Perfectionism

Do you remember the last time you did something perfectly?

Maybe you got a perfect score on an exam, or you attempted a difficult physical move (gymnastics routine, new yoga pose) and nailed it.  You might have baked a perfect loaf of bread or said exactly the right thing at the right time in a board meeting.

Remember how it felt?

It felt terrific, right? You feel really good about yourself.  Other people complement you. You want to just keep feeling that way – and so you strive to do it again, perfectly.  You strive to do everything you can perfectly.  And you tell yourself that you are a perfectionist because you have high standards and nothing less than the best will do.

But the real story is, that perfectionism never travels alone. Perfectionism isn’t about standards or doing quality work. Perfectionism is the companion of fear and shame. Fear of what others will say if they see us make a mistake. Shame from failing and having others say something about it. Perfectionism is the way we try to avoid any of these uncomfortable situations, by making sure that what we show the world is beyond reproach.  It doesn’t have anything to do with our own internal judgement of good – it is all about what we think other people’s judgement of us will be.

Don’t think this is you?

Pay attention to how much you are fighting this idea in your mind.  Perfectionism is one way our brains try to protect us from perceived threats, like public humiliation or alienation from our community.  When this way of thinking is challenged, often our brains rebel and work to defend this part of us against attack. It keeps us comfortable.

It also keeps us on the sidelines. Have you ever been invited to perform – a speech, a dance a job opportunity – but turned it down because you didn’t feel ready?  You worried you weren’t able to do it very well, and therefore you didn’t want to try at all.  We’ve all experienced this to one degree or another. We don’t want to make a mistake in public.  So we turn down opportunities to live.  But deep down, many of us don’t really want to live this way.

Overcoming perfectionism goes deeper than taking action.  It requires acknowledging the reasons that we fear making a mistake in front of other people. When you can honestly admit the shame you feel in being wrong, and what you are making that mean about you, you can start to unravel the need to be perfect.  This is a perfect area to get coached on. Your thoughts about what other people think about you are the basis for your perfectionism. 

Mastering an art or a skill does have innate rewards which shouldn’t be pushed aside – there is nothing wrong with feeling that satisfaction and being proud of yourself for your talent and hard work! But the reward should not primarily come from recognition from other people. When you trust yourself and your inherent worthiness, the need for outside recognition – and the fear of not getting it – will dissipate. And with it, you will let go of the incredible burden of perfectionism.

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Anusha Streubel

about the author

My name is Anusha Streubel, MD, MPH, and I am a certified life coach. I help clients with the more mundane aspects of organizing your life: Time management tools, how to clear the clutter from your mind and your environment, and self-care to create more physical energy.

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