High performers are often lauded for their impressive feats and extraordinary accomplishments. But behind closed doors, many top performers struggle with a debilitating character trait: perfectionism.
Perfectionism is not black and white, but rather this quality exists on a continuum: for some, perfectionism emerges only when they’re feeling especially vulnerable, for others, perfectionism can be habitual, persistent and paralyzing. To better understand what perfectionism is and isn’t, I’ll turn to the wise words of Brené Brown, a researcher and storyteller who’s work on topics like vulnerability, shame and worthiness has profoundly impacted our understanding of how to strive for excellence without sacrificing well-being. In one of her hallmark books, The Gifts of Imperfection, Brown explains:
Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement and shame. Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from taking flight.
Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance. Most perfectionists were raised being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule-following, people-pleasing, appearance, sports). Somewhere along the way, we adopt this dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. (p. 56)
When we pursue goals and outcomes for the purpose of gaining praise and validation from others, we are playing a dangerous game with fire and will get burned every single time. By prioritizing people-pleasing and placing our worthiness in the hands of others, we handicap ourselves by sacrificing the ability to self-define what personal success looks like. Instead, we rely on others’ opinions, judgments and perceptions to dictate how we feel, forfeiting the right to actually enjoy the process of striving for excellence, not just the final achievement.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t have high standards or pursue lofty goals, but we must be aware of the consequences of attaching to unrealistic expectations of ourselves. According to Brown, “Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction and life-paralysis. Life-paralysis refers to all of the opportunities we miss because we’re too afraid to put anything out in the world that could be imperfect. It’s also all of the dreams we don’t follow because of our deep fear of failing, making mistakes and disappointing others. It’s terrifying to risk when you’re a perfectionist; your self-worth is on the line,” (p. 56).
Perfectionism shows up frequently during my client sessions and I’m often met with this kind of resistance: “But Jess, it’s important to me to perform at my best. How am I supposed to truly maximize my potential if I don’t aim for perfection?” This is a reasonable argument, but I help my clients untangle this faulty thinking by highlighting the critical distinction between healthy striving (which is self-focused, growth-oriented and asks, “how can I improve?”) and perfectionism (which is other-focused, outcome-oriented and asks, “what will they think?”). In addition, it’s helpful to understand that perfectionism is not only self-destructive, but also addictive:
- “Perfectionism is self-destructive simply because there is no such thing as perfect. Perfection is an unattainable goal. Additionally, perfectionism is more about perception—we want to be perceived as perfect. Again, this is unattainable—there is no way to control perception, regardless of how much time and energy we spend trying.
- Perfectionism is addictive because when we invariably do experience shame, judgement and blame, we often believe it’s because we weren’t perfect enough. So rather than questioning the faulty logic of perfectionism, we become even more entrenched in our quest to live, look and do everything just right.
- Feeling shamed, judged and blamed (and the fear of these feelings) are realities of the human experience. Perfectionism actually increases the odds that we’ll experience these painful emotions and often leads to self-blame: “It’s my fault. I’m feeling this way because I’m not good enough.” (Brown, p. 57)
If you find yourself stuck in the vicious cycle of perfectionism, one powerful tool for breaking free is practicing self-compassion. Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings.
Dr. Kristen Neff, the leading researcher on self-compassion, has identified three key elements to this essential skill:
Self-Kindness (instead of self-judgement)
Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or exacerbating our pain with self-criticism. Failures and shortcomings are an inevitable part of life. When this reality is denied or railed against, we generate stress, frustration and self-loathing. When this reality is accepted with sympathy and kindness, we cultivate greater emotional stability that allows us to productively move forward.
Common Humanity (instead of isolation)
The frustration of not achieving perfection is often accompanied by an irrational but pervasive sense of isolation – as if “I” were the only person suffering or making mistakes. But the truth is that all humans suffer. Self-compassion involves recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy are parts of the shared human experience – something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to “me” alone. This recognition can bring a sense of relief and connection that soothes negative emotions that result from isolation.
Mindfulness (instead of over-identification)
Self-compassion also requires taking a balanced approach to our negative emotions. Mindfulness is a non-judgmental, receptive mind state in which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without judging, suppressing or denying them. We cannot ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time. Simultaneously, mindfulness requires that we not “over-identify” with thoughts and feelings, so that we are consumed by negative reactivity. Instead, noticing negative thoughts without attaching to them allows us to proactively refocus on emotions that serve us.
To support you in shifting from perfectionism towards healthy striving, Neff suggests the following self-compassion exercises to jump-start your journey:
- Deepen your self-awareness by taking the Self-Compassion Scale. It’s a short, eye-opening test that measures your level of self-compassion by assessing for the elements of self-compassion (self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness) and the things that get in the way (self-judgment, isolation and over-identification with negative feelings). Take this quick test on Neff’s website HERE.
- Talk to yourself like you would talk to someone you love. When you’re in a moment of painful self-criticism or feeling like you’re not good enough, imagine a loved one was in your shoes. If you heard them beating themselves up for their shortcomings or failings, how would you speak to them? Would you join in on the bashing? Or would you offer them kindness, support and love? Jot down the soothing words you would say to a friend and practice extending that same kindness to yourself.
- Do a self-compassion meditation. When you’re in a moment of suffering or failure, meditation will help to deepen your mindfulness practice and soothe feelings of frustration and disappointment. Several guided meditations specifically designed to stoke self-compassion can be found on Neff’s website HERE.