Perfectionism is often a way to manage anxiety. Where the anxiety is coming from can be difficult to pinpoint. There are so many reasons for this. Taking the time to reflect in order to address perfectionism is an important part in then learning how to manage it.
I find that Highly Sensitive People (HSP) often struggle with perfectionism.
Some name it as being an over-achiever to avoid the negative context of the word perfectionism. Many people believe that if they do not hold onto perfectionism, failure will be the result. There is a deep fear of criticism and failure that seems to be managed by HSP’s in deeply analyzing how failure can be avoided. This can lead to perfectionism to decrease the chance of failure and criticism.
When addressing perfectionism, I often ask my clients, “When did you first notice perfectionism in your life?” Sometimes a traumatic event or difficulty managing a major life change can initiate the need for control over the anxiety that is present. Perfectionism is a coping strategy to manage unwanted anxiety.
I then might ask, “Was perfectionism something that was modeled in your childhood?” For women in particular, perfectionism may be modeled by their mothers. Again, this is a coping mechanism to make everyone around them think that everything is fine. This can carry over the message to children that they must also be perfect. We learn this both consciously and unconsciously.
Once we find out where perfectionism came from, we look at what perfectionism is trying to solve and fear that perfectionism may be trying to cover up.
If modeled in childhood, perfectionism may be the fear of letting down your family. If you experienced a traumatic situation, perfectionism may be trying to manage the loss of control you felt. This may be how perfectionism has protected you. However, it can be exhausting to keep up with this.
Since so often, perfectionism is way to manage the fear of failure, it’s important to address what failure means to you. Does it mean you’re not good enough? Is it embarrassing?
When my five-year-old daughter tells me she failed at something, I reassure her that it’s okay. It’s a chance to try again. When she tries again, I ask how it felt to have a do over and I often get the answer that she feels proud of herself. My hope is that the internal feeling of pride in overcoming failure will be something that stays with her. Not everyone receives this growing up and we have to repair this for ourselves as we get older.
Now that we’ve explored the origin story of perfection, we can look at ways to address it.
First, name it when it shows up. Literally name it. It may be something like “Joan” or “Annoying Neighbor.” When we name it as something outside of ourselves, it is no longer an identity that we must hold onto.
Next, when you identify that it’s present, ask it why it’s there and what it may be trying to protect you from. Let it know that it helped you in the past, but that you don’t need it anymore.
Show it compassion. Let that perfectionist part know that it has tried to help you, but that you don’t need it anymore. Allow it know that you are working on other ways to feel okay without it. Assure it that even if it does show up, you’ll be kind to yourself and let it move on.
Aim for average or good enough. I know that sounds like a wild idea, but what I’ve seen is that 80% effort of someone who struggles with perfectionism is someone else’s 100%. Releasing even a little bit of the perfectionism is okay.
Remind yourself that failure is an opportunity for growth.
Failure helps us learn. Sure, it’s uncomfortable. Taking risks can be hard and scary if it can end in failure, but I assure you that the earth will not open and swallow you whole.
There is no easy way to overcome perfectionism, but by addressing it you can start to release the exhaustion that comes with it.
If you are looking for support and live in California, please contact me for a free 15 minute chat to see if we would b a good fit in working together.
Please note that this article is for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical advice from a doctor or mental health professional.