June 21, 2021
By: Patricia Paul, Therapist, M.Ed, M.Sc.(A),CFT
No one is sheltered from hurt, sorrow, fear, or devastation. We all make mistakes, even when we try our best. We all fail, despite our social tendencies not to talk about our failures. Consequently, unending efforts to prevent imperfection at all costs has an impact on your life whether you agree or not. Among other conditions such as gastrointestinal illnesses, migraines, and cardiovascular issues, perfectionism has been shown to contribute to an individual’s level of depression, anxiety, and likelihood of burning out. Such issues have an impact on a personal level in addition to your social and romantic relationships. For example, when a loved one tells you to slow things down and you find yourself reacting hastily at the thought of “taking a break,” that response can create relational tension. The following piece is geared at helping you challenge your inner perfectionist so that you can move forward in your relationships with others instead of taking things personally and possibly remaining stuck in the belief that you can control all outcomes with enough worry.
The authors of When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough: Strategies for Coping with Perfectionism, suggest while there is nothing wrong with striving for excellence or having expectations, however when you find yourself taking things personally, feeling depleted, or thinking you are a failure because you received feedback from someone, that is when the borders of healthy versus unhealthy coping are crossed (Antony & Swinson, 2009). In Dr. Burns’ classic book Feeling Good, The New Mood Therapy (1980), the author defines perfectionism as having expectations “high beyond reach or reason.” If you struggle with perfectionism, both books are excellent reads to help you consider how thoughts about how we must be perfect are reinforced, and how to challenge the negative consequences of our faulty thinking. Flett, Nepon, & Hewitt (2016) suggest there are three primary consequences of unreasonable perfectionism which include: rumination, dysfunctional attitudes, and negative cognitions e.g., “I am such a bad person.” Accordingly, the function of such tendencies is to avoid the emotional impact of what we may feel if not “perfect”, to gain more control over things and make the unpredictable more predictable, and to use supposed corrective feedback to prevent future imperfections (Flett et al., 2016.)
As a couple and family therapist, I often notice the impact when individuals struggle with perfectionism in relationships. The narrative one commits to that they must be “perfect” forces individuals to believe any comments or feedback are directed at them, which often contributes to defensive responses in relationships. While some react to the thought they “should” know better, other’s perfectionism maintains the appearance of controlling every aspect of their life so much so that if anything goes astray, they engage in immediate fix-it mode oftentimes paired with harsh self-criticism. People that constantly criticize themselves find others in their surroundings frustrated by the challenges faced when presented with their continuous negativity or self-harshness. To add to the mix, beliefs that one must be “perfect” causes a lot of strife in relationships. Comments such as “did you remember to…?” turn into people feeling as though they’ve done something wrong and/or feel blamed. Just as the way in which we react in our external world reflects how we are feeling internally, so how we react in our relationships is indicative of how we process our emotions. No matter what we are feeling, what do we tend to do when we feel blamed? We become defensive, which can lead to unhealthy relational patterns.
Research has shown that as creatures of habit our brains are not wired for conflict or uncertainty. Nevertheless, proponents of perfectionism would argue you must learn how to be imperfect and learn how to let go of things or accept things as they are to make room for imperfection.
When you engage in perfectionistic beliefs, it will also hinder your relationship with yourself. If you find yourself reacting to comments or feedback in a way that leads to arguments and constant disagreements, knowingly or unknowingly, here are a few helpful strategies of what to do. When perfectionism hinders your friendships, work relationships, and or romantic partnerships:
Failure can be one of your best teachers. Try your best to trust in the process of failure and trust in your mistakes. If that doesn’t work as quickly as you’d like, try to slow things down and ask yourself: are you telling yourself the full story? Or are you focusing on a piece of the story? Chances are when you look back at all your “failures” you learned something valuable in hindsight.
When someone you cherish makes a mistake and shares their feelings with you, how do you respond? I doubt you engage with a harsh critical response so why be so hard on yourself? If control is something that helps to reassure you, consider that one of the things you can control is how kind you are to yourself. If that doesn’t work, for every bad thing you have to say, find something kind to say about yourself and learn to believe in yourself.
Instead of directing all blame on yourself or trying to prevent any downfalls, try to understand what your perfectionism is about. For example, what is your motivation to be “perfect,” where did you learn to believe you must strive for perfection, and what is the cost of your perfectionism especially when it comes to relationships?
Once you label something as “good” or “bad”, you believe it. Challenge your negative thinking and change your vocabulary. Instead of saying I am bad, try saying something difficult is happening, this is temporary, and things will not be like this forever.
The next time you find yourself arguing with a friend or loved one because you may have been taking their feedback personally, a typical reaction of perfectionistic thinking, remember, we are all bound to make mistakes and there is nothing wrong with making mistakes, yet there is something wrong with how you treat yourself when you treat yourself harshly, or how unkind you are to yourself as well as others around you.
(1) Antony, M. M., & Swinson, R. P. (2009). When perfect isn’t good enough: Strategies for coping with perfectionism. New Harbinger Publications.
(2) Burns, D. D. (1980). The feeling good the new mood therapy, Rev. Plume/Penguin Books.
(3) Flett, G. L., Nepon, T., & Hewitt, P. L. (2016). Perfectionism, worry, and rumination in health and mental health: A review and a conceptual framework for a cognitive theory of perfectionism. Perfectionism, health, and well-being, 121-155.