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What No One Tells You About Perfectionism

What is it about people that prompts them to hide their negative sides and disguise their vulnerability, these kind of people who present themselves to the world as if they are always happy, always ok, never afraid?

The answer for most people like this, runs deeper than this surface level behavior and is directly related to the quality of perfectionism. While the word perfect may seem as though it is loaded in the positive direction, we know from psychological research that in fact high levels of perfectionism in the wrong way is often anything but positive. Highly perfectionistic people can tend to have shallow relationships with others, too afraid to admit their vulnerabilities and less than perfect sides, and on top of this, unhealthy perfectionism actually leads people to be less successful at achieving their goals.

When I was in graduate school I took a statistical methods class where we assessed ourselves on self report inventories and then ran the statistics on our answers. The only inventory that I remember is the one that rated people on their level of perfectionism. When I began the inventory I remember thinking how I wanted to do well on it, to score highly as a perfectionist. By the end of this segment of the class, I had a totally different perspective. Before I knew the outcome of my assessment, my professor shared some information about perfectionism that I had never heard before, the crux of which was that it is often anything but an adaptive quality. It turned out that I did rate pretty high on perfectionism, since that day I have worked hard at adjusting that quality in myself in ways that have made my ability to succeed and my feelings about myself rise significantly and likewise have reoriented me towards others in a way that makes my relationships more authentic and whole.

Before I go further, let me be clear that being a perfectionist is not always negative. Perfectionism can be a healthy motivator towards excellence, think high achievers in any domain, like musicians or athletes. There is a fine line however between a healthy perfectionism that causes a person to strive for greatness and the shadow side of perfectionism, which leads one towards more neurotic behavior and, even if a person achieves their goals, leaves a person feeling unsatisfied at best and anxious or depressed, disconnected from others and thereby unable to function well in life at worst.

As it turns out, too much perfectionism in the wrong way often ends in someone spending more time thinking about what they should be doing, how they should be doing it or what others will think of it once it’s done than actually doing anything. Sounds familiar?

So what is the problem with wanting to be perfect? Why would it lead to such negative outcomes?

It is true that it seems as if perfectionism should not have so many drawbacks in that the foundation of perfectionism is the desire to do well. The challenge comes not from this underlying desire, but from the interpretations a person has of both what it means to do well and who it is that applies the value of well in the first place.

There are two types of unhealthy perfectionistic attitudes. The first is where a person spends all of their time focusing on how other people will perceive them. In this type of a person, so much of their focused energy is projected outward that they have nothing left to put towards what it is they wanted to achieve in the first place. This is the type of perfectionism that can keep others at a distance and causes a person to withhold their struggles or faults for fear of being perceived negatively. This sort of person may be highly preoccupied with appearances, but never get much farther than that.

The second type of unhealthy perfectionism is when a person feels as though what they do has to be the very best version of what it is they are doing that has ever been done. This is the kind of perfectionism I personally struggled with, this mindset keeps a person locked in the belief that there is always a better version than the version they have currently produced. When someone suffers from this sort of unhealthy perfectionism they often end up never feeling as though the final product is finished and in that way never put out what it is they wanted to complete.

We know that unhealthy perfectionism isn’t great, and that it creates barriers between us and our goals and us and others, but what can we do about it?

If you struggle with unhealthy perfectionism, one thing that you can do to help overcome this negative quality is to change your approach to how you do things. Healthy perfectionism comes from wise problem solving abilities. This implies the capacity to see mistakes for what they are, roadmaps to successes.

Maybe you don't even know you suffer from perfectionism, maybe you think it is fear that is holding you back from achieving your goals. It's highly likely this fear is coming from one of these types of unhealthy perfectionistic qualities I have mentioned in this video. So the first step you need to take if you are someone who has goals and wants to achieve them but is failing is to ask yourself what about your approach could be off, and when you ask yourself this question to include in your assessment your mindset as a part of your approach.

In order to achieve our goals in life we have to be willing to be wrong, to fail, to not have all of the answers, in doing so we make space to find solutions where otherwise roadblocks exist.

By overcoming our tendency towards unhealthy perfectionism and admitting that our mindset is often the only thing holding us back from the joyful lives we all wish to be living, we don't just help ourselves, this is also a gift to humanity. When we project the false reality that everything is perfect, fine, wonderful, that we are never unhappy, when we never ask for help or give someone the chance to be there for us, when we project this one-dimensional side of life we are actually pushing our shadow side from inside of ourselves to the outer world. This is a way of creating imbalance and disharmony in others, and causes them to question their own less than perfect life experience.

In the end, the best thing we can do if we want to be perfect, is to be flawed, and to see that perfection is a myth in the first place and if there even were such a thing it would always be seated right next to failure.

Until next time.

Live Mindfully, Be Well.

Sarah Sati

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