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The Hidden Side of Perfection


Graphic of a woman lining up office supplies perfectly. Text reads: The hidden side of perfection


Describing yourself as a “perfectionist” has always raised an eyebrow or two. People assume you’re either trying to win someone over, lying, or finding a socially acceptable way to brag. I think there are many people that have a tendency to strive for perfection or want things to be perfect; however, some of us have perfectionism ingrained into our souls…and it’s not anything to brag about. Most actual perfectionists likely won’t go around claiming they are a perfectionist, they usually don’t believe most of what they do is good enough…let alone perfect. Perfectionism can stem from a variety of things including adverse childhood experiences, trauma, or cultural factors. No matter where your perfectionism stemmed from it’s often a double edged sword. 


Perfection is a Superpower



A common misbelief is that perfectionism is like a super power, if you’re a perfectionist everything you put your mind to comes out amazing! What isn’t so commonly understood is the negative side of perfectionism. 

Let’s use an easy to follow example: Tara is planning her son’s first birthday party, he LOVES frogs so that was an easy choice for the theme! She wants everything to be PERFECT. She works through the night to make sure the frog decorations are exactly where they need to be, she spends hours on the phone working with caterers to make sure the food is just right, she has a full blown meltdown when the cake is delivered with a TURTLE on it, it’s too late to fix it! The guests begin to arrive and shower Tara with praise! “You did all of this yourself!?” “You could do this for a living!” “Wow everything looks so good!” Everyone is amazed at the party Tara was able to put together. Thanks to her perfectionism she gets to soak in the praise and enjoy her son’s first birthday…right? This is where the good side of perfectionism pays off. Tara was able to throw a perfect party for her son. To others it seems like Tara’s perfectionism is a superpower!

What they can’t see is that on the inside Tara doesn’t believe the praise and can’t enjoy the party at all. Instead all she can think about is the frog that was supposed to be on the cake. While everyone else sees balloons, streamers, and presents Tara sees the bag of ice she forgot to buy, she sees the spot on the rug she forgot to clean, she sees that she didn’t order enough appetizers. Instead of enjoying the beautiful party she created she spends the whole time criticizing the things that didn’t turn out perfectly. This is where the bad side of perfectionism comes in. 


The Hidden Side of Perfection


This scenario plays out in different ways for perfectionists everyday. Your boss sees the perfect report you put together, your professor can’t believe how perfect your final project is, your husband praises the perfect dinner you made, the other soccer moms envy your daughter’s perfect homemade jersey. What isn’t seen in these situations is the amount of stress, anxiety, guilt, or tears that it took for you to produce the perfect. That is the hidden side of perfectionism. Where others see effortless results, you experience the anything but effortless journey to get there. 


Why is being a perfectionist so stressful?



Circling back to where perfectionism comes from. The cause of perfectionism comes in many forms: unrealistic expectations put on you as a child, a traumatic experience with criticism, idealistic standards portrayed in the media, or a high pressure work environment. Maybe you can’t pinpoint where the perfectionism came from but in all of these scenarios there is usually a negative consequence if you don’t perform perfectly. Your mind can view negative consequences as a threat. This is why perfectionism is so stressful. Although there may not be actual consequences, it’s hard for your mind/body to discern between actual consequences/threats and perceived ones. 

So in our birthday party scenario there were no real consequences if the party didn’t turn out perfectly. However, Tara struggled to differentiate between actual consequences and the threat of perceived consequences.


Okay, so now what do I do? 



Now you understand what the hidden side of perfectionism is and why it’s so stressful, now what? Let’s discuss some ways to help alleviate the pressure of perfectionism:

1. Set Realistic Goals: I know, easier said than done. Try to break tasks into smaller sections and strive to make just one section perfect.

Example: 

Tara can make sure the decorations are perfect and can place less pressure on the cake and food.


2. Practice Self-Compassion: Be kinder to yourself. An easy rule of thumb to follow if you notice yourself being unkind to yourself is to repeat the thought and replace yourself with a loved one. 

Example: 

Initial thought: “I ruined everything because I didn’t order enough food, I’m a failure.” Now replace the I with someone you love (mother, sister, friend, daughter, etc.) 

New thought: “Kayla ruined everything because she didn’t order enough food, she’s a failure.” Harsh right? If you wouldn’t say it to a loved one, you don’t deserve to say it to yourself. 


3. Challenge Negative Consequences: Identify and challenge unrealistic or overly critical consequences. Replace them with more balanced and realistic consequences.

Example: 

Perceived Consequence: “If I don’t make the perfect birthday card my sister will hate me.”

Realistic Consequence: “If the card doesn’t come out perfectly my sister will still love and appreciate the work I put into it.”


4. Set Boundaries: Recognize your limits and set boundaries to prevent overcommitting or overworking. Prioritize self-care, rest, and relaxation to avoid burnout. Don’t be afraid to set realistic and clear expectations with others.

Example:

“Hey boss, I received your request to complete this report by the end of the day; unfortunately, I have prior commitments that need to be addressed today. I can get you that report by the end of the week.”


5. Try New Things: Experiment with new hobbies without the pressure of achieving perfection. Allow yourself to explore and learn through trial and error. You may just find yourself enjoying the journey, instead of waiting for the end result.

Examples: 

Knitting, painting, hiking, golf, anything that will allow you to decrease the amount of pressure to achieve perfection. MISTAKES ARE OKAY!




Not everything in life needs to be perfect to be beautiful!


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