I always find it odd when people say “Oh I’m just a perfectionist!” like it’s a great thing. In my experience of working with hundreds of women battling with perfectionist tendencies, this couldn’t be farther from the truth.
I have watched how the inner critic antagonizes a person to the point where their anxiety completely cripples them. Where their fear of judgment becomes so great that they decide they’re happy to settle for loneliness than potentially meet a new companion. And where their obsession with aesthetics has landed them in the hospital facing the darkness of an eating disorder.
What I’m talking about here, and what I personally see the most within my own practice is something we call ‘socially orientated perfectionism’. First coined by researchers Paul Hewitt & Gordon Flett in 1991, it is a form of perfectionistic thinking whereby a person will base their value and worthiness as a human being on whether or not they think they will be ‘approved of’ or validated by others. It’s closely interlinked with people-pleasing, anxiety, disordered eating, eating disorders, and addiction. Basically, it’s a slippery, slippery slope.
We know from more recent research conducted by Thomas Curran & Andrew Hill that not only is perfectionism dangerous for one’s mental health, but it has actually increased significantly over the past 30 years. More and more people are battling with this innate feeling of never being ‘good enough.
So why do we glorify it? Why do we navigate our lives (and judge others) based on the expectation that being “busy” is cool, or that looking, eating, living, breathing a certain way only should be what is praised, even at the expense of one’s happiness?
What happened to just being OK with being ourselves?
I know that personally, I have been sucked into the comparison trap wishing and wanting a life that never aligned with what my actual values were. I know I chose toxic, abusive partners in a desperate attempt to heal my own inner wounds with my father. I know I have many limiting beliefs around “being stupid” which is why regardless of my accomplishments at school and university, I STILL battle with imposter syndrome. I know what it feels like to become obsessive about food and what I put into my body, so much so that it ended relationships and friendships around me.
Battling perfectionism isn’t just about the pressure you place on your body and looks. It’s about the pressure you place on all of who you are. At the core of our scramble for perfection is shame, fear, insecurity, indecisiveness, and deep conditioning that has led you to believe that who you are, as you are, is not right.
As a consequence of our ‘faultiness’, we become hyper-aware of what others must think of us and live life-based on a desire to be constantly validated by others. And from what I’ve seen, we basically have two options when we enter this cycle:
1. You don’t stop chasing the ‘dream’
Like a mouse on a wheel we keep running towards our definition of ‘perfect’ – telling ourselves that “as soon as I buy that thing” or “as soon as I get this one lip filler” or “as soon as I start my diet” then I’ll be good. And then we get there and we look around … and we start comparing ourselves to others. What we see is that Jane over there has more lip filler than me and looks waaaaay better, or how Sarah put up a story on Instagram saying that the diet I am currently on isn’t actually good and that she prefers something else. “F**K! I’ve done it wrong… again. I’m such an idiot, everyone’s going to think I’m such an idiot”. And so I keep running, I keep chasing, I keep showing up as someone who isn’t me, and doing things which I actually don’t really want to do, just so that I fit in. And you know what I feel? I feel exhausted. But the option of being myself just isn’t an option, because being me isn’t good enough, remember?
2. We enter paralysis mode and self-destruct
This option is triggered by fear. The fear that if it doesn’t go perfectly the first time, I am immediately a failure and a laughing stock to society. So instead of trying, I do nothing. Procrastination and paralysis are a perfectionist’s two best friends. It can be a dangerous downfall and leads to even more shame, guilt, and resentment than the first option. Sitting and doing nothing, watching your life go by, and wishing you had the courage to at least try, can make the inner critic SO loud. And how do we learn to deal with the voices in our heads? The anxiety which keeps us up at night? Well, we might drink it away, or smoke it away, or shop it away, or eat it away. Anything which gives us temporary relief is good enough for now, isn’t it?
I hope by now, you can see why when people laugh off their perfectionistic tendencies, I don’t necessarily laugh with them. I don’t think it’s something to laugh about and take lightly. I see perfectionism as a trauma response – a consequence of feeling like who you are is wrong.
And as a result, we essentially become fearful of being ourselves.
So how do we combat this?
Isn’t there a third option? How does one find the courage to break the cycle of perfectionism and learn to not only show up as themselves but learn to actually value themselves and all of their uniqueness?
