Do you often feel like you need things to be perfect to be satisfied? Is accepting flaws or failures in yourself or others impossible? Do you feel like things have to be perfect for you to be happy, and nothing you ever do is good enough? If you answered yes to one or all of these questions, you are a perfectionist.
“So, what’s so wrong with perfectionism?” you ask. Being perfect is impossible. No one is perfect. When you’re always striving to be perfect and forever coming up short, you’re at risk for a whole host of issues from depression to anxiety to an eating disorder. Relationships fail when you expect your partners to be perfect, your career or an exciting new hobby will never get off the ground if you expect always to succeed, and life will always disappoint you. You also miss out on opportunities to learn from your mistakes.
Unrealistic expectations form the core of perfectionism. When our expectations are unmet, we feel angry. This is true for expectations both big and small. You plan a perfect day and then find that you can’t get a table at your favorite brunch spot, so your perfect day is ruined. Might as well go back to bed.
In relationships, unmet expectations take a variety of forms, many of which are unrealistic. For example, you might expect your partner to know what you need without your having to tell them. Or you might expect your teenage child to make agreements and keep them all. But that isn’t how people work. Your partner can’t read your mind, and teenagers get caught up in a dozen other things and forget.
Perfectionists think they have to be perfect; when they are not, they get angry. They also expect other people to be perfect—and get angry or impatient when others prove imperfect.
Perfectionism can drive ourselves to unrealistic goals and expectations, and also to procrastination. For instance, “I’d like to write a novel” is a fantastic goal, whereas “I must finish a novel by the end of the year” is a perfectionist goal. You set your expectation for yourself so high that in the likely event you don’t meet your goal (writing a novel can take years!), you’re automatically a failure. This leads to depression, anxiety, self-loathing, and other issues. Perfectionism can also lead to procrastination. When you need to be perfect, and you’re afraid that you’re not, you won’t start projects you’re scared might not succeed.
Perfectionism is often passed down from parents to children. If your parents demand straight A’s and don’t notice all the hard work you put into getting B’s, you may start to think there is no point in trying because nothing you do is good enough. Or, if your parents demand straight A’s and you get them because school is easy for you, you may set yourself up to think that everything in life will be easy for you.
When you’re hyper-focused on getting everything right and berating yourself when you don't, you lose out on the wisdom that comes from examining why you made the mistakes you did. Perfectionists often agonize over their errors and let their errors define them. But mistakes are good! If we never made mistakes, we’d never learn. When you accept that you are imperfect, you can remove yourself from the emotional distress caused by ruminating over every error. Instead, you can examine your mistakes and learn the important lessons they offer.
The antidote to perfectionism is self-forgiveness.
To forgive yourself, you must let go of perfectionism and adopt a different view and belief about yourself—that life is for learning, and true perfection lies in always working to improve yourself—not avoiding mistakes. There is no such thing as being perfect, but you can still seek excellence. When you strive for perfection, all you’ll see is flaws.
Hating yourself or berating yourself for not being perfect doesn’t help you. If you don’t work mindfully through your feelings and move to self-forgiveness, you'll stay trapped in your anger, shame, guilt, sadness, and other negative thoughts and emotions. Self-forgiveness is a tool not just for anger but for all uncomfortable feelings.
Moving from a perfectionist to a self-forgiveness mindset may require some lifestyle changes, too. When you get frustrated with your partner, child, friend, etc., for breaking a promise or not meeting your every need, you need to remember that they’re imperfect, just like you, and that’s OK. As you practice self-forgiveness, practice forgiving others too.
How about a change you can make with just a few clicks of a button? Social media makes it incredibly easy to compare yourself to others, and when you do that, you’re likely to come up short. If it’s not enough to remind yourself that the images you see of happy families on fabulous vacations are curated and don’t reveal the truth of other people’s lives, consider deleting your account or at least taking a break for a while.
The only person you need to compare yourself to is who you were yesterday and who you’d like to be tomorrow.