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Are You a Prisoner of Perfection?

Liberating ourselves from the need to be perfect.

Source: becca.peterson26/Flickr
Source: becca.peterson26/Flickr

Do you strive for a goal that is beyond your reach? Do you hold an idealized vision that is impossible to actualize? Are you setting yourself up for failure and shame when you can't achieve the unachievable?

Understanding what drives perfectionism is the first step toward releasing this self-created anchor that keeps us stuck.

The Burden of Shame and Fear

Shame and fear are often the hidden drivers of perfectionism. We believe that if we can fashion a perfectly polished personality or achieve some far-flung goal, then no one can sting us with ridicule or criticism. If we can flash our intelligence, perfect our humor, or showcase our beauty, then we’ll win respect and approval.

The penchant to be perfect is often driven by an underlying fear of failure or rejection. It is designed to protect us from any hint of being flawed or defective.

Politicians who display an obsessive need to be right and refuse to acknowledge mistakes or uncertainty are often driven by a secret shame. They fear that showing vulnerability will expose them to the accusation that they're weak. They cling to an arrogant desire to be right, perfect, and polished, even when it's obvious that the emperor has no clothes. They don't realize that true strength means having the courage to display vulnerability—in short, acknowledging that we are not gods or godlike tyrants.

Setting Ourselves Up for Disappointment

When our worth and value are tied to our achievements, we set ourselves up for disappointment. Failing to meet our impossibly high goals, we become anxious or depressed. Or we angrily blame others when something goes wrong because we're not strong enough to take responsibility for our actions. Seeing ourselves as a human being with strengths and weaknesses, we may disabuse ourselves of the belief that we need to be special or better than others in order to be respected or loved.

Living in the Future Versus the Present

Perfectionism keeps us leaning toward the future. We’re constantly evaluating ourselves in order to do better. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to do our best and self-correcting along the way, but if we can't relax and enjoy lighter moments, then we become prisoners of our perfectionism.

Trying to be perfect keep us spinning in our heads. We try so desperately to control everything that we overthink things and lose spontaneity. We become painfully self-conscious and take ourselves too seriously. We fear that others will be horrified by what we judge about ourselves. Sadly, we deprive ourselves of the simple pleasure of enjoying the moment and being ourselves.

Being Risk-Avoidant

Perfectionism leads to being risk-averse. We may avoid any new activity that might result in embarrassment or rejection, such as reaching out for a date, beginning music lessons, or starting a new exercise routine. We may keep procrastinating because we're afraid we won't do it perfectly; we don’t want to look bad. Our prime directive is to be cautious and play it safe. Consequently, we live a constricted life.

Antidote to Perfectionism

An antidote to perfectionism is to make room for our human shortcomings. We realize that failing at any enterprise doesn’t mean that we are a failure. Without failures, we’ll never learn from our mistakes; we’ll never move forward in our lives.

Those who succeed have made countless mistakes. The important thing is to learn from our miscues, tirelessly forgive ourselves, hold ourselves gently, and move on.

People who are addicted to perfection are often isolated, even if they seem outgoing and popular. They don’t let anyone get too close because they’re afraid that people will see through them. They have few true friends, if any. We may keep our distance from “perfect” people because we know we’ll never measure up.

Being human, perfection is impossible. By replacing the desire to be perfect with accepting ourselves as we are and doing our best, we begin to heal the shame that drives perfectionism. Releasing ourselves from the desire to protect our image, we’re freed to navigate gracefully through our successes and failures—and enjoy our precious life.

© John Amodeo

Flickr image by becca.peterson26

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