There is a difference between striving to be the best that we can be and striving for perfection. When we are striving to be our best self we are typically challenging ourselves to continue to grow and learn. When we are striving for perfection we are typically judging and shaming ourselves for being unable to meet unrealistic expectations and/or working towards goals that we are not passionate about. Perfectionism can originate from several different life experiences and/or mental health issues, however it usually affects our lives in very similar ways.
Signs of Perfectionism
All or Nothing Mentality
Having an All or Nothing Mentality is a sign of perfectionism because our brain is stating that if we cannot do it the way that we want or the way that we had originally planned, than we should not do it at all rather than choosing to be flexible or trying to think if there were another way that the task could be done. Two great examples of this are exercising and cleaning. We had plans to complete an hour workout this morning, however our alarm never went off and we ended up sleeping in too late to complete the entire workout. Our brain might say, skip the whole workout instead of saying well maybe we do have time for a ten minute exercise instead. The cleaning example is our brain saying if we do not have time to clean the entire house from top to bottom, than we are not cleaning any portion of the house rather than saying, I could do one small cleaning task each day to accomplish the same goal without feeling absolutely exhausted afterwards.
Click here for more information on how exercise affects our brain.
Motivated by Fear
We are motivated by fear to accomplish things, rather than motivated by our own goals and ambitions. For example, fear of judgement from our children’s teachers may have us bathing all four of our children at nine o’clock at night after all the sports events are over for the evening not because we care about our children being porcelain dolls, simply because what would the teacher think if our daughter showed up with dirty hair one day out of the week. Fear might have us cleaning every spec of our kitchen after cooking dinner because of the fear that someone might knock on our door and see a dirty kitchen.
We are our own worst critics. We are constantly evaluating how we are utilizing our time and we are quick to judge and shame ourselves if we feel that we are not being efficient enough.
We expect too much from ourselves and from others as well which sets us up to feel like we’ve failed and sets us up to feel disappointed in others. It might not be realistic to always have a house without any piece of dust in it, it might not be realistic to be able to function like the energizer bunny and/or to always having our pets and children look like they are ready to be modeled in a magazine.
If we struggle with perfectionism, we most likely have difficulty relaxing because we are constantly evaluating our self esteem by what we are accomplishing. If we are not being productive, than we are not worthy and definitely not worthy of rest. Even if we do sit down in an attempt to relax, our minds do not stop thinking of all the tasks that are left to do or that need to be accomplished in the future.
Procrastination can easily tie back into an all or nothing mentality. When it feels too overwhelming to accomplish all the tasks that we had planned for the day than we will often choose to do nothing. If we cannot accomplish everything perfectly the way that we had imagined than it is not worth doing any of the things. This is the equivalent to, I have so much I need to do today I think I will take a nap instead. The only problem is that we usually end up feeling increased anxiety and lower self esteem as a result of procrastinating.
Where Perfectionism Originates
Perfectionism can originate from both a person’s environment and a person’s life experiences. Perfectionism can develop in a child that grows up witnessing a perfectionist Mother. Children might pick up on their Mother’s perfectionist tendencies and naturally imitate their Mother’s behaviors and attitudes.
Perfectionism can develop as a result of a child’s relationships with their attachment figures. If a child learns that they must be perfect in order to earn their parents’ approval than that child will most likely develop perfectionist tendencies and may carry that belief into their future relationships. Alanis Morissette describes this perfectly in her song lyrics, “We love you, just the way you are, if you’re perfect.”
Early academic success has been linked to perfectionism later in life. A child illustrates for themselves that they are capable of completing things in a perfect manner and then might place unrealistic expectations on their future selves to be able to complete things the same way. An example of this might be the husband that makes a mistake at work and then continues to beat himself up about it for the remainder of the week.
Kinds of Perfectionism
There are different kinds of perfectionism and they are motivated by different things. Self oriented perfectionism is placing unrealistic expectations on ourselves. If we struggle with this type of perfectionism than we are typically hyper-focused on the negative. This looks like a ton of self criticism, negative self talk and usually suffering from intrusive, anxious thoughts concerning all of the times that we have ‘messed up’.
Socially prescribed perfectionism is the belief that others demand perfection. Others will not approve of us unless perfection is achieved. This form of perfectionism can be easily linked to adverse childhood experiences with attachment figures, to fear of judgement and to low self esteem. Some examples, my kids will not love me if I am not the perfect Mother. My husband will leave me if I am not the perfect wife. My boss will fire me if I am not the perfect employee.
How Perfectionism Affects our Lives
Perfectionism increases our anxiety and lowers our self esteem. We continuously put ourselves at risk of feeling badly about ourselves by continuously placing unrealistic expectations on ourselves and then being unable to meet those expectations. For example, we expect ourselves to only eat healthy foods at all times and when we cannot meet that expectation we feel like a failure. We expect ourselves to be able to accomplish every task on the to-do list for that day and when we cannot meet that expectation we feel like a failure.
Many people that struggle with perfectionism actually achieve less than high achievers and usually stress more than high achievers.
The all or nothing mentality can easily lead to procrastination. Procrastination can easily lead to increased negative thoughts about ourselves. For example, I am so lazy. I used to be able to accomplish so much more. Why can’t I just be normal and be productive all the time.
Perfectionism leaks into our relationships. We might feel that we need to be perfect in order to continue to be accepted by others in our relationships which leads to increased feelings of insecurity and anxiety. We could expect perfection within our relationships as well, expecting it from our parents, our partners and our children.
Perfectionism & Anxiety
Perfectionism is directly linked to panic disorders. We are typically being motivated by fear when we are attempting to live up a perfect ideal of ourselves. We might be motivated by fear of judgement or fear of how others will perceive us which leads to increased symptoms of anxiety. Anxiety is derived from fear. When we are experiencing anxious, intrusive thoughts and/or when we are experiencing uncomfortable physical symptoms of anxiety they are directly connected to a fear that we have. Perfectionism and Anxiety are both directed connected to fear.
How to Overcome Perfectionism & Manage Anxiety
Improve Self Esteem
It is tempting to put ourselves last on the to-do list for the day. However, all aspects of our lives will improve greatly if we begin to invest time and energy into ourselves throughout the day. We can improve our self esteem by increasing our self care. Self-care can be anything from stopping to grab our favorite coffee on the way out to a demanding day, scheduling that much-needed massage and/or making sure that we are exercising regularly. The more we make ourselves a priority, the more we feel like a priority and the less likely we are to be ruled
Mindfulness is using our senses to help quiet our mind and to be able to be fully present in the moment. This can be listening to guided meditations before sleep, sitting down to eat without any distractions and really being mindful of the bites and the amount of chews and the tastes that are happening when we are eating, and/or being silly and playing with a child.
Practice Changing Negative Thoughts
It might be helpful to reach out to a licensed therapist for help with this one because it can be a very difficult habit to change, especially if we have been speaking to ourselves negatively since childhood. We can start by being aware of when we are speaking to ourselves negatively and by challenging those thoughts when they come rather than continuing to play with those negative thoughts. If we notice that we have entertained a negative thought and are now feeling badly about ourselves we can use self care to practice being kind to ourselves.
If you or a loved one is experiencing significant anxiety that is negatively impacting your quality of life, click here to learn more about anxiety therapy.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Hey, I'm Brooke! I'm a licensed anxiety and addiction therapist serving individuals and adolescents in the state of New Jersey. My experience brings both a personal and professional perspective to the work that I do with my clients. If you are struggling with anxiety and would like to schedule a free consultation, I would love to chat with you!