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Dangers of Perfectionism vs. Excellence (Overwhelming Anxiety vs. Healthy Striving)

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What is perfection? It’s like the mythical unicorn. Some of us believe in its existence but have never seen it. 

And why you may ask.   

Because the moment that a perfectionist believes they are close to perfection, all they’ll see are flaws. And if you can’t be perfect then, it’s best not to try.        

Perfectionism is not about striving for excellence. It’s about unrealistic expectations that are self-destructive and fuel an addictive belief system: “My worth is decided on what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it.” And is at the root of many different cognitive distortions. 

The Hustle for Worthiness

Perfectionism is what Brene’ Brown calls “the hustle for worthiness” in her book Daring Greatly [affiliate]. And she put it best:

“We either own our own stories (even the messy ones), or we stand outside of them – hustling for other people’s approval for our worthiness. Perfectionism is exhausting because hustling is exhausting. It’s a never-ending performance.” 

(Daring Greatly p132-133). 

So, what does this quote mean?

It means that to stop hustling and trying to prove yourself, secure acceptance and love of others, you need to own your own story. Even the messy not so great parts of it.   

But first, let’s see where hustling for your worthiness has gotten you….

Perfectionistic Tendencies and the Fearful Reality of the Perfectionist   

There are so many ways that perfectionism can drain a person’s quality of life. So, often we are led to believe that if you work hard enough to be perfect, your life will be happy, free of struggles, and well… perfect.    

Perfectionism is the more extreme approach to achieving a high level of excellence. To a perfectionist, anything less than perfect is unacceptable.  

Perfectionism-sin't-always-about-being-perfect
Perfectionism isn’t about being perfect

Highly Critical Thought Process

Belief – Mistakes can never be made, and the highest standards of performance must always be achieved.

Reality – Procrastination results when the fear of failure is sparked, and the pursuit of perfectionism is being sought. This results in spending longer amounts of time on tasks than needed. Or never starting the task at all. Perfectionists will set themselves high, unrealistic expectations. But not tell themselves what their unachievable standard even looks like. So, most perfectionists don’t even know if they’re meeting it or not. And if they come close, well then, you might move the bar “just a little bit higher.” 

Negative Self-Talk

Person fixated and selecting "perfect" amongst a list of other alternative words.

Belief – It’s my fault. If I were good enough, I wouldn’t feel this way. 

Reality – This type of negative self-talk is addictive and may also be known as the inner critic. Instead of looking at the faulty logic in negative self-talk, the perfectionist will become fixated on it. And will use that logic to reinforce the internal dialogue that keeps them stuck hustling for their self-worth.     

All-or-Nothing Thinking

Belief – There is either good or bad, perfect or imperfect, do it perfectly, or there is no point in doing it at all, with nothing in between. 

Reality – Because there is no gray area in perfectionism, this belief can become overwhelming and paralyze the perfectionist. In the perfectionist mind, “almost perfect” is seen as a failure. It’s just not good enough. And if it’s not going to be perfect, then there is no point in even trying.   

Unrealistic Goals 

Belief – To be successful, all obstacles must be overcome. 

Reality – Instead of concentrating on the process of accomplishing a task and the healthy striving that comes from learning from one’s mistakes. The perfectionist focuses exclusively on the desired outcome and may become paralyzed by an overwhelming sense of anxiety. Of trying to go from A to Z without making a single mistake. Where even the smallest of tasks can become overwhelming and can result in undue stress, negative self-talk, depression, anxiety (social anxiety), to name a few.   

Fear of Failure    

"Fear of Failure" written in thick lettering with ink blotches
Is actually fear of unworthiness

Belief – To meet other people’s expectations, I have to avoid conflict, please others and be the very best.   

Reality – It’s not always about people-pleasing, even though most perfectionists were raised in environments where achievement and performance were highly praised. It’s about avoiding judgment, criticism, and the shame that comes up when the perfectionist doesn’t feel like they’re good enough. At some point, a belief is created that the perfectionist is only as good and worthy and deserving as their accomplishments. This results in fear of failure, and since anything less than perfection is seen as a failure, this becomes a terrifying prospect. 

Sacrifice of Self-Esteem

Belief – Perception is more important. If I look and do everything perfectly, I won’t be criticized. 

