In a society that often feels based on competition and being the absolute best, it’s no wonder individuals can become entangled in the overwhelming and impossible need to be “perfect.” Perfect at their job or in school, perfect in their relationships, perfect at being a parent, even perfect at taking the perfect Instagram pictures. With such easy access to compare ourselves to others and constant reminders of what success others are experiencing (hello, social media), perfectionism is on the rise and has greater ability to sneak its way in, leaving us feeling anxious, inadequate, or unworthy.
From a biological and evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense that we strive for perfectionism. Humans are hardwired for connection, belonging, and love, and through the approval of others, these feelings are validated, which makes us feel good inside. Coupled with external compliments, praise, or rewards, the act of always striving to be “perfect” assures us that what we are doing is right, as long as we continue to do so. Unfortunately, perfectionism can also hugely impact our ability to feel present in and fully enjoy our lives.
Striving to improve one’s life and overall well-being is an adaptive and healthy part of growth and contributes to important life changes. Being able to set high standards for ourselves and work toward specific goals and achievements supports us in creating a life that aligns with our personal values. However, perfectionism gets in the way by giving us ultimatums (e.g., “I must get straight As or I won’t get into a good college and so never get a good job”), which leave us feeling vulnerable and unable to feel hopeful or excited about the strengths we do have. It can paralyze us with fear of negative evaluation or rejection, making it hard to perform well or make decisions at our jobs or in school. Perfectionism also leads us to constantly seek positive approval from others, impeding our ability to accept constructive feedback from others or internal validation from ourselves. Striving to be perfect 24/7 can lead us to think harshly and feel overly critical of ourselves, which impacts our ability to be authentic and comfortable in social situations.
If we spend our lives chasing perfectionism, not only will we find ourselves exhausted and depleted, we will come to be hugely disappointed, because perfectionism is not achievable. I repeat: Being “perfect” is not realistic.
Think about the last time you made a mistake. Maybe you slept in past your alarm and arrived fifteen minutes late for work, or received a B on an exam that you studied all night for and swore you were ready for, or you missed an important deadline at work. How did you treat yourself afterwards? Did you hold it over yourself for days, keeping yourself prisoner to your own mistakes? Did your brain turn to criticizing, over-analyzing, or catastrophizing everything that could happen due to your simple, human error?
What might it look like instead to hold patience, kindness, or compassion for yourself in the same way you would a friend or loved one?
Self-compassion allows us to become both mindful and understanding of our imperfections, failures, and mistakes, while remaining non-judgmental of the suffering we experience as a result of these things. Instead of seeking validation and approval from outside sources (e.g., grades, compliments, Instagram likes), self-compassion teaches us to find acceptance and understanding from within. Dr. Kristin Neff explains that through cultivating kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness, we can learn to offer ourselves compassion during the times when we feel anything but perfect.
Offering genuine kindness, gentleness, and comfort to ourselves when we make a mistake or find our inner critic pleading for perfectionism can help relieve emotional distress. When we make mistakes or believe that we fall short, we may feel vulnerable and begin to criticize ourselves on deeper levels. If we can remember that suffering is inevitable to the human process, we may be able to offer ourselves greater understanding and acceptance when we feel inadequate. Similar to the way we would treat a friend who is judging, analyzing, or evaluating his or her own mistake, simply speaking to ourselves with empathy and kindness can aid in getting perfectionism to take a back seat.
Just as we all crave connection and belonging, we all make mistakes. It’s easy to become stuck in the idea that we are the only one having a bad day, going through a break-up, messing up at work, or feeling insecure about our body. This is because what others present to us (e.g., in conversation, on social media) is only what they choose to show. How often do you hear an acquaintance or a colleague brag about the interview that went poorly or the call to their mother-in-law they forgot to make? In hard times, it’s easy to become stuck on comparing ourselves to others who seem perfect and appear to have their lives completely together. By reminding ourselves that no one is perfect, we are not alone, and everyone struggles from time to time, our failures and rejections hold less weight; we feel less isolated and more connected.
When perfectionism contributes to feelings of inadequacy, unworthiness, or incompetency, allow the feelings to arise and notice them for what they are: FEELINGS! Instead of running from the emotions, tucking them away, or distracting yourself from them, simply become aware of them, then you can decide which ones are worth paying attention to. While emotions—both “good” and “bad”—provide important information about our experiences and the world around us, they do not give us the full picture. Next time you feel inadequate or as though you made an imperfect decision, try to become mindful of the big picture at hand, and remind yourself that challenges and pain are part of the human experience, feelings are feelings, and “perfect” does not exist.
While the desire to be perfect and the practice of seeking positive approval from others may never subside completely, self-compassion offers the ability to alleviate some of the pressure we set on ourselves and can support us in being better equipped when failure or rejection does occur. As frustrating and disappointing as it can be to not meet perceived standards, goals, or ideas, these experiences present us with room to grow and unique learning opportunities. Instead of allowing imperfect decisions or flaws to dictate our sense of self, learning to accept ourselves with kindness and compassion can contribute to greater life fulfillment and enjoyment.
Ferrari, M., Yap, K., Scott, N., Einstein, D.A., & Ciarrochi, J. (2018). Self-compassion moderates the perfectionism and depression link in both adolescence and adulthood. PLoS ONE, 13(2), e0192022. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0192022
Frost, R. O., Glossner, K., & Maxner, S. (2010). Social anxiety disorder and its relationship to perfectionism. In S. G. Hofmann & P. M. DiBartolo (Eds.), Social anxiety: Clinical, developmental, and social perspectives (pp. 119-145). San Diego, CA, US: Elsevier Academic Press. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-12-375096-9.00005-5
Neff, Kristin. (2011). Self-compassion: The proven power of being kind to yourself. New York, NY: Harper Collins.