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Perfectionism Can Drive Success and Unhappiness

Redefine your goal from being the best to being happily successful.

Source: Deedster/Pixabay

You are motivated and driven to succeed. When you do, it can feel great. But not always. And even when it does, it’s usually only for a moment. Then you return to needing to meet your next goal. You have the sense that you are only as good as your last accomplishment. If you are honest with yourself, you know that you set unrealistically high standards… ones that you can never meet or never maintain. This “self-evaluative perfectionism” can drive you to accomplish a lot, but it has some serious downsides.

People who are perfectionistic in this way only feel good about themselves when they are over-the-top successful; thus proving beyond a doubt that they have worth. But then, anytime they even approach a goal – making it seem less extraordinary – they sense that they must do more. So they continually raise the bar for themselves. This leads to chronically feeling anxious, as they perceive themselves falling short of their next high standard. Outward success paradoxically fuels an inward sense of inadequacy and even depression.

If you are driven by self-evaluative perfectionism, you may notice that you also tend to struggle with relationships. Some ways you might notice this are:

You have no close or long-term relationships. Focusing and relying almost solely on yourself or your goals, you keep people at an emotional distance and may only have short-lived relationships.

Your partner, family, or close friends complain about you being emotionally distant. These important people in your life are telling you that their relationship with you is strained or less than fulfilling.

You might not be particularly bothered by the idea that your relationships are emotionally distant. After all, you like being self-reliant. However, consider that your friends or family might be feeling dismissed or hurt. Are you really okay with this? And if they are emphatic about what they are saying, they might choose to distance themselves from you – or even end your relationship. Would you be okay with this?

You feel restless, bored, and maybe alone in the world. While on one level you might be perfectly happy being highly self-sufficient, you might also notice that you are frequently restless or bored. Something seems to be missing. Even people who are comfortable being alone have a need for connection. It’s not that they struggle with being lonely, though they might be lonely at times; it’s more that they feel disconnected. They might also sometimes sense that they don’t really know what’s going on inside them; and that they lack a feeling of being connected to people or anything larger than themselves.

If you recognize that you have some of these problems, you have just taken a big step. This is not an easy insight to have because focusing on achievement can so often successfully protect you from feeling inadequate or rejected… if only it weren’t for those downsides, you’d feel good. But with this awareness, you open yourself to the opportunity for growth.

The next step is to acknowledge that all people are imperfect… and that you are just like everyone else. With all of their strengths and weaknesses, being a genius does not make someone a superior human being; nor does being a highly respected artist. And the same is true for every other person who walks, or who has walked, this earth. If you can see that everyone is worthy and flawed, then perhaps you can begin to recognize that you are, too.

Amazingly, with this realization, you will continue to work hard and achieve because of an inner motivation to do so; not to prove that you have value. Rather than achieving less (as you might fear), you might even find that you achieve more because you feel better about yourself and have more positive energy to pour into your pursuits – when you choose to.

Consciously consider these thoughts and apply them to yourself and others. As you do, you are beginning your journey away from being a perfectionist and toward being a capable, though imperfect, person. And as you accept that you have value in this world just by being you, you will feel greater happiness and fulfillment in yourself and your relationships.

If you would like to learn more about this topic, check out this brief video:

Leslie Becker-Phelps, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, Somerset in Somerville, NJ. She is the author of Insecure in Love and consultant psychologist for Love: The Art of Attraction. She is also a regular contributor for the WebMD blog Relationships and is the relationship expert on WebMD’s Relationships Message Board.

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Making Change blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional assistance.

Making change through compassionate awareness.

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