The Mask of Perfection


It’s actually a trait I used to consider positive.  I mean why wouldn’t we strive for perfect every time? Why would we be okay with less than perfect? But needing to be perfect I’ve learned is very treacherous path.

First of all I still strive for greatness.  I want to do my best at all times and I want the same for my kiddos, but greatness is not the same as perfect.

I can remember from a very young age feeling driven for greatness.  I’m certain it was learned from my dad, who in my eyes as a child never did anything wrong. He was always right and always had great ideas and executed them perfectly. The part I didn’t see until I started to see it in myself was that the constant need for perfection was an unhealthy behavior.

Why is Perfectionism Unhealthy?

Because it’s unrealistic.  When a person set’s such a high performance standard for themselves all the time they will inevitably come up short at time, or in their eyes… all the time.  It’s not possible for perfection every time because visions just don’t always execute as planned. There are too many factors out of our control that there is no way for one person to ensure perfection every time.  This then leads to disappointment and feelings of failure.

Psychologists note that people with a perfectionistic personality type are very self -critical of their errors and also are extremely affected by others evaluations of them.  Perfectionists also don’t ask for help.  They don’t trust that others will be able to execute their vision to their expectations and therefore take on all the responsibility themselves. Nothing will ever be good enough for a perfectionist.  It’s crazy how true this rings and if you are or know of a person with this personality trait you’ll agree.

I can write about this trait easily because it’s me … perfectly.

Sitting here I have streams of examples flooding my mind of times where I took on too much and wouldn’t rely on others, times where criticism or evaluation from others created great stress and anxiety, but mostly the times where I beat myself up mentally and emotionally for not executing perfectly.

So What Causes a Person to Develop Perfectionism?

There’s a few noted contributing factors to perfectionism such as frequent fear of disapproval from others or feelings of insecurity and inadequacy or having a parent who exhibits perfectionistic behavior or expresses disapproval when their child doesn’t meet perfect expectations, as well as insecure attachments early in life.  Brene Brown, a writer and research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, says that “perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best.  Perfection is not about healthy achievement and growth. But rather a shield used by many people to protect against the pain of blame, judgment, or shame.

Gaining Awareness

As I reflect on my life and consider where this trait originated and where it really took life for me I can put together a short understanding.  As I mentioned my dad was a perfectionist so I for sure learned some of the trait from him, but also I was a middle child.  Being a middle child creates a sense of unbelonging.  Where do you fit in? Success and achievement was highly valued and praised in our home and so I believe I developed a desire to be perfect and achieve in an effort to receive attention, and the more often I succeeded the more it imprinted on me that it was important.  I also recall that when I came up short, which honestly was very rarely, but if I did the disappointment of my parents left a significant imprint.  In turn it made me more inclined to strive for high achievement to avoid this judgment and the shame that came with it. This is not meant to blame my parents for anything, it’s simply a reflection of where I think this behavior came from. And knowing this has been helpful to identify where the behavior became unhealthy.  Because striving for greatness and doing your best can be a very healthy characteristic to have, but it’s a fine balance to maintain.

Is Perfectionism a Mental Illness

Psychologists do not state that perfectionism is a mental disorder, however in the extremes the unhealthy behavior can be a risk factor for obsessive compulsive disorder, eating disorders, social anxiety, workaholism, self harm, substance abuse, and clinical depression as well as contribute to physical problems like chronic stress and heart disease.  Research has shown that individuals who are high on the maladaptive perfectionism scale are often anxious, depressed, and suffer from burnout over the long term.

It all makes sense really that when you have an unhealthy need to be perfect in everything that you do and the continued failure that would inevitably ensue could very well contribute to mental distress, emotional turmoil and more.

How to Overcome Perfectionism

In addition to working with a therapist or a wellness coach here are a few self-help strategies for perfectionism.

  1. Challenge “black or white” or “all or nothing” thoughts. These are the absolutes that come up.  Like I always fail at that, or I will never get that right.  Absolutes are results of negative thinking over time that then becomes are predominant story in our minds.  So next time you hear yourself saying these things stop and challenge them.
  2. Start a Journal. This is one of the top rated self-development suggestions for a reason. It allows you an opportunity to write down your negative thoughts, and reflect.  When you write uncensored you will find that you gain awareness about things you do, say, or think.  Having this awareness is the first piece of the puzzle to creating a life without the constant stress of needing to be perfect.
  3. Listen to Your Self-Talk. What kinds of things do you hear your mind telling you on a regular basis. Our thoughts become our reality so if we are continually sending ourselves negative pressured messages then that will become our outward experience.
  4. Mess up on Purpose. Find something that isn’t overly important to you and don’t give 100%, notice what happens and how you feel.  Write it down in a journal.
  5. Try a New Hobby. Something brand new to you means you’re going to have to learn and develop through making mistakes. This is a great way to challenge yourself and pay particular attention to the process rather than just the end goal.

In addition to the steps about I have found it extremely beneficial using the Aroma Freedom Technique to facilitate a simple process to reshape my beliefs and feelings about myself and my goals. If you’d like to read more about the Aroma Freedom Technique click here for my Aroma Freedom Clearing Session FAQ

Setting Realistic Expectations for Children

This is tough balance both personally and as a parent.  As you’ve read, a main contributing factor to the development of the perfectionism trait is our upbringing. So now that you’ve identified it in yourself and are taking appropriate steps to overcome your needs for perfection lets look at how we as parents can set realistic expectations for our children to prevent them from developing this need too.

Every Child is Unique and Different

When setting expectations for your child it’s not an exact science because every child is different, but luckily you the parent know your child the best. So look at the particular child’s strengths and weakness, interests and talents and base your expectations on the individual child. Charts and progress guidelines are not cut and dry and do not work for every child.  Fitting into the box that society has created is not the goal.  Every one of us including our children are unique so keep that in mind when your child brings home a test that they scored poorly on, or when the other kids are skating and your child can barely stay on his feet.  They are all different.

It’s Not About You

Don’t base your desires or expectations for your child on yourself. Of course we all want our children to shine and excel, it’s completely natural to have that dream for them. But you can’t live out your failures or missed opportunities in your children.  If you always wanted to perform on stage and you see an opening for an audition, it wouldn’t be realistic to pressure your shy reserved and quiet child to audition.  This is setting a child up for failure and this will negatively impact their self- esteem. Now if that same child is excited about the opportunity and wants to pursue it then by all means allow them. This also applies to pushing our children to do things just because everyone else is doing them.  Remember to consider their strengths and interests and allow them a say in what they pursue.

Focus on Doing Their Best

Place more emphasis on challenging themselves to do their best and less on being perfect. Children are the prime example of growth as we watch them learn to eat, walk, talk ect.  They continue to get back up and try again.  It’s important to give your children encouragement to push themselves outside of their comfort zone to achieve but within a healthy boundary of perfection not being the goal.  Many children can get trapped in the safe zone which we as parents can see as them being lazy. If you notice that your child is not moving towards a goal then it’s a great opportunity to sit with them and have a conversation about why. Teaching them that they can do more than they may think and creating short term realistic goals for them may give them the motivation to push outside of the safety zone and challenge themselves.

Perfection Isn’t The Goal

This is an ongoing learning for everyone in my household, from myself personally and how I parent and teach my children about growing in our world today. Don’t beat yourself up if your parenting hasn’t been perfect, I certainly know I’ve made my share of mistakes and will continue to, but remember that perfection is not the goal.  The goal is to do your best, to continually strive to learn and grow yourself personally and as a parent and know that the main things your child needs to know is that they are perfect exactly as they are and that you will love and support them no matter what.

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