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Redefining Perfectionism

Updated: Sep 27, 2023

The Origins

Perfectionism seems rampant in our society today and appears to be central in many mental health struggles that I see in my practice. The development of a healthy self-identity is complex, but seems to be intricately connected to the beliefs we have about our worthiness.

What happens then when we measure our worthiness by how perfect we perceive ourselves to be? And where did we get the message that we need to be perfect to be good enough?

Did we internalize parental messages? Did we inherit this pattern from ancestral experiences? Was it socially constructed? Most likely, it was a combination of these and other sources.

Whatever its source, the definition and meaning of perfectionism that we formulate, mostly subconsciously, is the one we end up living by. It informs our decisions, our beliefs, and consequently, our ability to create the life we desire.

Perfectionism creates a future based on the conclusions draw from its messages to us. Typically, those messages tell us we are not “good enough” in some way. And if the underlying belief we hold is “not good enough”, we are left with an underlying feeling of anxiety we may not even recognize. Ironically, the more perfect we attempt to be, the more imperfect we feel because perfection is an unattainable goal.

And it does not stop with us. When we expect ourselves to be perfect, it becomes the lens from which we view the world. We expect others to be perfect, we expect the world to be perfect, and if they are not, we are disappointed. We end up disappointed in ourselves, and disappointed with others and often with our lives.

Our Master

Perfectionism often becomes the master we inadvertently kneel to. We become disciples of its relentless grip, following blindly its authoritarian voice blindly, without questioning, and without inquiry into what is true for us. It is so deeply embedded that we are often blind to how much it seeps into the fabric of our self-perception. It may become the filter from which we view ourselves, others and the world.

onism’s fundamental structure is formed on the belief that it is protecting us in some way. If we can only be perfect enough, we will be safe from failure, safe from ridicule, safe from humiliation, safe from responsibility, shame, and so on.

The problem is that perfectionism often leads to behaviors such as avoidance, procrastination, and denial that often perpetuate those things it is attempting to protect us from. Our ego, with its prime purpose of keeping us safe, does not analyze or question. It is a loyal soldier, obediently acting to shield us from perceived threat.

But, if the outcome of our relationship with perfectionism is based in the meaning we give it, and if meaning is based on our belief about perfectionism, it follows that we have the power to change it. We have the power to re-define what “perfect” means to us?

Re-Defining Perfectionism

Before we discuss how to re-define perfectionism it is important to address its secondary gain, or the advantage we believe perfectionism gives us. When trying to heal from the unhealthy aspects of perfectionism I often hear from my clients that perfectionism gives them the push they need to do better. It can be that voice that says, “come on, you can do just a bit more, just a bit better, don’t stop now”. If we feel that perfectionism is helpful in some way letting go can feel threatening; “If I let go, I will get lazy, I won’t complete tasks, I will never be good enough”. But that is the voice of the ego, the lower self, confusing itself with the soul that is already perfect.

There is another, kinder, wiser voice; the voice of our higher Self. The higher Self is that part of us that sees our potential and is urges us forward when our fears and doubts take over. It is the motivating, loving, gentle voice that says, “you are perfect as you are, and here is another opportunity for growth”. In the eyes of our Higher-Self we are already perfect.

The difference between the Higher-Self voice and the ego-based voice is how it makes you feel. Can you feel the difference in your body between the statement; “you are perfect already and here is another opportunity to grow” verses “you are not good enough and you are not doing enough”. To move closer to a definition that is loving and empowering we must re-define the ego-based definition that causes us to feel less than inherently perfect.

A New Definition

The oxford definition of ‘perfect’ is “to make (something) completely free from faults or defects, or as close to such a condition as possible”. While this definition works in reference to inanimate objects, it fails in reference to human beings. To be a human “being” is to be-in and accept our humanness. To be human is to be inherently imperfect.

Inevitably, being perfect is an unattainable goal, which means we will be in the striving phase indefinitely, and therefore never feel good enough. In that context perfectionism ironically creates the very state we are trying to prevent, the feeling that we are not enough.

So how do we redefine perfect? Perhaps we can start by acknowledging our innate humanness and honoring imperfection as being authentically human. In some ways we are already perfect in this moment if we don’t compare ourselves to others, or project an unrealistic future vision of ourselves. The half-grown plant is perfect in this moment, and every moment that follows, as it grows and becomes a full-grown plant.

We have the choice in every moment to either focus on the half-grown plant with excitement and anticipation of its potential or to see it as disappointing or not good enough. We have a choice in every moment to either define ourselves against unrealistic standards of perfectionism, or to embrace where we are as perfect and good enough in this moment as we set loving intentions to grow to our full potential.

The shift from an ego-based definition of perfectionism to a higher Self-definition would change the way we think and act. Our decisions would be different, we would take more chances, dare to be ourselves, honor our differences, and embrace our own and others imperfections.

Reflection and Integration

Journaling Exercise

To help you improve your relationship with perfectionism it’s helpful to increase awareness about it. The following are some journal prompts to help you reflect on the flavor of your perfectionism.

  1. How do you define perfect or perfectionism?

  2. Where do you think you received the message that you are not good enough unless you are perfect?

  3. On a scale of 1-10 how much does your perfectionism motive you verses demotivate you? This is not a black and white answer and it can be different in different situations. Its good to get familiar with the nuances.

  4. What aspects of your perfectionism would you like to keep verses let go of, and why?

  5. Reflect on the question; When is perfect enough, perfect enough? How will you know when you are perfect enough?

Expressive Art Exercise

For this activity keep in mind the mantra “process not perfection” and notice what arises in you as you complete the activity.

  1. Choose two images from a magazine or you can search and print from google.

  2. Choose one image that represents your current relationship with perfectionism, and one that represents your ideal relationship with perfectionism. In searching for your image be mindful not to overthink. Tune in to your body and allow your body to choose the image. Again, notice what arises (thoughts/feeling) as you do this.

  3. Once you choose the images get a piece of paper. Ideally it would be a piece of paper large enough to glue the image with room around the image. Glue one image on one side of the paper, and the other on another side of the paper.

  4. Once glued, reflect first on the image that represents your current relationship with perfectionism. How does it make you feel in your body, what feelings come up, what thoughts come up. Represent what comes up in any way you like around the image. It can be in words, colors, shapes.

  5. Once complete, get up and shake that off in some way buy jumping, shivering, or sweeping it off your body.

  6. Now, reflect on the second image; The one that represents your ideal relationship with perfectionism. Proceed in the same way; How does it make you feel in your body, what feelings come up, what thoughts come up. Represent what comes up in any way you like around the image. It can be in words, colors, shapes.

  7. Once complete, journal about what came up for you. This is a good exercise to do alone or with others.

“Perfect Self Compassion Instead”

Taalya Areli, Ph.D. Copyright©2020

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