Over the years, I have developed a model which helps a person to move through perfectionism – provided they have the patience and commitment to doing the work involved. In summary, this is the way I approach the journey of recovery:
Without an awareness of what we are dealing with, it’s hard to know how to change it. Becoming aware of your own upbringing, traumas, and life experiences which formed your beliefs about yourself in the first place gives you context to your unique situation. It allows us to gather ‘facts’ and piece the background story together.
We then move into a deep understanding of HOW perfectionism is affecting our lives. If we are living with an addiction, or an eating disorder, or suffering from intense anxiety, it’s so important that you know how it developed and why it’s there. In most cases, these behaviors are simply coping mechanisms that our mind and body adopt in order to help us deal with emotional pain. Once we understand the issue in such a way, we are more able to meet it with the compassion it deserves, rather than with more shame or disgust.
In this step, we re-build the foundations for ourselves. The antidotes to perfectionism are self-compassion, courage, and acceptance. Without these three things we cannot give ourselves the validation we require from ourselves. And this is the key. We spend so much time seeking to please others when the real person we need to please is ourselves. Usually, this step involves body respect, gratitude, forgiveness, and learning how to set healthy boundaries. It’s all about cultivating your connection to yourself and teaching you how much value you hold within you, just as you are.
The hardest step of all is doing the things which make us feel uncomfortable. Unfortunately, it’s one of the only ways to truly re-wire some of those broken belief systems. Through small, inspired action each day, we learn to listen to our bodies, we learn to say no, we learn to take risks, we learn to befriend our inner critic, we learn to disregard ‘rules’ which don’t actually align with our values… ultimately we learn to rewrite our definition of perfect
The truth is dear reader, that life is not, and will never be perfect. Hence the issue with striving for it. The beautiful reality of life is that it is a paradox of good times and bad times, turmoil and bliss, light and dark. It offers us destruction and renewal both in nature, as well as in our own lives and experiences over and over again. We have a choice to either resist the dance of life or to join in and learn how to move with it.
Like with life itself, when it comes to the path of healing and recovery, the road is not straight, nor is it always smooth and easy to drive on. It can be bumpy, oftentimes filled with potholes and unexpected sharp turns and dead ends. This can be frustrating and disheartening especially when all we want is to get to our destination already. We can choose to turn around and go back to where we came from, or stop the car and sit on the side of the road in protest. Spoiler alert – unfortunately both of these options lead to even more frustration. The other option is that we:
Take a few deep breaths when we recognize our discomfort, re-look at the map, play our favorite song, and tackle the road ahead with patience and persistence
When you arrive at your destination you’ll look back and smile because of the relief of getting to where you wanted to go, but also because of the lessons you didn’t even realize you were learning about yourself on the way.
Show up for yourself
Showing up for yourself means recognizing that overcoming perfectionism is an unpredictable journey and that it will inevitably come with setbacks, relapses, and recurring thought patterns which we just want to leave behind. When these moments happen we can choose to quit, we can throw our hands up in frustration and make a statement to the world that “this is just the way I am, I have to deal with it!”, or we can pick ourselves up, meet ourselves with compassion, and start where we left off. I ask that you do the latter because it’s the only way through.
A very beautiful consequence of showing up for yourself, regardless of the difficulty, is that your self-worth and confidence naturally skyrockets. Why? Because you are proving to yourself that you are worthy of consistent effort and attention, time and time again. And trust me, you ARE worthy.
Nikki Heyder is a Mental Health Therapist, Clinical Nutritionist & Yoga Instructor. With over 11 years of experience within the wellness industry, she has developed her skills and knowledge in a way that now offers an integrative, holistic approach to healing and personal growth.
Nikki is deeply passionate about re-connecting her clients back to their authentic selves – helping them to see their unique potential, let go of harmful beliefs or patterns, and live a fulfilling, joyful life, on their own terms.
She works with women from all over the world addressing issues of low self-worth, addiction, disordered eating, and perfectionism.
Hewitt, P. L., Flett, G. L. (1991). Perfectionism in the self and social contexts: Conceptualization, assessment, and association with psychopathology. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 456-470.
Curran, Thomas & Hill, Andrew. (2017). Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time: A Meta-Analysis of Birth Cohort Differences From 1989 to 2016. Psychological Bulletin. 145. 10.1037/bul0000138.