
- Do you have trouble meeting your own standards?
- Do you often feel frustrated, depressed, anxious, or angry when trying to meet standards?
- Have you been told your standards are too high?
- Do your standards get in the way of meeting deadlines or trusting others to help?
Answering “yes” to any of these questions is a good indication that your perfectionism may be a problem, but there are various strategies and techniques to help perfectionists avoid pitfalls and learn to find enjoyment in life.
Three main areas of change
The three main areas of change we will focus on are:
- Changing perfectionistic thinking
- Changing perfectionistic behaviors
- Overcoming procrastination
Perfectionists are often plagued with overly self-critical thoughts. This can also cause perfectionists to have a difficult time seeing things from others point of view. Additionally, perfectionists get bogged down with the details which overshadow the big picture.
Tools to help you
Here are some tools to help you achieve a more positive way of thinking:
Your thinking needs to be more realistic instead of idealistic. Practice repeating the following affirmative statements:
-Nobody is perfect
-All I can do is my best
-Making a mistake does not mean I'm inadequate or a failure
-Everyone makes mistakes
To help you take a different perspective, and see things from someone else's point of view, practice asking yourself the following questions:
-How might someone else view this situation?
-Are there other ways to look at this?
-What would be my advice to a friend having similar thoughts?
The following questions can help keep the big picture in mind:
-What does it matter?
-What is the worst that could happen?
-If the worst does happen, can I survive it?
-Will this matter tomorrow, next week, next year?
Perfectionist behavior stems from the fear of making mistakes.
Gradually, and consistently facing fears is the best way to overcome these negative behaviors.
As crazy as this sounds, I want you to purposely make mistakes. This will help you play with the feelings that come up. Also try putting yourself in situations you usually avoid out of fear that things won’t work out perfectly. Remember the goal is to get out of your comfort zone in order to realize the end result isn’t a catastrophe when things aren’t perfect.
Try some of these ideas
Here are some other ideas to try out:
-Show up for an appointment 15 minutes late (this one is the hardest for me…I hate being late)
-Leave a visible area in the house a little messy (I am OK with this one)
-Tell people when you are tired (or other feelings that you consider it a weakness)
-Wear a piece of clothing that has a visible stain on it
-Purposely allow several uncomfortable silences to occur during lunch with a coworker
-Send an email that includes a few mistakes
-Talk at a meeting without first rehearsing what you are going to say in your head
-Try a new restaurant without first researching how good it is
It will take time and practice before making mistakes feel comfortable. Be consistent and remember having anxiety will be normal. Once you become less rigid, you will feel less anxious over making mistakes.
Procrastination is often accompanied by perfectionism because in the perfectionist’s mind if you can’t complete something perfectly it's difficult to even get started. Unfortunately, procrastination tends to make situations worse and increases anxiety.
Here are some ways to help you to overcome procrastination:
-Create a realistic schedule
Try to break down a task into small manageable steps. Set a goal for each step and reward yourself for achieving each goal along the way. Keep in mind the goal is to complete the task, not to make it perfect!
Perfectionists can struggle with deciding what they should devote energy and effort into. Prioritize tasks by deciding which are most important to accomplish and remember it’s okay not to give 100% on every task!
-Ask for help
Everyone needs help at one time or another. There’s no shame in admitting you are in over your head or simply struggling with one step of a task.
Letting go of judgment may be the key to letting go of perfectionism!
Some essential oils I have found to be helpful for my over anxious patients are Copaiba, Chamomile, and Frankincense. All three of these helps calm down your thoughts. I encourage breathing in these three while following these techniques.
Here are some breathing techniques that can be helpful in getting you started.
Try this 5-minute breathing exercise:
- From a comfortable seated position, close your eyes and bring your attention to the present moment by noticing how you’re feeling physically.
- Bring your attention to your breath.
-notice the sensation of your breath going in/out of your nostrils
-as you breathe, pay attention to the rise/fall of your chest
-notice the rise/fall of your belly as well
- Each time your mind wanders away from the breath (and this will happen many times), notice where it goes and then gently bring your attention back to the feeling of the breath going in and out.
Start by breathing 5 minutes a day and work your way up to 20-minute sessions.
In addition to reducing perfectionism tendencies, there are numerous documented benefits of regularly practicing deep breathing.
These benefits include:
Deep Breathing produces less avoidance and improves emotional regulation, leading to a better mood and better ability to handle stress.
-Reduces depressive symptoms
Deep Breathing has been found to decrease depressive symptoms, anxiety, and stress, as well as increasing self-compassion.
-Enhances healthy behaviors
With consistent practice, focusing on your breathing can actually alter functions of your brain.
Negative thinking and behaviors are the core of perfectionism. Actively working to rewire the brain's negativity for more positive outlooks can be done through regular practice of positive breathing.
A quick summary
We’ve discussed a ton of information today, here is a quick summary of steps to take to overcome perfectionism:
-Ditch the negative self-talk
-Practice making mistakes
-Break up tasks into small manageable steps and set realistic expectations to avoid procrastination
-Prioritize important projects
-Keep in mind the big picture instead of getting bogged down by the details.
-Don’t compare yourself to others
-Practice living in the moment and Just Breathe
If you want more healthy tips you can subscribe to my YouTube channel here https://www.youtube.com/drcorinneweaver. Like and comment on my channel so I will know what tips and topics you want to know about. I am forming a community of people who want to take action in their own health with my social media channels and I want to know what health topics you want to hear.
I hope my column speaks to you and you can wake up each morning with a purpose. What I do every day is a calling, and I give God the glory for allowing His gifts to work through me. I do believe in miracles, because I get to see them every day! For more information you can go to www.nomoremedsmovement.com and sign up for my closed Facebook group #NoMoreMeds-Community for more healthy tips.
Dr. Corinne Weaver
Dr. Corinne Weaver is a compassionate upper cervical chiropractor, educator, motivational speaker, mother of three, and internationally bestselling author. In 2004, she founded the Upper Cervical Wellness Center in Indian Trail, North Carolina. Over the last 13 years, she has helped thousands of clients restore their brain to-body function. When she was 10 years old, she lost her own health as the result of a bike accident that led to having asthma and allergy issues that she thought she would always have to endure. Then, after her first upper cervical adjustment at age 21, her health began to improve thanks to upper cervical care and natural herbal remedies. This enabled her to create a drug-free wellness lifestyle for herself and her family, and she also enthusiastically discovered her calling to help children heal naturally.
Dr. Weaver was recently named one of Charlotte Magazine's "Top Doctors" in 2016 and is now a number-one internationally bestselling author to two books: Learning How to Breathe and No More Meds.
Upper Cervical Wellness Center is known for finding the root cause of health concerns through lifestyle changes, diagnostic testing, nutraceutical supplementation, and correction of subluxation (as opposed to just medicating the symptoms). The practice offers cutting-edge technological care at its state-of-the-art facility, including laser-aligned upper cervical X-rays, bioimpedance analysis (measures body composition), digital thermography (locates thermal abnormalities characterized by skin inflammation), and complete nutritional blood analysis, which is focused on disease prevention.