The upside and downside of perfectionism

Sep 14, 2023 | Blog Articles

Perfectionism, at its core, is a defence against shame. Shame is a feeling that we do not like. It’s a depressing, difficult emotion and goes hand-in-hand with wanting to be perfect. There is an inner voice telling us ‘you better try harder to avoid all that’.

Margie Braunstein, Senior Facilitator with Quest, writes about her personal experiences, why it poses a risk for developing burnout, the upsides, and wellbeing resources if you are experiencing burnout.

“After years of soul searching, I’m now fully aware of how many of my reactions stem from an anxious determination to ‘get everything right’ for everyone else. I also know that the pursuit of perfection was always doomed to fail. However, awareness of perfectionist traits has enabled me to make many positive changes in my life. There is an upside to perfectionism!

We all stuff up sometimes. It is the nature of being human to make mistakes and to learn from them. Indeed, as a species, we would not have been so successful had early humans never learned from their perceived ‘failures’. If prehistoric cave babies had refused to try to stand upright again after the first fall onto their sweet behinds, we might still be on all fours.

So, what is perfectionism and why does it drive so many of us?

There are many books and articles about this topic, and I recommend you read them. I can only speak from my experience based on my own life and my 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 was trying to teach.

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

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

The fear I experienced as a child developed into rigid, controlled thinking. I can be quite black and white, and I place high standards on both me and everyone else around me. Given that this personality trait developed through fear, I find it ironic that a perfectionist finds it hard to tolerate ‘imperfection’ in anyone else!

Perfectionism at its core is a defence against shame

Shame is a feeling that we do not like. It’s a yukky, 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 or I run out of money, start to age, or become unwell? There is an inner voice telling us “You 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 judging us, too. Perfectionists don’t trust compliments spontaneously.

Perfectionists prefer to run their own race and do it all themselves. We overthink everything, overwork everything and avoid failure at all costs.

“No one else can do it as well as me and you can’t trust others” are our catch cries.

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 great at customer service, but terrible at cold calling where the failure rate is high.

Perfectionists tend to be overly controlling, overly detailed, defensive, and often say way too much (think verbose texts and emails). We tend to catastrophise failure and fear success, as it will never be good enough.

There is good news, however…

Perfectionism sits on a spectrum. At the high end of this continuum, there are 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.

We often pay attention to detail, are diligent, reliable, dutiful, conscientious and hardworking. We rarely take days off and we set and reach goals. Workplaces like these qualities, except when we 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 understood the roots of the behaviour. I practiced loving the little girl who tried so hard to feel safe. I have practiced more self-love and forgiveness in the past ten years than the previous fifty. I have chosen to lower my standards and sort out my priorities. For example, it’s more important to be with family than work for another hour or two.

I still have work to do on delegating and 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 I can take feedback and boundaries from others.

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

Margie Braunstein

How Quest for Life can help

If you are experiencing anxiety or burnout, Quest for Life’s residential program, Healing Your Life can help.

Our Self-Paced Online Courses including Beyond Burnout, Befriending Anxiety and Healing Sleep provide self-help tools and practical, positive, easy-to-follow guidance to help you develop healthy habits. Based on a wealth of practical experience incorporating the latest research in neuroscience, epigenetics and evidence-based healthy lifestyle habits to restore and replenish. Help yourself flourish in challenging times. Start Today.

Wellbeing resources

  • Wellbeing books Including Your Life Matters by Petrea King – a guidebook for life
  • Meditation CDs and MP3s including Be Calm, Sleep, Learning to Meditate

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