Reality – Perfectionists tend to be very self-critical in their quest to minimize painful feelings of shame, blame, and judgment. And there is no way to control perception. No matter how much the perfectionist tries to master perfectionism. No matter the energy they expend, they cannot control perception. It’s the hustle for approval, love, and acceptance. Instead of looking for these within themselves (their own inner drive), the perfectionist looks to others and will hustle for them.   

Perfectionism is Addictive

Woman's internal voice berating herself for not being perfect.
When a perfectionist has a less-than-perfect performance, feelings of shame, blame, and judgment surface

Belief – If I only did it better, then I wouldn’t be feeling this way. 

Reality – When the perfectionist does experience a less-than-perfect performance (i.e., criticism), feelings like shame, blame, and judgment surface, and they become their own worst enemy. Instead of looking at the faulty thinking that drives the perfectionist, they become more addicted to the belief that if they try harder to look and do everything just right, it won’t happen again. 

Self-Sabotage

Belief – If it can’t be done perfectly, it’s best not to try. 

Reality – At its heart, it is the fearing what the perfectionist believes is the high cost of failure. It’s fearing the possibility of being judged, of making a mistake, and getting something wrong. And the perfectionist would rather stop learning than risk making a mistake and being viewed as less than. 

the-hustle-for-wothiness-the-real-danger-of-perfectionism
Perfectionism and the hustle for self-worth

How to Stop the Hustle for Worthiness     

Now that you understand why you are hustling and what you are trying to avoid. You can make the conscious decision that you and only you have the power to make. To move from perfectionism with its impossible goals and to be okay with healthy striving or, as Brené Brown states below, “good enough-ist.”         

“I’m a recovering perfectionist and an aspiring “good enough-ist.” 

Brené Brown (Daring Greatly, p.128)

(You may have noticed that I’m a fan of Brené Brown.)

Here is the first step, recognize your inner critic and practice self-kindness. It’s saying things to yourself like, “you tried really hard on that, and I’m proud of the effort you put in.” It’s about having a dialogue with yourself where imperfection is accepted.   

Practice common humanity. Common humanity is something that we all go through and not something that happens just to you

Feel what you’re feeling without exaggerating or suppressing it. 

Practice Self-Kindness

This is about communicating with your inner critic. It’s the little voice in your head that whispers mean and hurtful things at you. Unfortunately, that little voice lives in a world of absolutes with little to no room for the gray areas. This little voice may sound like you, but it may also sound like someone else – your parent(s), sibling(s), teacher(s), a boss that fired you, or someone else. 

Cultivate a Nurturing Inner Voice

This can feel really foreign in the beginning. Many of us do not have a good connection with ourselves because of the inner critic. The inside of ourselves may feel like a hostile place where we berate ourselves for being less than perfect. You can start cultivating a nurturing inner voice by making it a point to ask yourself, “How do I feel?” Check-in with yourself often throughout the day and speak to yourself with a nurturing inner voice.   

You can create this nurturing inner voice with a visual if you’re not certain what it might look or sound like. I personally use a visual to tap into my own nurturing voice, and I’ll share it with you. 

I will visualize a small child whether that kiddo is me for when I need to tap into it for me. Or what I imagine a challenging person may have looked like as a small kiddo. I imagine that kiddo to be small and very afraid and looking at me with help in its eyes.   

When I do this, I notice changes within myself—my tone changes (even the tone in my head). My voice takes on a softer quality – something more nurturing and safe and inviting. I feel myself become more open (my defenses drop), and I can tap into empathy and compassion that, without the visual, would have been harder for me to tap into.   

Accept Compliments

Accepting compliments is almost in direct violation of the perfectionist’s credo and will awaken that inner critic faster than anything. If you want to go from constantly seeking perfectionism to learning to be okay with yourself, you need to learn to accept compliments. And guess what? They are so incredibly uncomfortable in the beginning. But here’s the thing. That compliment isn’t about you. I know that sounds odd so let me explain. 

It takes courage for the person who compliments you to compliment you. There’s a level of vulnerability there to share with you how you have impacted them. Receiving a compliment is not about you. They’re not asking if you agree with them. They’re letting YOU know how you have impacted THEM. It doesn’t matter if you (or your inner critic) agree with it or feel that you don’t deserve it; it’s someone else’s experience of you. And all you need to do is say two simple words, “Thank you,” and leave it alone. 

This was revolutionary for me. To make the connection that compliments are not about me but are about the giver. And as you have learned above. We cannot control other people’s perceptions. No matter how much the perfectionist tries and the energy they expend, they cannot control perception. So, if you can’t control other people’s perception AND you receive a compliment, perhaps that means the compliment is genuine (#mindblown).

