Written by Nikki Heyder
Have you ever found yourself striving for perfection in certain aspects of your life? Maybe you feel like you need to act a particular way to earn love or attention from those around you, or maybe you just have a fear of making mistakes. Perhaps you feel as though if you are in control of everything around you, it means you can avoid chaos or unpredictability. Whatever the reason, perfectionistic thinking can oftentimes feel like a good idea, but actually has a hidden cost that is often overlooked or simply ignored.
As a therapist who works predominantly with women who suffer from low self worth, anxiety, addictive tendencies, and body image issues, it’s very normal for me to see perfectionistic thinking arise as a way to ‘manage’ the shame or suffering which they feel inside. Contrary to what most people think, trying to be perfect isn’t about the pursuit of perfection, but rather about the avoidance or fear of the consequence - be it failure, punishment, criticism, abandonment, neglect, or abuse.
For the most part, perfectionistic thinking is often rooted in early childhood experiences, where we may have learned that we needed to act or behave a certain way in order to earn love or approval. This is especially true if one or both caregivers were very ‘conditional’ with how they showed love. This innate desperation to please them, can lead to a deep rooted feeling of shame and unworthiness coupled with a strong desire for perfectionism as we get older, which then becomes ingrained in our thinking and behaviors.
Another way in which we develop perfectionistic tendencies is through the observation of a caregiver who demonstrated perfectionistic tendencies themselves… This is especially true when it comes to aesthetics and body image. If a child watches a parent belittle their own bodies or embark on fad diet after fad diet, they will too learn this behavior. If a caregiver is obsessed with the child’s looks or weight from an early age, the child will understandably become self conscious and carry those insecurities into adulthood. Coupled with the noise of the beauty, fashion, and fitness world - especially with its ease of accessibility via social media, beliefs of “not being good enough” struggle to fall into the background as we are consistently reminded of how we “should” look, behave or be.
Perfectionism is also linked to complex trauma. If we grew up in an environment where we didn't feel safe or supported or where there was a lot of instability, we may have developed a fear of making mistakes or an aversion to chaos and unpredictability. This fear can lead to a need for control and a desire to ensure everything is “in order”. Essentially, the pursuit of perfectionism becomes a coping mechanism to cope with the experience of the trauma.
The hidden cost of perfectionism is that it always becomes a vicious cycle. Because the reality is, perfect doesn’t actually exist. We are trying to find a unicorn ignoring the fact that they aren’t actually real. The more we strive for perfection, the more we may feel inadequate or fall short of our goals. This can lead to more feelings of shame, guilt, and self-criticism, which can then fuel the need for even more perfectionism. One thing compounds onto the other and our brains, which are designed to favor the negative, see these failures as continued evidence that we are in fact unworthy or not good enough. It can be hard to break this cycle, but it's important to recognize that perfectionism is not sustainable and can have negative effects on our mental and physical health.
So, what can we do to combat perfectionistic thinking? Cultivating compassion and self-acceptance can be a helpful approach.
Here are some tips to get you started:
Firstly, practice self-compassion. This means treating ourselves with kindness, understanding, and acceptance, especially during times of difficulty or failure. In other words, respond to yourself and your self criticisms in the same way you would respond to someone you love dearly. When we practice self-compassion, we are more likely to view our mistakes as a part of the human experience - an opportunity for growth rather than as evidence of our inadequacy.
Secondly, challenge negative self-talk. We all have that little voice in our heads that can be quite harsh and critical. When we become aware of our negative self-talk, we can challenge it by asking ourselves if it's true, if it's helpful, and if it's kind. We must also remember that our inner critic isn’t out to harm us (even though it may not seem this way). In fact, her criticisms are so loud, purely because she is trying to protect you and keep you safe. When we know this, and compassionately challenge her voice, it can help us to reframe our thinking and be kinder to ourselves.
Thirdly, set realistic goals. Perfectionism often involves setting unrealistic goals that are impossible to achieve. When we set realistic goals, we are more likely to experience a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, which can boost our self-esteem and sense of well-being. Remember that goals don't need to be grand gestures or extravagant plans - start small, start simple and start to show yourself that you are in fact capable of holding yourself accountable and moving forward.
Fourthly, embrace imperfection. This means acknowledging that we are all human and that making mistakes, looking different from one another, having painful experiences, and carrying parts of us which feel shameful, is a normal part of life. When we embrace imperfection, we are more likely to take risks, try new things, and learn from our mistakes. It also enables us to cultivate a deeper capacity for compassion towards ourselves, and others. This can help us to grow and develop as individuals and to see our uniqueness as a gift, rather than a handicap.
Finally, seek support. It's okay to ask for help when we need it and contrary to what many perfectionists may think, asking for help doesn't make you ‘weak’ or ‘stupid’. In fact, I see it as a very courageous act. Talking to friends, family, or a therapist can be helpful in overcoming perfectionistic thinking. It can help us to feel less alone and provide us with new perspectives and strategies for coping.
And remember - it’s our imperfectness which makes us wonderfully human. Let’s learn to enjoy this experience rather than spend our lives resisting the very nature of who we are. We only have one life, afterall.
Nikki Heyder is a qualified Counseling Practitioner, Clinical Nutritionist, Yoga Instructor and Mentor/Supervisor for fellow therapists and coaches, as well as the founder of State of Soul. Nikki works specifically with women to guide them to heal from acute or complex trauma, low self-worth, anxiety, addictive tendencies, attachment issues, and disordered eating. She integrates a multidimensional approach in all aspects of her work and believes that “health” is not merely about the internal workings of the body - but rather a fusion of the mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual self. With over 11 years of experience within the wellness industry, Nikki is deeply passionate about reconnecting her clients back to their authentic, present selves and to help them better understand who they are - to operate with less stress, less pain, and less conflict in the world around them. As a mentor/supervisor, she teaches heart centered therapists and coaches the power of compassion, attunement, emotional safety, and how to utilize a mixed modality approach to healing and self acceptance.
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