I started struggling with perfectionism when I was seven years-old. That might sound awfully young, but that's when I started my career as a competitive gymnast.
Gymnastics is all about striving for a score of Perfect 10.0, which means you performed your routine with zero flaws, falls, or fails. Although you compete as a team, your routines are performed alone. So if you perform poorly and affect the results of the team, it's 100% on you. Scores are given by judges who scrutinize every flexed toe, bent knee, and hair strand falling into your face, so your career is based off the judgment of your body and the way you use it. Finally, due to the physically demanding nature of the sport, the prime age for competition (for women at least) is 10-17 years-old, which are very influential and important years for a girl. These three things make gymnastics a special sport and one that is a breeding ground for a long struggle with perfectionism.
This is my story. How you arrived at the Perfection Ideal may be completely different but no less a struggle.
Perfectionism is a sneaky creature, crawling its way into your academics, work, relationships, and, most importantly, your mind. When it's been growing long enough, it has plenty of time to make its way into all facets of your life. You see yourself through a lens of "anything less than perfect is unacceptable."
The sneakiest quality of the creature is that it's quiet. It may take years, even decades, to realize it's there and how it's affecting you. It doesn't help that, on top of it all, we live in a society that reinforces perfectionism by constantly rewarding "perfect" bodies, work ethics, behaviors, etc. It is now even more challenging to be a perfectionist because we are in a public crisis. So the perfectionism is still there, but our lives and the world are pretty damn far from perfect.
Sure, there may have been times that your perfectionism served you. It helped you get straight A's, your current job title, a prestigious award, or something else. Working hard and striving for your goals are normal and healthy. What's not healthy is the underlying belief to perfectionism, which is this:
So, how do we manage to feel good enough while maintaining the parts of our identity that we do want to keep (i.e., hard working, committed)? Here are five helpful steps to start working on feeling good enough in spite of perfectionism:
I used to refer to my struggle with perfectionism as a "battle" and for so long I viewed perfectionism as an enemy. However, if there's anything I've learned in my years as a therapist, it's that when you view any part of yourself as an enemy to be defeated, you are setting yourself up to lose to that "enemy". This will only make it stronger because it thrives on internal conflict.
The key is working with it. By reducing the combative relationship with your perfectionism, it starts to lose its power. This takes a mental shift that doesn't happen over night. It takes time and practice, which you can do through journaling, talking it out with people you trust, meditation, and the friendly, consistent reminder that "perfectionism is not an enemy."
We all have a different story of how we got to where we are today. Another important lesson I've learned as a therapist is that exploring your story with any struggle you have will help to alleviate it. This is because awareness brings understanding and with understanding brings power. Some questions to start the exploration of your perfectionism are:
Again, you can journal, talk, and meditate on all of these questions.
Now that you no longer see your perfectionism as an enemy and you understand it's story, it's time to strive for "good enough." You can do a bit of Socratic Dialogue here and some cognitive techniques to help. For example, take a particular situation where you know you struggle with perfectionism. Then ask yourself: "What does 'perfection' even look like in this situation?" Then ask: "How do I attain that?" and "Would I expect that of someone else?" This is an opportunity to use a common Cognitive Behavioral Technique of challenging automatic thoughts.
Your perfectionism is probably so engrained that it just happens automatically. And then you probably beat yourself up if you don't achieve it. Challenging automatic thoughts is similar to Socratic Dialogue in that you have a debate with yourself (or ask a friend or therapist!) and write down or say automatic beliefs you hold (i.e., "I must do this perfectly") and then question the validity of them.
After trying these techniques, chances are you will very quickly realize that perfection is unattainable. It's literally impossible. Nothing is perfect.
You then have to identify what result is good enough. If you're practicing a yoga pose and have come to the conclusion that getting it perfectly isn't possible, then what is possible? Maybe it's holding it for a few seconds or balancing on one foot without the support of your other foot?
This is not to discourage you from "reaching for the stars" or, as we discussed above, to hamper down a part of you that has served you well and that you actually like about yourself. This is to manage your expectations.
An integral part of perfectionism that keeps it alive and thriving is the Comparison Trap. "He does it perfectly, why can't I?" or "She always looks stunning. I wish I looked like that." This kind of comparison does not serve you. Aside from the fact that those people you think are perfect and are comparing yourself to are also comparing themselves to another person, it is just based on false pretenses. Even if we entertained it as a legitimate question, how can you compare yourself to them when you've had such different experiences? Maybe he's had a whole lot of training in whatever that thing is. Maybe she is able to spend hours and money on makeup. Not to mention privileges they might hold over you.
So comparing yourself to others isn't helpful and isn't logical.
Thus, the only person you can compare yourself to is your past self. Literally, that's it! Look at the person you used to be and who you are now. Strive to be a better person than you were yesterday. Do you want to "do better?" Then do better than your previous self.
The last and most important of these steps is building a compassionate self. The ironic thing is that just by practicing the previous four steps, you will inherently start building a compassionate self. By understanding yourself and the origins of your perfectionism, you will come to realize that it's not your fault and that you are not alone. You will begin to approach your experience with curiosity and openness. You will work with your perfectionism and not against it. Finally, you will begin to replace judgment with compassion, which is deadly to perfectionism.
Have you struggled with perfectionism? I can help you work through these five habits and start feeling good enough. Yoga+therapy is now 50% off the first four sessions, so schedule a complimentary consultation today!