Accepting compliments gets easier over time. It’s part of the process of learning how to quiet your inner critic and cultivate your nurturing inner voice.   

Common Humanity

Recognize that you are not alone. Christopher Littlefield, the founder of Acknowledgment Works, interviewed over 300 people in a year while riding the Boston subway. He discovered 70% of people associate embarrassment or discomfort with being recognized, such as receiving a compliment. Unpleasant and uncomfortable feelings are part of the human experience. No one is exempt from suffering, struggling, heartache, or fear. We are literally all in this together because these feelings are universal. 

Many hands of both genders and different races united in common humanity.
We are all in this together.

The perfectionist, rather than reframing their imperfection as part of the shared human experience. They will experience a form of emotional tunnel vision and become absorbed by their own feelings of insecurity and insufficiency, disconnect from others and isolate themselves. When we focus on our own shortcomings without taking the shared human experience into account, we start to believe that these are problems that “only happen to me” and not to anyone else.

Comparison and Scarcity

Take social media’s obsessions with perfectionism, for instance. These glossy feeds that reinforce unrealistic standards require unreasonable demands of perfectly posed selfies, witty videos, polished vacation photos, and videos. Whether knowingly or not, social media encourages comparison and the fear of missing out, also known as scarcity. 

Comparison and scarcity result in comparing ourselves and calculating how much we have, how much we don’t have, and how much we think others have. This feeds into perfectionist tendencies when we assume those perfect photos and videos we see are real. Perfectionists will hold up their own reality against their own fictional account of how great they believe others have it. And believe that those people with those perfect photos and videos don’t have any problems. As a result, we lose our common humanity because we feel insecure and insufficient and become absorbed by our own feelings. 

Mindfulness Practices

Feel what you are feeling. You cannot ignore your own pain; practice self-kindness and common humanity all at the same time. Mindfulness requires you to identify what you are thinking and feeling but not over-identify with it. It can be so easy to get sucked into thoughts and feelings. Self-kindness and mindfulness require an accurate perspective of what you are thinking and feeling. 

Mindfulness is about awareness and acceptance – even the stuff you don’t want to think about. The wonderful thing about mindfulness is that it gets you unstuck, but you have to attend to the things you have avoided. It is the ability to suspend judgment and to curiously explore the workings of your mind with kindness and compassion.   

Many of us try and avoid the thoughts that we question. The thoughts that make us feel uncomfortable. 

Mindfulness – A transformative process

Mindfulness can be a transformative experience when you discover how to validate yourself without moralizing, judging, and being punitive. 

It’s about being able to stay present and attentive to the moment. This is how you free yourself from the destructive patterns that you have been engaging in, by becoming aware of the pattern that is happening and having the opportunity to take action – not out of reaction and frustration but out of compassion and understanding that this is the pattern that needs to be changed.   

Woman practicing mindfulness at her desk using compassion and understanding.
Mindfulness – present and attentive to the moment

You are not able to break a pattern that you do not understand. And you cannot truly understand your pattern without compassion for yourself. Without compassion for yourself, you will continue to view your patterns through judgment. By judging or condemning, you will miss why it is you do what you do.    

Mindfulness is dropping the narrative that you have been telling yourself. It’s about sitting with the emotion without telling yourself a story about it. It’s about moving towards your emotional experience without condemning or justifying its existence. 

The beauty of moving from perfectionism to healthy striving or a good enough-ist

You have probably gathered that there is a big difference between setting goals or expectations within reach versus so high that you will never be able to reach them. It’s okay still to have high standards or high expectations of yourself to want to do a great job. To still want to challenge yourself to reach your full potential as long as your potential is attainable. 

There is personal satisfaction in attaining a goal, but those that practice healthy striving to their desired goal learn to enjoy the process and not just the outcome. Learning to enjoy the process can actually improve your chances of greater success because you are no longer battling overwhelming anxiety and fixated on the end result. 

Those that are not plagued by perfectionistic tendencies can bounce back fairly easily from disappointment and are more willing to try it again. And even make new mistakes in their quest for ongoing continuous improvement. The willingness to make mistakes allows us to learn different things about ourselves. Mistakes can challenge our mindset and open up new ways to perceive ourselves and the world. Finally, there is freedom and peace of heart to know “I am enough” exactly as I am.  

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