Early on in my career I noticed a common theme that came to the forefront of many of the conversations I had with people in therapy. It often entered our talks through statements like “I don’t feel like I measure up”, “It feels like nothing I do is ever good enough”, and “I never feel satisfied with my efforts”. All of these statements nod toward a sense of impossible standards, which people understandably respond to with feelings of distress. Through collaborative exploration, these conversations often lead to the naming of a particularly troublesome orientation to the world: Perfectionism.
What is Perfectionism?
Perfectionism is tightly woven into the fabric of many Western cultures. It’s certainly alive and well in Canada. In my experience, perfectionism requires people to strive toward impossible ends, only to be met with discouragement and dissatisfaction. It is, quite literally, chasing a mythical set of ideals.
If you were to fully commit yourself to living totally in line with perfectionism, what do you suppose that might be like? If the many conversations I’ve had with folks in the counselling room are any indication, I expect that you would receive limited joy from your efforts, and never be satisfied with anything you do. When we are held to perfectionistic standards, our efforts simply cannot be good enough because the marker we’re striving to meet is outside the realm of possibilities.
It’s important to note that we, as individuals, did not invent the concept of perfection, nor the notion that it is a standard worth striving toward. It is a longstanding critical doctrine that has been around for ages. Because it is so much a part of the cultural waters we’re swimming in, it is a learned orientation to life. I say this because it’s easy for us as individuals to take the fall when we come up against culturally supported problems. I often hear folks say that perfectionism is like an inborn trait, or like some form of masochism. I encourage people to remember that it’s an ideal we’re taught early in life, and that some of us have had very forceful teachers.
While I’d be surprised to meet someone without any relationship to perfectionism, I also know that some have a closer and more distressing relationship to it than others. Folks I meet who find perfectionism to be particularly problematic have often been on the receiving end of harsh and persistent criticism at some time in their lives. That kind of abuse can be like perfectionism in its most destructive form: negating people’s strengths and positioning them as inherently deficient. Those words cannot be unheard, and so people with those experiences must learn to navigate perfectionism’s cruelty even after the abuse stops.
Problems With Perfectionism
One observation I’ve made is that perfectionism prescribes a view of the world that is tremendously limiting, requiring us to look at things as “right” and “wrong”, “pass” or “fail”, “perfect” and “imperfect”. This black-and-white perspective implies that things are either “this” or “that”, with no room for the nuances in between.
One downside to this perspective is that it doesn’t leave room for people to celebrate their efforts and experiences if they aren’t carried out “perfectly”. For example, a lot of people have told me about small victories and achievements they’ve accomplished, only to be invalidated by a negative and critical, “Yeah, but…” In instances like these, perfectionism discredits our efforts because they may not have gone as smoothly as it (perfectionism) might require. In this way, impossible standards cast a shadow on anything we might otherwise be proud of. It can feel as though our competence is constantly on trial and every move we make is being used as evidence against us.
How We Can Resist Perfectionism
As a therapist who believes that people ubiquitously resist oppression, I’ve seen people dig their heels in against perfectionism in some clever and creative ways. Some people might remind themselves that they can only do their best and nothing more. Others might take up interests or hobbies that go against the grain of perfectionist standards and expectations.
Some people’s emotional responses to perfectionism, like worry or sadness, might be looked at through a lens of resistance as a refusal to do certain things or go to some places where they’re likely to be evaluated by perfectionistic standards – such as a workplace, school, or spending time with others who might demand perfection from them. Worry or unhappiness are understandable responses to being held in the deficit light of perfectionism. Discontent can say a lot about how someone would prefer to be regarded by others.
I invite everyone to consider how they relate with perfectionism, and if they might like to make some changes to that relationship. Here are some questions that some might find helpful as they respond to perfectionistic expectations:
- In what ways have you been encouraged to take up perfectionistic ways of living, and by whom?
- What would be required of you to satisfy the demands of perfectionism? How realistic do you think it is for someone to satisfy those demands?
- If you were to devote your time to living up to perfectionistic standards, what aspects of your life might you miss out on?
- Which of your skills, knowledge, or abilities would most likely go unrecognized by a perfectionistic perspective?
- What are some ways that you’ve resisted being evaluated according to perfectionism, if even privately?
- What efforts and achievements would you celebrate if you were to reject perfectionism altogether? Who would you invite to celebrate with you?
- If not perfectionism, what other standards might you measure your life and the world around you with
Do you have experiences navigating perfectionistic expectations?
What are helpful ways you've found to resist perfectionism?
Are there any downsides (or upsides) to perfectionism you can think of that I might have missed?
If you're working on changing your relationship to perfection and would like some help or support