Perfectionism, often viewed as a desirable trait, is a tendency to set excessively high standards for oneself and to be driven by an intense fear of failure or making mistakes. While perfectionism can sometimes be a motivating force, it often leads to negative consequences, such as increased stress levels, anxiety, and mental and physical exhaustion leading to illness. 

Recently, my beloved long-time helper left our family to pursue a new opportunity in Canada. As my two kids are now 14 and 12 years old and thus capable of helping me with household chores and caring for our 3 dogs, we decided not to hire another domestic helper. Along with the deep sadness and grief we all are feeling with her moving away (she’s been a part of our family since the kids were babies), I was struck with anxious thoughts about how I would cope with working and caring for my kids and fur babies at the same level we are all used to. That last part is important as that’s what triggered my perfectionism.

People manage stress and anxiety in different ways. In my case, I have a tendency to fall back into a pattern of perfectionism (that manifests as obsessive cleaning and organizing). 

The benefit of this behaviour is a spotless home, completed tasks, and a sense that I am in control. I also had thoughts that if I could maintain the very high standards that my helper set over the years, it would comfort the kids and ease the transition for them.

The cost of a three-day perfectionism bender was pure fatigue and emotional fragility. Yes, my floors are clean, but did that stop my uncomfortable feelings of sadness and anxiety? Did the perfectionist behaviour help me to help my kids manage their emotions? No and no. It left me depleted and unable to support them without my own emotions and tears getting in the way.

I am grateful for the experience. It clearly illustrated for me the patterns of behaviour that some of my clients and myself engage in who experience perfectionist thinking and the result of holding that anxiety and maladaptive behaviour.

Once I realized I was stuck in the pattern, I was able to employ techniques I learned from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) to notice my thoughts and emotions and be able to defuse them to stop the compulsive behaviours. It also inspired me to explore the causes of perfectionism and provide strategies for overcoming its grip:

Causes of Perfectionism:

1. Cultural and societal pressures: 

In today’s achievement-oriented society, where success is often equated with external accomplishments, individuals might feel compelled to meet unrealistic standards set by others. This pressure can come from family, peers, or even social media platforms, leading to a pervasive fear of failure.

In my case, the thoughts and pressures came mentally fusing with a myth that women can not only do it all but do it flawlessly. The idea that we can’t “do it all” can be seen as a weakness externally and internally.

2. Fear of judgment and rejection: 

Perfectionists often fear the disapproval or rejection of others, driving them to continually strive for flawlessness. This fear can stem from past criticism experiences or a desire to maintain a certain image to gain acceptance and validation.

As my kids loved our helper so much and were so accustomed to the way she prepared breakfast for them or packed their school lunches, I became obsessive over getting it exactly right so they wouldn’t think I was less capable. Fusing with those thoughts creates rigid thinking and not seeing other possibilities such as I don’t need to do things exactly the same, and they might enjoy the variety.

3. Personal traits and experiences: 

Certain personality traits, such as high self-expectations, a need for control, and fear of uncertainty, can predispose individuals to adopt perfectionistic tendencies. Moreover, early childhood experiences, such as overly critical parenting or excessive emphasis on achievement, can contribute to the development of perfectionistic behaviour. 

I recognize that a need for a feeling of control has certainly permeated many aspects of my life since childhood. Utilizing ACT techniques has allowed me to unhook from these needs in many cases and the result is a feeling of freedom and lightness instead. There are so many things outside my control, and mentally battling with this only adds to anxiety and exhaustion.

Strategies for Overcoming Perfectionism:

1. Cultivate self-compassion: 

Perfectionists often hold themselves to impossibly high standards and are overly self-critical. By practising self-compassion, individuals can learn to treat themselves with kindness, understanding, and acceptance, fostering a healthier and more realistic self-appraisal.

To this end, I have begun a practice of looking at my thoughts with curiosity and self-compassion rather than judgment. Taking a few minutes to relax and visualize the thoughts floating by without judgment (imagining them as leaves on a stream or clouds in the sky) is a great way to let go.

2. Set realistic goals: 

Perfectionists often set unachievable goals, leading to a constant state of dissatisfaction. By setting realistic and attainable goals, individuals can experience a sense of accomplishment and maintain motivation without succumbing to the fear of failure. As mentioned in previous posts, I’m a huge proponent of setting SMART goalsSimple, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. 

3. Embrace mistakes and learn from them: 

Instead of viewing mistakes as failures, individuals should reframe them as opportunities for growth and learning. By adopting a growth mindset, perfectionists can recognize that making mistakes is an inherent part of the learning process and that failures do not define their worth or abilities.

Yes, I slipped into some old perfectionist habits in the last week, but that is not only okay, it’s been a great opportunity to self-reflect and utilize the ACT techniques I have available to me. A mantra that I repeat to myself now when trying to juggle all of the responsibilities is “It doesn’t need to be perfect, it’s good enough.” And often good enough is good enough!

4. Seek support and perspective: 

Perfectionism can be isolating, and seeking support from trusted friends, family, or professionals can provide valuable insight and perspective. Engaging in open conversations about the challenges of perfectionism can help individuals realize that they are not alone in their struggles and that seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness.

I always find that just by voicing the thoughts and feelings I’m hooked onto to a trusted friend or counsellor, it takes some of their power away and allows me to move back into mental flexibility and release from the anxiety.

I can attest that by understanding the causes of perfectionism and implementing strategies to overcome it, you can break free from its grip and cultivate healthier attitudes towards success and self-acceptance. Embracing self-compassion, setting realistic goals, embracing mistakes, and seeking support are essential steps towards achieving a more balanced and fulfilling life, free from the constraints of perfectionism.

Feel free to contact me if you’d like help in defusing perfectionist thinking and freeing yourself from the related anxiety and exhaustion.