Does it feel like even when you do your best and achieve your goals you still feel like you’re not enough? That’s the trap of perfectionism.
If you’ve burned out as a result of unrealistic expectations you set for yourself and are desperate for a reboot, but don’t know where to start, you’re in the right place.
To find out what got you here and 10 ways to defeat perfectionism and prevent burnout, read on.
The Origins of Perfectionism
Perfectionism is defined as the “refusal to accept any standard short of perfection (flaws or defects).” If you are someone who strives for such unrealistic standards, it’s by no accident. There were likely life circumstances that have brought you to this present way of thinking, feeling, and behaving and it’s important to uncover their origins to start your healing journey and reshape your approach to life and work.
Take the story of Dr. Stephan Neff. As a child, Stephan described himself as a “mediocre student” and was told, “You will probably never go to university. You’re not really that bright.”
If these damaging judgments were not enough to shape Stephan’s view of himself, his family then put him in a trade school so he could learn a craft. While we can assume that this decision was made out of love in an effort to prepare Stephan to become an independent member of society, it triggered something inside of him.
He recalls, “I got actually hooked on being the best in class.” This was Stephan’s attempt at disproving his parents’ theory about his inferiority. More than anything, he wanted his parents to show him love and acceptance. He thought that by bringing home top grades, he’d finally get his needs met.
All his efforts paid off in some respects. The cool kids started hanging around him in the hopes he’d teach them how to get better grades. He got attention from girls at school. But his desire to feel loved by his parents did not turn out the way he’d hoped and his tendency to pour himself into his studies turned into an addiction.
Stephan’s core beliefs were still running in the background, pushing him to “work hard,” to prove himself, and to do everything perfectly. As he trained to be a doctor, the field of medicine encouraged his beliefs and perfectionistic tendencies.
It was a match made in heaven in some respects – the doctor who wants to do a perfect job and the setting that expects you to put in more time and energy, and get it right as close to 100 percent of the time as possible. Soon Stephan was working 60 to 70 hour-weeks and he kept at it for decades. He’d work, work, work, then crash.
On the surface, it feels like Stephan was made for medicine because of these matching expectations, but the truth was that this pattern only served him because it enabled him to run away from reality. “I became addicted to my work because when I was working, I didn’t have to think about my life.“
Like Stephan, perfectionists often have origin stories related to parental expectations. At times parents expect the child to do things perfectly. Other times perfectionism is just modeled and the child picks up on it from their parent or caretaker. And in other instances, it’s a form of compensation that affords you control in a world where you feel very much out of control.
What’s So Bad About Being Perfect?
When you are driven to perfection, you end up focusing externally instead of internally. No matter how depleted you feel, you push yourself to keep going because you tell yourself you cannot relax until the task is completed or perfected. You may feel guilty because you think other people expect that same level of perfection from you and you don’t want to let them down. Or, as in the case of Stephan, you want to prove that you can overcome barriers and disprove other people’s perceptions related to your inabilities.
Perfectionism, in essence, is often born from the belief that you have flaws or defects. You focus on perfecting your work – AKA something you can control – to regain your sense of worth.
The trouble is…it doesn’t work. And for good reason. You cannot fix your relationship with yourself based on something you do. Your beliefs won’t change because you got good grades or received a promotion at work. You won’t rewrite your script simply by doing something.
If you hate parts of yourself or believe you’re unworthy, no amount of achievement will change how you feel. All perfectionism does is keep you stuck in an unrelenting pattern of striving, accomplishing, and feeling that no matter what you’ve done, it’s still not enough. As a result, you’ll continue to push yourself so hard that you’ll fall out of balance. You’ll put your health and relationships on the back burner. You’ll explain away your accomplishments rather than allow them to satisfy your hunger for approval. And when failure rears its head, you’ll feel crushed and deeply ashamed.
The irony here is that you’ve probably adopted perfectionism as a means of avoiding failure. But due to the unrealistic expectations you set for yourself, you increase your chances of failure. And the more you fail, the worse you feel, the more you beat yourself up, and the more you feel you have to push yourself to make up for it.
No wonder perfectionists burn out in droves!
The Fear Underlying Perfectionism
Like any behavior, perfectionism is fueled by an emotion. That emotion happens to be fear.
Sometimes people think the fear underlying perfectionism is a fear of failure, but it goes deeper than that. The truth is that people who adopt perfectionism in their work are really afraid of being judged by others.
Understanding this is crucial because this fear speaks to an unmet need you are attempting to meet by focusing on the quality of your work (e.g., perfection) or on the quantity of tasks accomplished. Either way, you are striving as hard as you do to feel connected to others, but all perfectionism does is fill you with fear and keep you at arm’s length from those around you.
