Perfectionism, or perfectionistic traits, are the impossible standards that are typically driven by anxiety and a desire for control. People who grapple with perfectionistic traits tend to be highly critical, because, for most, being critical is an attempt at trying to stay safe in situations where you feel vulnerable.
As a therapist, I’ve worked with many people who’ve suffered from perfectionism. What I’ve noticed is these clients are usually very empathic, gifted and conscientious people who care a lot about others. In our work together, we explore what purpose their perfectionism has served, so that they can release the pain and find greater liberation internal and in their lives.
Perfectionism can develop for many reasons. For some, it’s an anxious nature that’s temporarily soothed by feeling in control. For others, it’s the experience of being overpowered by unhealthy relationship dynamics in which the person struggling with perfectionistic traits typically feels exceedingly responsible for others. Or perhaps it’s evolved from a habit of comparing yourself to others and not feeling good enough.
No matter how or why your perfectionistic traits developed, it’s important to recognize them as a warning sign you need to heed. When you find yourself grappling with your perfectionism’s desire to be in control, it’s time to take a pause. It’s time to notice what’s happening inside of you and around you, so that you can discern what’s making you feel uncomfortable.
You may be feeling:
1. The need for self-protection. Automatic responses usually stem from a place of self-protection. This means that your urge to be perfectionistic is a sign that some part of you does not feel safe. It’s important to feel safe and secure, but it’s important to realize when you’re being given the opportunity to grow by stepping out of your comfort zone.
When you step out of your comfort zone, it helps you to feel more confident that you can navigate tough times. When your old ways of reacting surface, take a moment to pause and see if you can find the bravery you need to try something new.
2. A sign that something from the past is present. Perfectionistic traits may develop as a response to unhealthy interpersonal relationships or traumatic experiences. When you feel pressure to be perfect, it may be a sign that something does not feel right in the here-and-now.
This is why being mindful can help you can discern what’s happening. Perhaps you are experiencing an opportunity to heal from trauma you’ve experienced. Or, perhaps your reaction is an important cue that you’re in a problematic situation that could cause harm.
Whatever conclusion you draw from the warning signal, it’s important to listen. Self-reflection, self-soothing, and assessment of the relationships you have and the agreements you made are essential components of creating health and balance in your life.
3. The opportunity to change, heal, and grow. It’s my belief that we are in a constant state of evolution. Your evolution is tied into your ability to rise to the challenge, find fulfilment, and learn new and more effective ways to respond to distress. Therefore, each time you notice perfectionism trying to resolve your distress, this is an opportunity to grow.
Brene Brown’s book, The Gifts of Imperfection, does an incredible job at breaking down perfectionism. Her Wholehearted Inventory provides a road map for how to move away from perfectionism towards habits and ways of responding to stress that promote resilience. This tool I use with clients regularly, because of the clarity and insight it provides.
Perfectionism, like all coping mechanisms, plays a role in your survival. By understanding what it’s trying to communicate, you gain self-awareness and the ability to make a plan for growth. Change happens with small steps that gently guide you to move from surviving to thriving.
Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor who is passionate about helping people live life boldly, no matter what kinds of obstacles they face. Learn more about her work at www.stephaniemcleodestevez.com and subscribe to her Let’s talk Art Therapy; Tips, Tools, Strategies & Resources newsletter.