Part 2: “Fine, I’m a Perfectionist- Why Is That a Bad Thing?”
If you've read Part 1 and have stuck around, you most likely have identified yourself as a perfectionist. But you may be wondering "What's the big deal?" The biggest challenge with reforming perfectionists is this- they believe it’s working for them. On the surface, perfectionists tend to have it all. They often have good, high paying jobs. Their houses look finished, yet cozy. They dress nicely and are rarely seen without their hair and makeup looking polished. By all accounts, they look like they have this life thing figured out.
Unfortunately, there’s often chaos brewing below the surface. Most perfectionists experience increased rates of stress, anxiety, depression, or eating disorders. It can be an isolating cycle- to appear on the surface to have it together, feel fear/inadequacy below, yet not want anyone to know you feel that way.
The general belief in America is that perfectionism is adaptive- intelligent, hardworking individuals learn perfectionism as a way to excel in our democratic society. In truth, it is a coping mechanism at it’s core. We often find that adults (in particular, women) adopt perfectionistic tendencies as a way to quell their anxiety, feel control in out-of-control situations, and to reassure themselves of their worth. And like many coping mechanisms, it works. Until it doesn’t.
Those early 20’s perfectionists (Picture Reese Witherspoon in Election) turn into 30 somethings fighting burn out. As they add a serious relationship, marriage, mortgage, and maybe kids to the mix, it becomes harder and harder to live up to their own expectations. They take one of two roads. The first is that they plow forward, trying to stay perfect in all areas of their lives as they take on more responsibilities. Self-care, sleep, and hobbies are the first to go. Relationships and friendships are the next. Finally, the dreaded burnout occurs at work and they acknowledge there is a problem.
The second road happens more quickly. A perfectionist hits a bump in the road that they aren’t able to pave over in gold. A marriage fails. A career stumbles. They get into debt. A healthy person would see these as things to grieve and move past. A perfectionist takes it as a sign that they are secretly a failure. A loser playing the part of a winner. They begin to cope in other ways- avoiding challenging tasks, isolating themselves, freezing in making any decisions. Finally, anxiety or sadness becomes unbearable and at last, they reach out for help.
The good news is that there is help, there are ways to balance achievement and self-care. Maybe you’re reading this article and realize that you’re heading down a dangerous path, but you’re only at it’s early stages. Or you see yourself in one of those two paths, but have finally realized that YOU ARE NOT ALONE. You see that what once kept you successful and safe is now hurting you. Perfectionism has become an abusive partner and it’s time to kick it to the curb.
So what to do about it? How do we reform former perfectionists? It’s a practice, like all others. It involves re-calibrating our internal gauge of “perfect” to “great” or “good enough.” We’ll cover that next time, in Part 3. Until then, remember, you’re not alone, and there is help.