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The Plague of Perfectionism

Young or old, striving for perfection has grown with each generation since the 1980s. While sometimes seen as a good or helpful trait, more and more research points to its negative impact on mental health. The more rigid you become in your expectations of yourself, your environment, and/or other people, the less room you leave yourself for dealing with and adapting to what life throws at you. This is called maladaptive perfectionism and it can lead to depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses. The good news is that studies have found an antidote: self-compassion.


Socially prescribed: Perceiving excessive expectations of perfection from others.

Self-oriented: Imposing an irrational desire to be perfect upon oneself.

Other-oriented: Placing unrealistic standards of perfection on others.

A perfectionist is someone who will not accept any standard short of perfection, setting extremely high and often unrealistic standards for themselves. Maladaptive perfectionism is defined by perfectionism that gets in the way of normal daily living. This may look like overreacting, criticizing, black and white thinking, taking things personally, being defensive, critical self-evaluation, and needing to be in control. Perhaps you can recognize some of these traits in yourself or people you know.

Perfectionism is not all bad. Some degree of adaptive perfectionism is healthy and can help you stay motivated and reach goals. Setting high, but realistic goals is important to our success personally and professionally. The key difference with adaptive perfectionism is that if, or when, these standards are not met, one does not resort to harsh self-criticism, a downward emotional spiral, or fear and avoidance behaviors.

High personal standards are not necessarily destructive and can have positive outcomes. So, where does it go wrong? External demands for perfection can increase daily stress and create a vulnerability to depression and anxiety. The self-imposed pressure to be perfect can also create internal turmoil and intense worry about living up to these expectations. Attempting to control your environment and the people in it very often lead to immense frustration, a desire to retreat and be alone, and feel like nothing is ever good enough. The negative impact of these critical thoughts can be countered, however, and adaptive perfectionism is possible.

So how do you cultivate self-compassion to help mitigate perfectionism? One place to start is by redefining it. Consider striving for excellence instead of perfection – there is a BIG difference!

Thomas Greenspon, author of Moving Past Perfect, refers to this widely adapted quote to show the differences:

Excellence is risk.
Perfection is fear.
Excellence is effort.
Perfection is anger and frustration.
Excellence is openness to being wrong.
Perfection is having to be right.
Excellence is spontaneity.
Perfection is control.
Excellence is flow.
Perfectionism is pressure.
Excellence is confidence.
Perfectionism is doubt.
Excellence is a journey.
Perfectionism is destination.
Excellence is acceptance.
Perfectionism is judgement.
Excellence is encouraging.
Perfectionism is criticizing.

Another way to practice self-compassion is to speak to yourself as you would a child. If a child was hurt, what might you say to them? What tone and words might you use? You may also consider how you would talk to a friend or loved one who was experiencing a similar struggle and challenge. What grace or understanding might you show them that is difficult for you to express to yourself?

Reminding yourself that you are only human, and so is everyone else, can also be helpful in feeling like you are not alone. If we can recognize our shared humanity, we can not only be more compassionate to ourselves, but also to other people. To be human is to be imperfect and everyone goes through something. Mistakes are just that, a mistake. You have the opportunity to learn and try again.

Finally, this work can be tough to do alone. Seeking out a therapist or coach can help guide you through the process. They can help you set realistic expectations and be empathetic when it feels especially hard or uncomfortable. Talking to a professional for just a few sessions can help you get started on this journey.

You are worth the work of figuring out how to love yourself unconditionally. It’s never too late to start the process, you just have to start!

Emily Betros is a licensed clinical social worker, certified health coach, and owner of Reclaiming Health, LLC. She specializes in body image support, eating disorders, anxiety, life transitions, mindfulness, and women’s issues. More info: www.reclaiminghealth.net.

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