The upside and downside of perfectionism

Aug 9, 2021 | Blog Articles

What is perfectionism and why does it drive so many of us? Margie Braunstein writes about her experiences and insight, and how perfectionistic people are more prone to burnout. This is the 2nd in our blog series on Burnout.

“It took until I was in my 50’s to realise how much of my behaviour stemmed from an anxious determination to ‘get everything right’. Unfortunately, this has been a lifelong quest and of course, this mission was always doomed to fail.

As humans, we are destined to stuff up sometimes. It is the nature of BEING human to make mistakes and to learn from these experiences. Indeed, as a species, we would not have been successful had early humans never learned from their perceived ‘failures’. If prehistoric cave babies had refused to try again after their first fall onto their sweet bottoms, when learning to walk, we would still be on all fours.

There are many books and articles about this burnout, but I am writing here about my experience based on my own life and the decades of experience working with clients and students as a psychotherapist and teacher.

Perfectionism is fear based and usually stems from experiences in childhood where the child felt under threat for making a mistake, terrified of disappointing someone, or was punished for ‘getting it wrong’.

The threatened child, adolescent and then adult develops anxiety to guard against imminent danger. They overcontrol internally to get things right and to avoid feeling scared.

My dad was both a god and a beast to me in my early years. He was very loving and safe for the most part but would periodically take me off into a room for a good ‘thrashing’ if I made a mistake. This was to teach me a lesson. I learned a lesson alright but not the one he hoped to teach.

I learned to stay vigilant for any sign that I was about to get anything wrong for him and to make sure of this, I tried really, really hard so this wouldn’t happen. This is hard work for a 5-year-old! I learned that love is conditional and pleasing others felt good whereas letting them down felt lousy.

I have so much compassion for that little girl now, who was only trying to be ‘Daddy’s girl’ and to be loved.

That fear in childhood developed into rigid, controlled thinking. I can be quite black and white, and I place high standards on both myself and everyone else around me. Given that the personality trait developed through fear, I find it ironic that a perfectionist cannot tolerate  ‘imperfection’ in anyone else either.

Perfectionism at its core is a defence against shame

Shame is a feeling that we do not like. It’s a yucky, depressing, difficult emotion and goes hand in hand with wanting to be perfect. After all, …what if I’m not perfect? What if I fail to be thin, perfectly groomed, produce perfect work, meet deadlines or I run out of money, start to age, or become unwell? Better try harder to avoid all that!

Avoidance of shame also leads to high levels of sensitivity to judgment. We don’t like to be criticised and strangely, we don’t like to be complimented either, because people giving compliments are perceived as judging us too. And that is a shame. I never trust a compliment until I’ve ‘tested’ the person for an exceedingly long time – which means I’m judging them! No wonder being perfectionistic is so exhausting as we’re always second-guessing what the other person is thinking!

We perfectionists prefer to run our own race and do it all ourselves.

“No one else can do it as well as me and you can’t trust others,”

may be our catch cry. We overthink everything and overwork everything to avoid failure at all costs.

This fear of failure and the ensuing striving for perfection poses a huge risk for developing burnout. I have just read Professor Gordon Parker’s excellent book called Burnout and saw myself mirrored so clearly in his pages on this topic.

Plus, if failure looks like it is unavoidably on the horizon, then we can be the best procrastinators on the planet. I’d rather not do something at all if there is a risk it might fail. I am terrible at cold calling!

Perfectionists tend to be over controlled, overly detailed, and often say way too much (think verbose emails). We tend to catastrophise failure and fear success, as it will never be quite good enough. Not much fun.

There is good news though. Perfectionism sits on a spectrum. At the high end of this continuum, you have chronic over control problems like the ones described, however on the lower end, there are many useful qualities that can be harnessed to enhance life. An overdone strength becomes a weakness if we lack awareness around these unconscious patterns that might be driving our behaviours.

I am someone who gives attention to detail. I am diligent, reliable, dutiful, conscientious, hard working and I set and reach goals. Workplaces have always liked these qualities in me – except when I don’t take feedback well.

With awareness, a high-end perfectionist can soften and change. Once I identified the traits in myself, I began to develop self-compassion as I gained clarity around the roots of my behaviour. I practice a compassionate attitude to the little girl who had tried so hard to feel safe. I have practiced more self-love and forgiveness in the past 10 years than the previous 50. I have chosen to lower my rigid standards and sort out my priorities. For example, it’s more important to spend time with family than work for an extra hour or two.

I still have work to do on delegating in trusting others, and I would still like to control things – like my husband, but I have also learned to breathe, to slow down, to forgive myself and others, to appreciate the beauty of imperfection. I don’t LOVE it, but now I can take feedback and boundaries from other people.

And who knows? One day soon, I may even take a holiday!”

Margie Braunstein

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