By Max Belkin, Ph.D.
Procrastination and underperformance are often linked to unrealistic aspirations. When people pursue realistic goals, their anxiety tends to be manageable and might actually increase their motivation and concentration. However, when our goals are unrealistic, the accompanying anxiety can be overwhelming and counterproductive. For many perfectionists, the need to be the very best in whatever they do can render them worried, powerless, and hopeless.
The “perfect” is the enemy of the “good”
Perfectionism is rampant in our society and often takes the form of obsession with appearance, achievement, or prestige. It is part of the American Dream—the view that any of us can achieve whatever we want if we just try hard enough. However, perfectionism can also lead to feelings of worthlessness, fear, and shame.
Preoccupation with perfection tends to go hand in hand with low self-esteem. Perfectionists often have a harsh inner voice that castigates them as lazy or losers when they fail to measure up to their unrealistic expectations. This internal critic is always on the lookout for flaws.
Perfectionists are often insecure and anxious about falling short of their own standards—as a result, they constantly live in fear of private shame and public humiliation.
Perfectionists perceive themselves in all-or-nothing terms—“Either I become this great person that I fantasize about or I am worthless.” They find themselves caught in a vicious cycle of chasing perfection, worried about living up to their aspirations, then procrastinating because they are anxious, then feeling even more inadequate, and so setting up new expectations—and on it goes.
Unfortunately, by its very nature, perfection is a moving target. No matter how hard-working and accomplished a perfectionist might be in the eyes of other people, he or she never feels good enough. A perfectionist's quest is like the labor of Sisyphus from the Greek myth, whose eternal punishment was pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll down every time.
An equal-opportunity curse
Perfectionism affects people from all walks of life—artists and lawyers, scientists and doctors. Janet, a writer, spends hours every day in front of her computer laboring to give birth to the perfect words in the perfect order. She believes that only exquisitely written prose can redeem her as an artist, and as a human being. As a result, she writes very little and feels bad about herself.
Similarly, Mike, a litigation attorney, sets out to write the best-researched and best-argued briefs in his firm. He frequently becomes so overwhelmed with anxiety about his performance that he finds himself playing video games instead of working.
Janet and Mike are so preoccupied with achieving perfection that they can't tolerate the anxiety and imperfections of the creative process. In particular, they feel they are not allowed to produce less-than-perfect rough drafts. Unable to deliver a masterpiece on the first try, they feel demoralized, defeated, and ashamed.
Perfectionism and parental expectations
Perfectionism often stems from childhood experiences with primary caregivers. Many insecure parents get emotionally invested in raising highly accomplished children. They tend to be very critical of their children's appearance or academic performance and fail to empathize with their children's limitations.
For example, when Janet's mother used to say something critical about her daughter's hair or clothes, she would typically add in a sweeter voice, “Honey, I just want you to be perfect.”
In Mike's family, his parents' excessive focus on his accomplishments was cloaked in the language of parental sacrifice: “Sweetie, we worked so hard to help you become great in whatever you decide to pursue...”
This emphasis on success and recognition, along with the accompanying sense of guilt and shame whenever Janet or Mike fell short of their parents' expectations, contributed to their fragile self-esteem and insecurities.
5 steps to taming perfectionism
The reality, of course, is that nobody is ever perfect. With that in mind, here are five practical steps you can take to begin taming your perfectionist tendencies:
- Acknowledge and cultivate the part of you that sees yourself as worthy, as "good enough." For instance, make a list of things you like about yourself, like good personal qualities, rewarding relationships with others, meaningful experiences.
- Pay attention to your “all or nothing” thoughts, and remind yourself that you don't need to be the best in everything in order to feel loved and respected. When you feel the urge to beat yourself up for perceived imperfections, tell yourself, “Here I go again. Enough already.”
- Try to be less critical of other people, and treat them with patience and compassion. In addition to improving your personal and professional relationships, it might reduce your fear of being criticized by others.
- Surround yourself with people who are less caught up in the pursuit of status, money, and success—people who appreciate friendship, family, and community.
- Find a therapist who will help you contact the unique and special qualities you already possess. In psychotherapy, you will learn to articulate the desires and vulnerabilities that can lead to perfectionism. As you become more self-accepting and hopeful, the pressure to be perfect may subside.
Max Belkin, Ph.D. is a relational psychoanalyst and psychologist. He is a graduate of NYU and the William Alanson White Institute and serves on the editorial board of Contemporary Psychoanalysis. He teaches graduate courses in couples counseling and individual psychotherapy at NYU. He works with individuals and couples in his private offices in Greenwich Village, New York City, and in Atlantic Highlands, NJ.