The Pitfalls of Perfectionism

Inadequacy. Striving. Shame. Worth. Measurement. Anxiety. Criticism. Comparison.

I am betting you do not want to read that string of words again…yikes! I notice sensations in my body just as I read those words. There is a sinking feeling in my stomach and heaviness on my shoulders. Unfortunately most of us are all too familiar with those words and their heavy meanings. Most often they are a result, or variable in the equation of perfectionism.

According to Merriam-Webster, perfectionism is “a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable.” Unacceptable. Let that sink in. A perfectionist is someone who lives by this disposition and holds himself (and sometimes others) to this impossible standard. We (yes, I include myself in this) will not accept anything less than perfect. We do not place this standard on others or ourselves because we enjoy being critical or mean or controlling, but because we often feel it is the necessary thing or the expected thing to do. It is a philosophy that resides deep within us, sometimes so much so that we don’t even recognize it. Much to our dissatisfaction though, nothing in our life is perfect. So what are we left with? We are left with a constant state of dissatisfaction and striving. It is exhausting!

The antidote to perfectionism is a change in our philosophy about how we define success, and more importantly, how we define our intrinsic worth as human beings.  It is possible that many of us may have grown up in churches or religious communities that emphasized the “fallen condition and sinfulness of humanity”.   While it is true all humans have their own set of strengths and shortcomings, it is equally and maybe more profoundly true that humans are Divinely inspired and uniquely created. Our desire for perfection and harmonious relationships resides deep within us.  Our desires and strivings are not intrinsically bad and often times they come from a good place. However, we sometimes get confused and use our desires and goals as the measuring sticks for our worth, which leads to shame and dissatisfaction…and the cycle continues.

Acceptable. Content. Worthy. Valuable. Satisfied. Peace. Hope.

There is hope. We can learn to break the cycles of perfectionism by developing new ways of seeing ourselves and defining success differently. It is so important that we cultivate safe relationships that welcome vulnerability. When we are honest with each other about our shortcomings and our fear of failure, then we are leaving no room for shame to take hold. This work is not easy and many times a therapeutic environment is a recommended safe haven for perfectionists, strivers, and fellow strugglers. It is a place where discovery and new learning can begin.

Written by: Taylor Garcia M.A., LPC-Intern

Under the Supervision of Julie Summers M.A., LPC-S

The Trap of Powerlessness

My mind is racing. I can’t focus on anything. I’m exhausted. I can’t handle what I have on my plate right now. I can’t even start or finish anything. My relationships are being affected. I’m anxious about everything. I cry. I’m not myself anymore. I need help.

Maybe you can relate to these thoughts. If you have ever experienced this type of despair, feeling as if your life and emotions are out of your control, you know how powerless it makes you feel. Persistent stress can lead to this sense of powerlessness. All you want to do is avoid the tasks before you because of the fear you will fail or become overwhelmed in the process.

What could you do if you feel powerless?

Powerlessness is a belief that you do not have the authority to act or that you lack power to change. When you have a stressful work environment, family situation or health problem, it’s normal to feel and believe that you do not have the power to act. You may not have control over your work situation, family issues or health problems. That reality can be very overwhelming. That is why the first step towards regaining a sense of power is to accept the things you cannot control and the negative feelings that come with that reality.

Easier said than done. To feel powerless or out of control can be very difficult to accept. But start there and do not allow your thoughts to lead you to shame. When you recognize the things you cannot control, you may feel a sense of shame because of the expectation that you “should” be able to handle everything that comes your way. A person with a perfectionistic view of themselves and the world may struggle with this step. But allow yourself to sit with the thought that there are things you cannot control and refrain from any attempt to get away from it. Mindfulness meditation is a great practice to help get into this mindset (refer to my previous post, The Beauty of Mindfulness). Observe the thoughts that arise and write them down. This step can be very powerful if you have never acknowledged your limitations.

The next step is to observe the feeling of powerlessness as a feeling that you are experiencing. Powerlessness is not who you are, rather it’s how you feel. When you view your feelings as something you are experiencing, you are able to defuse from that emotion. But if you are fused to powerlessness, you will see your life from that perspective. This fusing can lead to lower confidence in your ability to cope with stressors you may face in the future. This step helps you answer the question: how true is your powerlessness? Are you really devoid of any power to act? Allow the reality of your limitations to fuel you to be proactive with what you can control – yourself!

Start by assessing what is important in your life. What have you avoided that is actually important to you? What do you value most? Family? Spirituality? Health? Career? Relationships?

Now explore how you can live out these values to feel more like yourself again. Make small goals and follow the SMART goals model. Specific-Measurable-Attainable-Realistic-Time bound. Don’t set yourself up for failure by setting vague or unrealistic goals. How would you know you accomplished the goal? Examples of SMART goals are:

  • Call a friend to get coffee this week.
  • Go to church.
  • Pray for 5 minutes.
  • Make a list of things you’re grateful for.
  • Sit in silence for 5 minutes.
  • Practice Mindfulness for 5 minutes.
  • Read one chapter of an enjoyable book.
  • Disconnect from your phone for 1 hour.
  • Go to the doctor.
  • Go for a 30-minute walk once a week.

Try to accomplish one item from your goal list each week. As you live out your values, you will feel like you regained the power you believed you lost. If you can’t even get out of bed to begin regaining your strength and power, then seek support from friends or family. Pick up the phone and ask for help or schedule an appointment with a therapist. Don’t dwell on the things that are out of your control. The way to get out of a powerless mindset is to make small, healthy choices towards a healthier more fulfilling life, despite your circumstances.