I grew up believing “nothing would feel as good as perfect feels.” I thought being “perfect” was the obvious solution to my insecurities. If I looked more perfect, boys would fancy me. If my work was perfect, I’d have more money and feel safe. If I was a perfect friend, I would always belong and feel loved. Being perfect was therefore the only thing I needed to concentrate on, it was the answer to everything. I dreamed about the day I could be just as accepted and loved as the perfect people I looked up to, wholly believing that they must not have a care in the world. But as we now know, mental health is highly deceptive, and while many may appear perfect on the outside, their insides may tell a drastically different story.
As an adult, my relentless search for perfection manifested itself in an extreme work addiction and crushing bouts of social anxiety. Over the course of a decade, I didn’t once question why I craved to be perfect, I even celebrated it. I used to wear my “I’m a perfectionist” badge with honor just like so many others who’d fallen into the hustle culture traps. During a job interview, I was asked the cliché question, “What’s your biggest weakness?” My brain desperately rattled through the training I had for these types of questions. The advice was always, “Say something that’s not really a weakness but sounds self-deprecating.”
I replied, “I am a bit of a perfectionist.” *small laugh*
The interviewer laughed a little back. I could see him smile and mistakenly took it as a sign he liked me. On reflection, he was probably smiling because he knew he’d met someone who was prepared to work a silly amount of extra hours unpaid just to feed their perfection disorder. Sound familiar?
Perfectionism is not deemed a clinical disorder but it should be in my opinion. The research shows it is a significant precursor to burnout, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, eating disorders, suicidal thoughts, and a host of other psychological, physical, relationship, and achievement problems. It’s a never-ending cycle of self-abuse we tolerate, created by unrealistic expectations that are impossible to meet. When we inevitably don’t achieve the extreme goals we’ve set ourselves, our inner critic uses this as confirmation of our worst fears—that we’re not good enough, smart enough, beautiful enough, or anything enough. Alternatively, if we do reach perfect milestones, expecting bliss and happiness, our bitchy inner critic still highlights our insecurities and we become deeply confused. Why haven’t the worries disappeared now that I’ve got what I wanted? The solution is usually to push the goalposts further out and start the treadmill again. The cycle is endless and we tend to become more anxious and put even more pressure on ourselves. Sadly, nothing external can fix this sense of unworthiness inside despite how hard we try.
So why are rates of perfectionism rising?
Cultural studies observe that since the 1980s, there has been growing competition between individuals and this is what causes people to respond by wanting to perfect themselves and their lifestyles. Social media is of course another contributing factor. Amateur photo editing apps have allowed every phone owner to superficially remove every blemish from their lives, leaving their reality disappointing, a space for self-blame, critique, and shame to breed. Comparison overload and the fact we know too much about the lives of others is unhelpful in the face of perfectionism. After scrolling on Instagram, I even begin to judge how my banana bread looks.
The reason for perfection differs for everyone and all reasons should be met with huge compassion. Fundamentally, at the core of us all, we share the same very human primal desires, to be loved, accepted, and to feel safe. As embarrassing as it is to admit, my fifteen-year-old self just wanted to get a boyfriend in order to feel like I belonged, and I thought being perfect would secure me both. For others, perfection provides an illusionary sense of control and thus, safety. What drives your perfectionism?
As the years went by, I became more convinced that happiness and perfection were a package deal. Oh how painfully wrong I was. Chronic exhaustion and clinically diagnosed burnout finally forced me to dismantle the idea that perfection was the only way to happiness. I decided to write a book to help others also address their cycle of unbearable pressure, anxiety, and “I’m not good enough” thoughts, and to explore the underlying reasons for these toxic thought habits. Over the past five years I have been trying out new rules to live by and if this article feels at all familiar, then I hope my book, Happy Not Perfect, and the art of flexible thinking can help you.
Here are my six tips to not be such a perfectionist.
1. Find out your why
Question with compassion and start to develop your self-awareness around why you feel you need to be “perfect.” What human needs are you really trying to nurture? Is your perfectionism occurring out of a deeper need for love, safety, or self-worth?
2. Take a moment to relax
One of the greatest ironies I discovered was that perfectionism makes us more vulnerable to errors because it makes us stressed. When we’re in hyper “must be better” mode, our fight and flight system is activated causing an emotionally reactive brain, disconnecting us further from the wise part of the brain (prefrontal cortex). We’re far more likely to make irrational decisions when we’re desperately trying to be perfect. When you notice the perfectionist anxiety rising, take a moment to breathe, walk for 10 minutes, and distract yourself from what you’re focusing on. When we gently allow ourselves to relax and feel safe through some deep belly breaths, more mental clarity is experienced and can help you release the need for control.
3. Choose to swap criticism for compassion
Perfectionism involves a lot of self-criticism, so start to consciously ignore that voice and turn to your compassionate side. What would you advise a friend experiencing the feelings you are now? What would you tell a friend struggling with the same perfectionist thoughts?
4. Switch perspectives
How would the most self-accepting, self-appreciating, self-loving version of yourself act and respond to life right now? What would this version of you say and do at this moment in time?
5. The five-year rule
Simply ask yourself whether being perfect today will really matter in five years? If the answer is no, then let go of the pressure you’re putting on yourself and remember that fun, love, and kindness will always matter far more in the future.
6. Ask friends for help
I am still in perfectionist recovery because I know if I step away from my compassionate side, I can quickly fall into the rabbit hole of inner critic bitchiness. My friends are aware of this toxic thought habit so they are brilliant at reminding me to stay kind to myself in moments where I could spiral! Open up to your nearest and dearest about being a perfectionist and make sure to ask for their help when you’re being too hard on yourself.
I can’t wait to hear how you get on. Find me on Instagram @poppyjamie, listen to my podcast Not Perfect (over 80 hours on overcoming perfectionism), enjoy my book Happy Not Perfect, or find support on the Happy Not Perfect app.
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