Do you hide behind a mask of perfectionism?
To the onlooker you have the perfect marriage, you dress beautifully, you always seem to have it all together. But at home you lash out at your kids – maybe even physically harming them. Or you accumulate thousands of dollars in consumer debt because of your stress-induced shopping addiction.
There was a time that I tried so hard to perform, to prove my worth, and I would hold it all together for a time. But inevitably the damn would break and I would spill rage all over my family and then live with the shame which would feed my need to do better and try harder. A vicious circle.
Maybe you are addicted to prescription meds, numb out nightly with wine (such a socially acceptable addiction for women), or hide a pattern of bingeing and purging in order to maintain that “perfect appearance”.
Perfectionism is a personality trait common amongst people with disordered eating (source, source). This might look like an “all or nothing attitude” that results in restrictive patterns of eating and exercise and then completely falling off the wagon – a cycle that gets repeated for years on end as self loathing increases.
This might look like someone very successful at maintaining an “ideal” body shape and weight and outward image but who constantly body shames herself or who appears perfectly happy then becomes unhinged in another area of life. This could even look like your fitness instructor who cycles through bingeing and then restricting patterns to enter fitness competitions.
I have healed from binge eating and restricting and have walked away from drugs and alcohol in order to live eyes and heart wide open. No more numbing for me. And definitely no more shame. I am done trying to be perfect.
Your kids are perfectly coiffed at all times, your home is Pinterest worthy, you attend church faithfully and volunteer in your community and have thousands of dedicated Instagram followers, all singing your praises. But inside you are crumbling. You know the cracks in your mental stability are there, widening a little each day, and live in near constant fear that one day the whole truth will come gushing out. The truth that you do not have what it takes, that you are a fraud. A failure. Never quite good enough.
During the holidays you overbuy, your home and yard are decorated impeccably, you feel obligated to host the meal with a beautifully decorated table. Or, you ‘fail’ to do any of this because you will never measure up anyways but then berate yourself for months for your ineptitude. Either way, the holidays are joyless and fraught with angst.
You are a workaholic or meticulous at your work place while your home life disintegrates. Or you regularly have thoughts of giving up because you feel that you can never quite keep up. I am well acquainted with the latter.
Is all your trying to be perfect driving you to becoming unhinged?
Perfectionism is associated with increased health outcomes in some scenarios. If, for example, you have a chronic condition, those with perfectionist tendencies may be more likely to follow through with nutrition, medication, supplement and lifestyle changes.
Their perfectionistic neighbor, however, may experience worse health outcomes because perfectionism in them spikes anxiety and emotionally they fall apart, aware that they can never be “good enough” to faithfully maintain all the changes ‘prescribed’ to them. This person might give up altogether, isolate themselves, and even swing to an extremely unhealthy lifestyle because “why bother trying only to fail?”
Perfectionism can lead to procrastination, an unwillingness to try, a preference to drop out or take a zero on a project rather than risk receiving a less than perfect mark. This was my reality back in university.
It can hold you back from taking risks or stepping out into your long-held dreams because the truth is you might fail, people might not love you. Sometimes to commit energy to a new project you are required to let go, even a little bit, of the tightly held reins of all the daily tasks and need to maintain order in life. And this can be very painful. Though I have come a long way, I live with this reality still.
Trying to be perfect can lead to crippling anxiety or depression.
Perfectionism is absolutely required in certain professions – you probably expect your surgeon or architect to be extremely exacting in the work that they do. And if people in these professions are able to maintain one standard for work but another, gentler standard, for their home life, they may be perfectly content, healthy individuals. Unfortunately, however, there does seem to be an increased risk for perfectionism-related suicide for those whose work emphasizes perfection and those in leadership positions (source).
Your perfectionist teenagers might appear lazy to you – they might refuse to strive for the top marks because they recognize that trying to maintain that top position will destroy them. They might procrastinate wildly at times and despite their academic strength there might be times that you wonder if they will manage to pass a course. They might tell you, in no uncertain terms, that although they are perfectly capable, they do not desire a career in a highly demanding field because it will rob them of any semblance of joy. If your child is self aware enough to tell you this; I highly encourage you to listen well and respect what they are telling you.
