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

Know The Lyrics

I was listening to the radio when the song ‘Every Breath You Take’ by The Police came on.  Of course I sang along with the radio because it’s such a catchy song.  As I was singing, I actually began to pay attention to the words and freaked out a little. Just in case you don’t remember, here are the words:

“Every breath you take; every move you make; every bond you break, every step you take I’ll be watching you.”

A little stalker-ish right? So I researched the lyrics to check my hypothesis and I indeed was right. Sting did not mean for this song to be a love song frequently played at weddings. He actually wrote this song after separating from his wife and it is about a possessive lover! Yikes!

Of course it is meant to be sinister. Who would perceive it otherwise? Well I did, along with many others judging from how many times this is played on love song stations and in weddings. Just goes to show how we sometimes fail to distinguish healthy from unhealthy. The words are the same, the tune in the same, but our perception is based on observation, awareness and insight.

If it’s hard for us to recognize healthy versus unhealthy song lyrics, then it’s probably extremely difficult to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy relationships, especially when those relationships are family relationships or friendships.

So what makes a healthy relationship? Lots of things including good communication, mutual respect, trust, and honesty.  You are in a healthy relationship if that relationship brings about more joy and happiness than tension and sadness.  If that statement doesn’t ring true in one of your relationships then it is unhealthy.

Signs of an unhealthy relationship:

  • You often put yourself on the back burner for someone else.  You neglect your dreams, passions or even just basic self-care for the sake of another.
  • You feel forced to be or act differently.
  • Your relationship causes you to have low self-esteem.
  • You are not free to express your true thoughts and feelings without fear of repercussions; you find yourself walking on eggshells.
  • You build walls of defensiveness to protect yourself.
  • You are discouraged from growing other relationships with friends or family.
  • You do not trust the person you are in relationship with.
  • You experience abuse – verbal, physical, mental or emotional abuse.

Seek help for your relationship when:

  • You know you need help but you are embarrassed or fearful to ask for help.
  • You are unhappy in the relationship and you are having difficulty getting out.
  • You realize you are staying in the relationship because of fear of being alone or because of guilt.
  • You consistently find yourself in unhealthy relationships.

The key to a healthy relationship is to stop singing along with the music just because you are familiar with the words. Pay close attention to the words; assess your relationships often. Stop and listen, listen to your gut. Are you happy? Are you safe? Are you free? If the answer is no, then seek help and change your tune.

Beauty, Brains, and Cash… We Want MORE!

Is it better to have more or less?  This is the newest marketing ploy presented by AT&T.  The commercials take place in elementary school classrooms.  In one particular scene the adult asks the question, “Who thinks more is better than less?”  The young girl finishes her answer with, “We want more, we want more, like, you really like it, you want more.”  It’s not complicated, says AT&T, “more is better.”

Though this is a brilliant marketing tool and the commercials are adorable, I have to disagree.  These marketers are capitalizing on the fact that the desire for MORE is the very thing that drives our society.  However, it is also the very thing that often leaves us unfulfilled, unhappy, and wondering what happened to the enjoyable life we used to know.  I would have to argue that more is NOT always better.

Here’s the tricky part.  More usually feels better in the moment.  It feels good and provides instant gratification but it doesn’t always last.  You know the saying, “I’ll feel better when…”  We’ve all said it.  This is how marketers keep us coming back for the next gadget or the newest upgrade and why most Americans spend life hopping on and off the hamster wheel, running at a very fast pace, looking for more.  We want more money, more technological devices, more clothes, more success, more dates, a bigger house, a fancier car, to lose more weight, and the list goes on and on, and we are never content.

However, what these marketing ploys and our society in general seem to be missing is that, at our core, human beings are relational people.  We were created to relate, connect, and love one another.  In the quest for more, the things that each individual person values the most get pushed aside.  Leaving us with a society in which external feedback is the source of esteem.  We look for affirmation from others, job promotions, more Facebook friends, or comments about how smart or impressive our kids are to fill our sense of self.  The hamster wheel does not allow time for a meaningful conversation with a friend or a quiet read on a beautiful day.

Sadly, our children are being born in to a society in which the idea that “more is better” is a way of life.  They won’t even have the understanding that at one point there was a society in which wanting more was not the norm.  What are we to do, you ask?   As parents and leaders of the younger generation, we have the opportunity to make a change and it starts by transforming our perspective and our behavior.  It starts when we get off of the hamster wheel ourselves and let them follow our lead.  Here’s an idea of a place to start:

  • Get to know yourself again.  The part of you that doesn’t need goggles and rain gear to protect you from all the debris that flies your way as you continuously spin through life.   I bet that person remembers the very values that were pushed aside when society told you to jump on this wheel and leave everything behind.
  • Identify the values you discover in this process.  Write them down.  Own them.
  • Create goals that will allow you to honor these valuesPick a value that ranks at the top of your list.  Identify a plan to honor that value and follow through.  Example:  I value the opportunity to be creative. To honor this value, I will dedicate a 2- hour period every Thursday morning to work on the poetry I love to write.

As you begin to live more congruently with your value system, your esteem will naturally build and you will find you have everything you need within yourself.  You won’t need more in order to be fulfilled.