Perfectionism: We all have a need to feel accepted, believe we belong and are valued for who we are. But oftentimes this universal human need gets distorted, becoming a deep source of hidden pain.
At some point early in life, we recognized how important it was to be liked, to “fit in” and to please others. You can probably recall an instance when you felt diminished or rejected because you somehow failed to meet someone else’s expectations. Without realizing it, we get preoccupied with proving something – to our parents, to our siblings, to our teachers, to our bosses, to our colleagues, to our friends, to our children, to our significant others, and most of all to ourselves. We call it “perfectionism.”
Our society actually rewards “perfectionism” by praising workaholics, applauding overachievement and yearning to imitate the airbrushed, glossy photos of Hollywood glamour. Calling yourself a “perfectionist” may even earn you a “badge of honor” at the neighborhood dinner party where everyone compares hectic schedules and “stress levels.” The truth is it’s much easier to own “perfectionism” than to acknowledge its source. Joking about your struggle with overachievement is far less threatening than saying out loud how much you long for the approval of others. What perfectionism really is – it is a shield to keep others at a distance. It covers up the fear of being seen as inadequate, less than or not good enough. We go to great lengths to make sure we look like we “have it all together.” The underlying message in our minds sounds something like: “If I look perfect, work perfect and live perfect, I can avoid or minimize blame, criticism and ridicule.” But in so doing, we create an invisible barrier between our authentic selves and those around us.
In order to thrive as human beings, positive interactions and meaningful relationships with others are critical. Yet we subconsciously sabotage the opportunity to connect by trying to prove our worth (through perfectionism) instead of being present in the moment.
This is particularly well illustrated in the poignant lyrics of a song made popular in the 90’s by Alanis Morrisette:
Sometimes is never quite enough
If you're flawless, then you'll win my love
Don't forget to win first place
Don't forget to keep that smile on your face
Be a good boy|
Try a little harder
You've got to measure up
And make me prouder
How long before you screw it up
How many times do I have to tell you to hurry up
With everything I do for you
The least you can do is keep quiet
Be a good girl
You've gotta try a little harder
That simply wasn't good enough
To make us proud
I'll live through you
I'll make you what I never was
If you're the best, then maybe so am I
Compared to him compared to her
I'm doing this for your own damn good
You'll make up for what I blew
What's the problem...why are you crying
Be a good boy
Push a little farther now
That wasn't fast enough
To make us happy
We'll love you just the way you are
If you're perfect
What the songwriter did was actually capture in words the sentiments that are so often expressed, just more subtly. The song focused on messages from parents to children, but the concept is applicable to all age groups. How many of us bought into this mindset of “earning” our sense of worthiness? What impact does that have on us in our day-to-day lives?
Depression, anxiety, addiction, eating disorders, violence and bullying all stem from the hidden pain of not being good enough. The pain is so powerful because it makes us feel alone, like we have something we must hide in order to be acceptable to others. We guard against being perceived as flawed or unworthy by working MORE, achieving MORE and doing MORE. The problem is the underlying pain is still not resolved. Is it any wonder that most of us are more anxious, stressed and disconnected?
In a culture where we are encouraged to “speak up” and “be heard,” it is astonishing how few of us actually acknowledge a nearly universal phenomenon that causes tremendous pain. Striving for excellence isn’t what is so painful. It is the failure to meet the unattainable standard of perfection that fuels the deep-seated yet hidden pain many of us carry with us.
How can we address and resolve something that we are unwilling to talk about? How can a shift occur when we continue to pretend that we’ve “got it all together?”
It begins with courage. It starts when you recognize that you were not born craving a perfect body or worried about what other people may think of you. The shift comes from the realization that perfectionism and the shame that drives it comes from OUTSIDE of us, not from inherently ugly parts INSIDE that we need to hide. The straightjacket of “what will other people think” is optional, not mandatory!
Understand that this is NOT a comfortable shift! It’s much easier to applaud someone else’s willingness to share him/herself than to actually reveal one’s own humanity. But courage and comfort cannot always co-exist. Growing as a human being requires the willingness to venture outside your comfort zone. But it is this very courage to “show up” authentically that creates the space for meaningful connection with another.
If you’re struggling with perfectionism, it takes courage to even admit that. So, acknowledge yourself for that first step! If you think additional support may be helpful, one of our counselors at 267-324-9564 -- The Center for Growth / Therapy in Philadelphia