Healing from Perfectionism

By UB therapist Chelsea Alarcon, LPC

Psychologist, researcher, author, and speaker Brene Brown said, “Perfectionism is not the same thing has striving to be your best. 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. It’s a shield.”

I used to have a bias in my thinking about perfectionism. In the past, I thought that perfectionism was more helpful to me than it may be in reality. I learned over the years that this bias in thinking about perfectionism is actually fairly common. When I discuss the pros and cons of perfectionistic tendencies with others, some people say, “I’m afraid that, without it, I won’t do what I need to in order to achieve my goals.” This speaks to how much some of us desperately want to achieve what we have in mind and perhaps also avoid the pain that Brene Brown mentioned in her quote.

Avoiding potential judgment, blame, and shame may shield from pain in the short-term. In the long-term, perfectionism can result in anxiety, harsh self-talk, isolation, procrastination, depression, obsessions, compulsions, eating disorders, poor time management, relationship difficulties, or lack of self-care.

While there can be some consequences to perfectionism, there are some practices that can help to bring about healing and a more balanced view of one’s efforts over time. I often encourage people to notice perfectionistic thoughts. I also recommend practicing self-compassion (e.g., a gentleness toward yourself that acknowledges your own humanity and your own human limits) and thoughts about moving toward excellence rather than perfection.

Thomas Greenspoon ’s book Moving Past Perfect,describes the difference between perfection and excellence. He describes excellence as “effort,” feeling ok with being wrong, a “journey,” acceptance, and encouragement. Perfectionism he describes as “judgmental,” “having to be right,” “pressure,” and “fear.” In other words, thinking about doing excellent work can be less restricting than thinking about and trying to do things “perfectly.” To start to move toward excellence, we can begin to practice acceptance of the efforts we have made and challenge the assumptions that we may make about what it means to be “less than perfect.”

Upon digging deeper into our thought processes, people may discover that their identities, future, relationships, and other aspects of their lives are tied into perfectionistic thinking patterns. With work, they may realize that identities are so much more than what we do, what we choose, and what we say. People may also come to accept that while our future can be shaped by our actions in the present, it does not guarantee that the future will look dim. Other people may heal from past hurts from how people treated them when they did not meet someone’s expectations.

Many times in our lives, perfectionism can keep us stuck in exhaustion, fear, insecurity, and disappointment. With effort and support, perfectionistic behavior and thought patterns can be decreased or eliminated over time. We can learn to put the shield down and find freedom in being our “good and less than perfect” selves.

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