The Roots of Perfectionism


As honorable as it is to care about being a better person and to give a shit about bringing your best and making a difference, we can go overboard with it all and feel like crap if we’re not doing our best at all times. This often leads to feeling bad about ourselves and burn out. That’s not what we’re after! This week I hope to help us all see how perfectionism might be driving our desire to be better, and to embrace all the many glorious ways we’re imperfect. 

In order to really understand perfectionism, it’s super helpful to understand what causes it. Just like you don’t want to treat an illness by only addressing the symptoms. You want to take care of the root causes if you can so that it can truly resolve, and not just appear to get better on the surface.

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But first, a little context on why I want to talk about perfectionism now.

First perfectionism has been on the rise for the last several years.  A 2017 study looked at surveys completed by just over 41,000 college students in the US, Canada, and the UK between the years of 1989 and 2016. Over that span of almost 30 years, perfectionism–especially the pressure to be perfect that originates from society, or outside of ourselves–rose 32 percent. 

It’s easy to point the finger at social media for this increase in pressure to be picture perfect. And that’s definitely one contributing factor, but perfectionism also has roots in anxiety. Whether that’s fear of not being good enough and not being accepted, or the anxiety of living in an unstable situation and not feeling safe. 

And anxiety is on the rise. A 2020 analysis of data taken from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), looked at the self-reported instances of anxiety by people over 18 between the years 2008 to 2018. The percentage of Americans who reported anxiety increased from 5.12% in 2008 to 6.68% in 2018. That may not sound like a lot until you consider that that’s over 5 million more adults experiencing anxiety. 

Basically, perfectionism is an understandable and natural response to an increasingly uncertain world. 

From a more psychological standpoint, as Brene Brown points out, perfectionism has its roots in shame. Basically, it boils down to wanting to be loved and accepted so that we don’t have to fend for ourselves in a big, scary world. Rather than risk not being accepted, we’ll knock ourselves out to do our very best. Or… we won’t even try to do our best, because we’ll never be able to live up to our own exacting expectations. 

Pertinent to being a better person, perfectionism can also be spurred by fear of being a bad person, probably because of something you did, or had happen to you, and you want to prove to yourself and to everyone else that you’re not a broken mess, so you’ll get the good grades, and take on every project, and volunteer on every committee, because if you’re doing well on paper, well then, you must be a good person. 

A little bit of a drive to be your best is healthy, it gets you to try, it gets you to persevere

But when that drive prevents you from feeling worthy if you don’t absolutely nail every thing you set out to do, well, yeah, that’s not helping. That’s creating suffering. And ironically, it’s keeping you from doing your best, because you’ll either burn out and get bitter, or not really try in the first place. Or it will create the thing that you’re trying to avoid in the first place. People won’t feel close to you because they can sense that you’re constantly striving and perhaps judging yourself and others. This is how perfectionism is a solution to an uncertain world that only creates more problems.

Don’t get me wrong, wanting to be accepted and to feel good about the world and your place in it are very human traits, and very honorable goals. It’s just that these natural desires can get a little distorted, and we start to think we have to be perfect in order for them to be met. 

So if you recognize perfectionist traits in yourself, know this: there’s not something wrong with you, and it’s not your fault. You’re trying to find your way in an uncertain world. 

Daily Tiny Assignment

Your tiny assignment is to think about how perfectionism might be showing up in your life. 

Do you feel pressure to look, or act, or attain certain things? 

Do you feel like there are things in your past that you have to make up for? 

Or, do you feel like if you sat still, even for a little while, you’d lose too much ground? 

Do you feel like there really is no option but to do your best?

Thinking about these questions can help bring your relationship to perfectionism into better view. Again, if you do feel any of these ways, it’s most likely a very understandable response to the things you’ve experienced in your personal life and we’ve experienced collectively. 

But there are other ways to ease anxiety, find acceptance, and make a difference in the world that don’t also come with high costs. 

Really you just need to be curious right now. Tomorrow we’ll talk about some of the surprising ways perfectionism might be showing up in your life. And Wednesday I’m talking to a clinical psychologist who is a whiz at helping people work with their perfectionistic tendencies. So it gets better from here. I hope you’ll come back tomorrow!


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