“A particularly big problem we’re seeing with girls now is that they are refusing to go after anything if everything isn’t perfect.”
I often ask adults who serve youth what issues they see young people facing. Jen, an executive of a girls organization, had a quick answer to my question, as if she looked inside my brain and saw the question coming.
Her answer didn’t surprise me since I’ve had my own experiences with perfectionism, which is a broad personality style marked by a hypercritical relationship with one’s self. I once dropped off a catering meal to a local business to help raise awareness of my company’s catering services. Just as I finished setting up the spread, I realized that I had forgotten everyone’s chips. I processed the experience as a disaster and berated myself for weeks for not doing a good job and not being good at my job.
Perfectionism, on the surface, can look like a charge toward excellence. But, when you get down to it, it’s a dysfunctional thought pattern that stifles your ability to act with courage. Here are three reasons why.
It’s Magnifying Your Fear Of Failure.
You have a greater chance of conjuring courage if you can appropriately evaluate risks related to the thing you want to do. But, that evaluation is almost impossible to complete with perfectionism posted up on your shoulder holding a magnifying glass over your fear to make extra clear that the potential for screwing up is real. With fear of failure amplified, perfectionism coerces you to think longer or work harder to avoid mistakes. And, while it might seem like you’re being careful, you’re really just being controlled.
The critical voice of perfectionism undermines your potential, cripples your productivity, and nurtures your anxiety. It takes a snapshot of your negative thoughts and puts them on loop like a boomerang picture. When things can’t be perfect for perfectionists, they give up more easily. And sometimes that means they give up before they actually start — a regrettable reality that underscores how perfectionism stifles an ability to act courageously.
It’s Confusing You About Your Identity.
If you’re wrapped up in perfectionism, you may believe that you are your mistakes. Researcher Andrew Hill says, “Perfectionism isn’t a behavior. It’s a way of thinking about yourself.” And, that way of thinking, unfortunately, is often self-defeating. Perfectionism is more than a pull towards excellence; it is a push towards flawlessness. (Thank you, Beyoncé.) It burdens its possessors with feelings of inadequacy, which ironically feed the desire to be more perfect. And, it keeps them from leveraging internal tools of courage to navigate challenges and bounce back from disappointments.
Perfectionism can afflict anyone at any age, but its impact on young people can be staggering. Youth and young adults often feel pressure — from parents to achieve greatly, from social media to look impeccable, and from a competitive economy to be best. And, in the process of it all, they can learn that perfection, as unachievable as it is, is the path to validation, acceptance, and belonging. An important part of courage is having a worthy purpose to pursue, but the pursuit gets complicated for perfectionists when their inability to be perfect translates to personal feelings of worthlessness. (It becomes a challenge to pursue a worthy goal when you, yourself, feel worthless.)
It’s Leading To Burnout.
It’s incredibly hard to face risks when most of your energy is spent avoiding mistakes, overthinking outcomes and dodging judgment. Perfectionism is exhausting. It’s a peculiar reality when considering that perfectionists can experience burnout from doing … nothing. Their impossible standards can set them up for perpetual paralyzation as well as very real health problems like depression, eating disorders, and heart problems.
The trickiest part about perfectionism is that it expects you to be your best while also reminding you of your shortcomings and insecurities. It compels you to reach unreachable standards while adversely affecting your mind, body and spirit. Courage becomes less of a choice for perfectionists when they try face fear from a place of exhaustion.
It becomes a challenge to pursue a worthy goal when you, yourself, feel worthless.
How Can You Put Perfectionism In Check?
Perfectionism pretends like it wants you to shine when it’s really pretty shady. Checking your perfectionism requires checking your perspective. A “perfect or bust” mentality places an extraordinary amount of pressure on getting everything right, and it significantly minimizes your range of possibilities. Embracing imperfection offers opportunities to practice self-compassion, self-acceptance, resilience, and forgiveness.
But, getting there requires a strong challenge to polarized thinking through raising, sometimes, tough questions. Am I assuming the worst? Are there other ways I can think about myself? Am I holding myself to an unreasonable standard? Am I making this personal when it isn’t? Sitting with questions like these and considering them seriously can help the perfectionist recognize that … it’s not that deep. A bad grade doesn’t make you stupid or unloveable or a failure. In fact, challenging a polarized perspective can help the perfectionist reframe failure as a teacher rather than a title.
Choosing courage opens up possibilities of growth, freedom, strength and development. But, courage does not guarantee success. So, the perfectionist who wants to begin clearing space for courage must work toward detachment from outcome — to pursue excellence with persistence but to let go of how the journey ends up.
I now consider myself a perfectionist in recovery. I’m kinder to myself; I’ve challenged myself to make risk-taking routine. I embrace imperfection. And, I can think back to the catering incident from many years ago and see how unreasonable I was being with myself.