Consider how you would feel if you were around someone who was perfect in every way. Would you want to be vulnerable and share your struggles with them? Probably not. That’s because in order to feel connected to others we need to be able to relate to them. If they are on a pedestal, they seem out of our league.
Perfectionists often share how lonely they feel. What they truly want above all else is acceptance from others. They believe that by doing a great job, they’ll get the approval they seek but even when they do, it’s fleeting. The fear of being judged still looms over them as they move toward their next task and they may not even take the time to internalize their accomplishment because there’s a potential failure ahead that’s more pressing. This way of living is exhausting.
10 Ways to Ditch Your Perfectionist Tendencies
Turning perfectionism on its head is not as simple as it sounds. Because this behavior tends to be deeply ingrained along with the fear of being judged and the belief about not being enough, overturning it means transforming your relationship with yourself.
Here are 10 ways to shift out of perfectionism:
- In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown talks about the importance of being courageous in being your imperfect self. Rather than seeking approval from outside, it’s about showing up authentically, flaws and all.
- You may have a fear of doing something imperfectly, but by facing your fear and doing a task imperfectly, you have an opportunity to challenge your beliefs. What is it you think will happen? Write it down and test out your theory. See if your prediction happens in the way you thought it would. If not, it’s a sign that your mind is creating unnecessary drama. Practice letting go of the control to have things be perfect and see what horrible things happen. Chances are you’ll survive and realize it’s not as bad as you expect it to be.
- Rather than focusing externally on having a sense of control, ask yourself what feels out of control internally and focus on that instead. If you’re not clear what that is, consider talking to a therapist or coach to help you get in touch with the parts of you that are out of reach. This can give you more self-awareness of blindspots you didn’t know you had.
- If your version of perfectionism is about taking on too much and feeling overwhelmed, consider the difference between tasks that you need to do and tasks that you want to do. Before taking on another task, consider what you’ve already committed to doing and whether you have the bandwidth to commit to more.
- Remove conditions from your self-worth. Instead of guilting yourself into doing more by saying, “If I were a good mom/friend/spouse/worker, I would take this on,” remember that doing something doesn’t make you a good person. Pleasing others doesn’t make them approve of you as a person. Accept that you have limited resources and when you say “yes” to one thing, you are saying “no” to another. Too often, the thing you say “no” to without realizing it is yourself.
- What needs are currently unmet? As mentioned, perfectionists often want connection but think because they are too flawed or inadequate, they need to focus on doing. Find ways instead to fill the emotional void inside. Be compassionate with yourself when facing a struggle, when you experience failure or make a mistake, or when you don’t meet expectations. Give yourself the same form of love you would give to a friend who feels down about themselves. Surely, you’d know exactly what to say.
- Adopt a more flexible mindset. Perfectionists tend to think in black or white terms. This all or nothing thinking style is not only unrealistic, it leaves a lot of more compassionate options on the table. Find the gray zone.
- You may be tempted to hold onto as much of a project as possible because you don’t trust others to do it to your standards. The truth is you cannot do everything yourself and when you try, all you do is stress yourself out. Things may not get done to your standards, but better to have them done than otherwise. Learn to let go of control and delegate out responsibility. It will relieve the burden from you and allow you to have more breathing room.
- As a perfectionist you are less likely to take risks. Unless you’re fully confident that you can garner success, you might look for excuses of why you should avoid a task that you’ve previously failed at or have never attempted before. To overcome this fear of failure, focus on shifting to a growth mindset. Remember that failure is the best teacher you have. It’s an opportunity to learn what works and what doesn’t so you can fine tune your methodology, and ironically, get closer to perfection through those lessons.
- Sometimes perfectionists are so keen on getting a task done that they are unwilling to quit even when their approach doesn’t work. Rather than bang your head against the wall, take a step back to examine what’s not working, problem-solve, and find an alternative method to work on the task at hand.
When it comes to overcoming perfectionism, most of the work lies in taming your inner critic, building self-compassion, facing your fears, and separating your worth from your work. It takes mindfulness to notice the automatic thoughts that trigger your fears and actions, to shift your perspective, and to change your beliefs.
When you show up courageously, you give yourself permission to be human. You can take risks and do things well without them being perfect. You can delegate tasks out and allow other people in. Failures can become learning opportunities. Decisions become easier to make. There is less energy wasted on worrying about future catastrophes. But the best part of it all is how you will feel about yourself when you accept your limitations without shame.
If you’re burning out, download the Burnout Checklist to see which stage you are in and what you need to focus on to recover. Go to: https://drsharongrossman.com/burnoutchecklist/