Perfectionists are masters at hiding their pain and are more likely to research and create a detailed plan for their suicide (source). Rates of suicide are growing amongst middle schoolers at an alarming rate and the underlying causes can vary. But is it possible that we are pushing kids to grow up too fast; are we (as parents, society, social media) placing too heavy a burden on them to perform, compete, measure up? I wrote about my teenage suicide attempts here.
High performing athletes are likely perfectionistic and highly competitive and while these traits can support them in some life goals, they might have a tendency to fall prey to abuse and struggle with mental health problems. This book by Canadian Olympian, Clara Hughes, was an interesting read!
The person you know who is highly critical of everything and everyone around might be struggling with perfectionism – they hold themselves and everyone else to incredibly high standards. Their harsh attitudes might be a reflection of their inner feelings of inadequacy.
You might have a social network of people who love you and offer help but you perceive their offers as criticism. Their offer simply highlights just how flawed or weak you are and drives you deeper into isolation (source) and an unhealthy need to up your game.
A tendency to become easily angered or defensive in the face of the smallest perceived criticism or when shown to be wrong, might reflect the core belief of never being “good enough“. Ugh. I still struggle with this, as recently pointed out (lovingly) by my teenage daughter. This is also one of the pitfalls of being an enneagram type 1.
Striving for excellence and trying to be perfect are not the same thing – although for some of us even the expectation of needing to attain “excellence” in all things can feel incredibly overwhelming and oppressive (I wrote about that here). Unattainable, high standards of perfectionism set you up for failure, day in day out.
But simply telling yourself to lower your standards is not enough.
It is important to address the feelings or needs that push you toward trying to be perfect: the need to be accepted, the need to be loved and cared for (source). The need to know that you matter and that you have intrinsic worth not based, not even one iota, on your ability to perform.
It’s not your job to like me -it’s mine. -Byron Katie
The truth is that we cannot make others accept us or love us or give us what we need in life. The work begins inside ourselves. Healing and joy and acceptance is largely an inside job.
So how can you begin the work of laying down perfectionism and embracing good enough this week?
- Bring in more self compassion, more self forgiveness. You must learn to love and accept yourself exactly as you are. Right now in the thick of all your struggle and imperfection.
- Stand naked before your mirror each day and choose ONE part of your body to be grateful for.
- Let someone know the truth of how you are feeling or the hidden behaviors that are destroying your life or family. Confession can break shame.
- Begin to let others see the real you in small ways. This requires vulnerability and letting your guard down little by little.
- Step away from social media or TV or magazines that trigger shame and comparison. (How can we help our kids walk through this shaming culture with a strong sense of worth?)
- Identify where your worth – your identity – comes from. Who or what determines your value as a person?
- Learn to break that all or nothing attitude. Practice “good enough” in some areas of life. Start small. Maybe you eat frozen pizza for dinner instead of homemade everything; maybe you say no to the weekend volleyball tournament so you can rest; perhaps you yell at your kids again but instead of waiting three days you go to them straight away and apologize and move forward.
- Begin a practice of gratitude.
- Challenge negative self-talk that arises – you can learn to take back control of your thought life.
- Get help if you have been thinking about suicide or having thoughts and feelings of hopelessness.
- Choose your friends wisely – break relationship with women who always gossip, focus on their weight, are quick to point out everyone else’s flaws.
- Make a decision to step off the treadmill of diets, exercise boot camps, counting calories. Get help to learn to care for yourself with kindness and compassion. If I am not the right fit for you I can point you in a good direction to get the help you need.
- Set up a self care tracking system and begin caring for yourself with love each day. Encourage your partner and kids to do the same.
- Give yourself permission to rest.
- Take a risk this week- risk getting rejected or making someone unhappy with you. Submit the guest post request, ask for the raise, initiate sex with your husband. Invite that lady you’ve been watching to a coffee date, attend the Zumba class that looks so fun but might make you feel a little silly as you get the hang of it. Say no to someone. Stand up for yourself. Use your God-given voice.
When we admit that we are not perfect, that we do not have to be, when we choose to love ourselves as we are and understand that our worth is not defined by others’ opinions, our ability to perform, or the size of jeans we wear, freedom begins to leak in to all the broken spaces of our lives. And healing begins.
Make the decision to stop trying to be perfect. Things will not miraculously change over night but you will have taken that first, critical, baby step into your journey of healing.