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February 7, 2024

Perfectionism and How to Work with It with Liz Tampe, LCSW, LCAS

by Liz Tampe, MSW, LCSW

Perfection is a self persecutory myth. – Pete Walker

Perfectionism is a condition that usually develops early in a person’s life because of messaging they received directly or indirectly from their environment (nurture) combined with innate biological characteristics (nature). Societal and cultural expectations can also play a role in perfectionism.

What is Perfectionism?

Perfectionism often goes hand in hand with procrastination and people pleasing.  I call this combination the Triple P – and it can wreak havoc on a person’s relationships and sense of well-being.

People prone to perfectionism have “excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations.”  They are often critical of others as well and hold others to unrealistically high standards or expectations.  They are prone to either idealizing other people or devaluing them, often depending on their mood.  Perfectionism does not look one particular way, for example someone having an immaculately clean and orderly home.  Someone who hoards and lives in squalor could be a perfectionist.  It is a mindset and not something that is always outwardly apparent.

Am I a Perfectionist?

Perfectionists have difficulty starting and completing tasks.  An example of a perfectionist behavior would be a person procrastinating writing an English paper until the night before it is due and then faking sick to stay home and write the paper because they feel they can’t turn in anything less than an A+ paper.

Another example would be a person correcting someone else’s grammar during a conversation.  This can be particularly hurtful if it is done in public and you can see how a person who does this might have trouble keeping close relationships – they don’t allow others to be who they are.  Perfectionists are often controlling and can have difficulty laughing at themselves or be overly harsh when they make a mistake -for example calling themselves stupid or careless for knocking over a mug.

How Did I Become a Perfectionist?

They often learn this way of behaving and thinking from growing up with critical parents or parents that were overly focused on achievements or outcomes.  Sadly, they come to believe that their worth comes from outside themselves and have difficulty enjoying life and participating for the sake of participating.  Often parents who have perfectionistic children may have been raised by perfectionist caretakers themselves.

Other Signs of Perfectionism

  • Depression and anxiety
  • Eating disorders,
  • Disordered thinking (such as black and white thinking)
  • Fear of failure
  • Defensiveness
  • Low self-esteem

Recovering from Perfectionism

Recovery from perfectionism involves first acknowledging the problem and then finding ways to systematically replace perfectionist thinking and behavior.  Pete Walker suggests using strong affirmations for perfectionists to help shrink the critical part of themselves. Talking back to the inner critic repeatedly can change the neural network of the brain and reduce the time spent in toxic shame (something that perfectionists experience often due to not meeting unrealistically high standards).  The following is one affirmation:

“My perfectionism arose as an attempt to gain support in my neglectful family. I do not have to be perfect to be safe or loved in the present. I have a right to make mistakes. Mistakes do not make me a mistake. Every mistake is an opportunity to practice loving myself in the places I have never been loved.”

Helpful Practices for Perfectionists

Other skillful practices for people who struggle with perfectionism are to identify the underlying feelings (anger, sorrow, loneliness, hunger) and to use self-compassion.  Recognizing that perfectionism has reared its ugly head is the first step in softening and seeing the truth of your own humanity.  It can be helpful to find creative ways to work with perfectionism such as giving it a name “The Perfect Princess” and externalizing its “voice.”  It can be useful to write about what you are experiencing as a way of clarifying what is actually happening.  While you may be thinking “I’m a failure for xyz.” you can write “I am having the thought that I am a failure.” Or if you are thinking, “I can’t stand this” you can write, “I am having the thought that I can’t stand this.” This allows for some distance between you and perfectionism.

There are lots of tools and tricks to help with perfectionism – google it and see what’s out there or create your own list!

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