We live in a society where self-perfection seems to be a widely held goal.
I reached out to the Merriam-Webster dictionary to find the definition of “perfect”. Here is what it said:
: having no mistakes or flaws
: completely correct or accurate
: having all the qualities you want in that kind of person, situation, etc.
Reflecting back upon my 63 years of life, I have concluded that I have been unnecessarily demanding of myself. I def bought into this idea of being perfect. Why did I constantly strive to be the perfect daughter, wife, mother, friend, co-worker, or prepare the perfect family holiday gathering? Did I impose this on myself, or did I pick it up on the way thru life, like some type of virus? Of course, I couldn’t live up to these expectations that I had of myself. Who could?
I reached out to Naomi Berry, M.C., LPC , a counselor in Scottsdale, Arizona, who helps clients resolve issues related to perfectionism, in order to find some answers. Here are the Q & A’s:
Are we taught to be perfect or do we strive for this on our own?
“Western culture perpetuates perfectionism. We are rewarded for setting high standards and there is a great emphasis on achievement and goal orientation. We have all heard the idiom, “practice makes perfect.” This implies that if we work hard enough, we can achieve our goals and reach success, which can be a positive message but is also implies that being perfect is attainable and that there is something wrong with us if we do not achieve perfection after working hard and doing our best.
We all know it is impossible to be perfect, but our culture dupes us into believing it is possible- we strive to get straight A’s, be the captain of the soccer team, the mom who can do it all- juggles kids, career and manages to make gourmet meals every night.
Perfectionism refers to thoughts, behaviors, and feelings that focus on attaining flawlessness and excellence, no matter what the cost. At first, these characteristics may seem admirable, however, they can become quite unhealthy and dysfunctional. Perfectionists set unreasonable standards for themselves and others. One of the biggest problems perfectionists face is that they tend to define their self-worth by their achievements, not on who they are as people. As a result, the clients that I work with are often plagued with self-doubt and never fully satisfied.”
I was curious if the need to achieve perfection is more common in women? If so, why?
“Perfectionism often starts in childhood and in my practice it is more prevalent in women. In general, some of the reasons that perfectionism seems more prevalent in women are:
- As children, girls are taught to be people pleasers more than boys.
- Women multitask on average more than men.
- Women strive toward unattainable ideals more than men such as obsessing over weight.”
When we say, “Do your best” to our children………. does that mean be perfect?
“Parents dream of having beautiful, talented and successful children but often promote unhealthy perfectionistic traits in the process. Most research shows that parents who set unrealistically high expectations for their children can cause serious shortcomings in the lives of their children. They likely grow into adults who never feel good enough or feel they are unable to live up to their parent’s expectations. That is certainly what I am seeing in my practice. I work with parents to help them gain awareness of their own attitudes and language that might be perpetuating perfectionism. When you set unrealistically high standards for yourself, such as— I made a mistake at work, it is a disaster—this can have an impact on your child. Thus, I also help parents appreciate the importance of their children’s accomplishments, not matter how small, so that their children do not feel humiliated if they do not accomplish everything they set out to do. Teaching your children to do your best is a healthy message, but we also need to let them know that everyone makes mistakes and that a mistake or failure is not the end of the world, it is a way to learn and grow.
As parents, we need to be careful about promoting perfectionism in our children. For children, perfectionism is about trying to earn parent’s approval. By praising our children for achievements and performance we may be inadvertently developing in them a dangerous belief system that teaches them “I am only what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it.”
How does this goal of constant perfection affect our daily lives- our marriage, our parenting, our job, our appearance, even our exercise routine?
“In my practice, every day, I see how perfectionism can negatively affect every area of your life. If you want to never be happy or satisfied, one way to achieve that is to raise your expectations to an unrealistically high standard that can never be met. Life rarely works out the way we expect……whether it is relationships, work, or parenting. I help my clients come to the realization that being happy in life requires you to let go of perfectionism and unrealistic expectations. Learning to be content with how things are, even when you fall short of your goals, rather than how you think they should be in a perfect, unattainable world is the only way to truly be happy.
For example, couples in my practice who see themselves as perfect “soulmates” are more prone to relationship problems than those who view their relationship as a journey. Every relationship is going to have problems and when you see yourselves only as the perfect couple, it is hard to accept and learn from the highs and lows of your relationship. In the words of a popular song, it is healthy for couples to learn to love each other’s “perfect imperfections” rather than believing that they need to be “perfect.”
Perfectionism also affects our work because perfectionists are more likely to procrastinate due to fear of failure—the classic example of analysis paralysis.
Perfectionism hurts our self-esteem and body image and can play a role in the development of eating disorders because perfectionists compare their body appearance to unrealistic ideals often portrayed in media of all types, which leads to disappointment in their own bodies.
Striving for perfectionism has a negative impact on our mental and physical health. Research shows that high levels of stress and anxiety, which are known to be linked to perfectionism, may even contribute to a decrease in lifespan.
The client’s that I see that are perfectionists often also suffer from OCD, generalized anxiety disorder, depression, and insomnia. Perfectionists are also more likely to experience chronic or unexplained fatigue and pain disorders such as fibromyalgia, heart disease, and irritable bowel syndrome.
Perfectionists often do not take time to care for themselves because they are hyper-focused on being the perfect mother, wife, boss….”
What advice can you give young mothers to help break the “perfect” cycle?
“Perfectionism is self-destructive because it is an unattainable goal. Perfectionism is more about being perceived as perfect. As young mothers and women, we believe that if others see us living perfectly, doing everything perfectly, then we won’t be judged and we can avoid feeling shame. The reality is that we cannot control others perceptions of us or avoid being judged or feeling shame….these are part of the human experience. To overcome the “perfect” cycle, I work with women using a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction approach that has proven to help women practice self-compassion, acknowledge their vulnerabilities and accept that judgment, blame and shame are all universal experiences. Author, Brene Brown, refers to this, as developing “shame resilience” Shame resilience is the antidote to perfectionism. By becoming more loving and compassionate with ourselves, we learn to embrace our imperfections”
While writing this blog, I became uber aware that I seem to use the word perfect often. I often say,” How perfect” or “That’s perfect”. The word seemed harmless until I realized the undo pressure that it causes.
I am going to make a serious effort to dramatically reduce the use of the ‘P” word from my thoughts and vocabulary. Of course, I can’t eliminate it completely, after all, I am not perfect!
For now, I am substituting that pesky “p” word with “wonderful”, “fabulous”, and “terrific”! These words don’t cause pressure, and they make you feel better.
Time to do a brain re-set!
My Motto: Suffering in silence is OUT! Reaching out is IN.
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