FAQ: Myths and Truths about Perfectionism

Myth: If I stop being a perfectionist, I won’t be successful, ambitious, or hardworking anymore.

Truth: Your perfectionism is not actually helping you achieve; in fact it’s probably holding you back! Perfectionism often causes anxiety, stress, depression, and other feelings that get in the way of your thinking clearly or creatively. Perfectionist behaviors like procrastination and avoiding generally lead to less impressive performances in classes, sports, and activities. You might be worried that letting go of perfectionism will make you “lazy.” The truth is, it’s more likely that your work, performances, and relationships will improve once perfectionism doesn’t have such a tight grip on you!

Myth: Perfectionism is actually a good thing.

Truth: “Perfectionist” is sometimes used as a “humble brag” or the cliché answer to the interview question: “What is your biggest weakness?” That’s because there can be healthy perfectionist qualities, like paying attention to details, working hard, and having high standards. But there are unhealthy qualities of perfectionism too. High standards become impossible standards. You are so focused on your future ambitions that you can’t enjoy the present. Attention to detail turns into criticizing yourself ruthlessly for the tiniest mistakes. For too many people (a Johns Hopkins study found 28 percent of teens are dysfunctional perfectionists) perfectionism is definitely not a good thing—it’s a real and serious problem.

Myth: Perfectionism isn’t serious because it’s not a diagnosed mental health disorder.

Truth: While perfectionism itself isn’t a mental health disorder, many studies have shown clear links between unhealthy perfectionist personality traits and depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. Perhaps most disturbing, perfectionism is a predictor of both suicidal thoughts and attempts in adolescents.

Myth: Everyone else looks effortlessly perfect; I have to keep up!

Truth: People often present a very polished version of themselves to the public, especially on social media. But appearances deceive! No one has a flawless life, and no matter how casual someone acts or how amazing her online posts and photos look, there is usually a whole lot of effort behind that grade, performance, or picture. Comparing yourself to those perfect personas will almost always leave you feeling disappointed with yourself—you can’t compete with something that isn’t real!

Myth: I’ve tried to change, and it didn’t work. I’m stuck like this.

Truth: You can change your perfectionism! Your perfectionism was built over time, from many repetitions of thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and actions. Unwinding these patterns also takes some time, as well as the right tools. There’s no one tool that works for everyone; you are a unique person and your experience of perfectionism is unique too. You may have to try some different techniques to find what works for you. Check out my free six-week perfectionist email challenge, The Perfectionism Workbook for Teens, or contact me about therapy to learn more about what tools will work for you.

Wondering if you are a perfectionist? Take this quiz to find out.

Three Ways to Combat Beginning-of-the-School-Year Perfectionism

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Starting a new school semester? Perfectionism loves to show up at this time of year to create impossibly high expectations, unrelenting anxiety, and debilitating self-criticism. Here are three ways perfectionism gets in the way — and what you can do about it.

1. Fantasizing about perfection.A new school year means a whole lot of things starting — classes, sports, friendships, activities. It’s natural to imagine what these will be like and how you will perform. If you are a perfectionist, you may find yourself daydreaming about performing flawlessly in all these realms. While it’s great to think positive and visualize success, you also need to be able to feel genuinely satisfied when things fall short of perfection. If you notice you are feeling disappointed all the time simply because life doesn’t turn out like your fantasies, your inner perfectionist is definitely getting in your way.
What can I do? See if you can catch yourself in the act of fantasizing about perfection. You can certainly allow yourself daydreams about making the winning shot, getting the A, or falling in love, but see if you can expand your fantasy to include some other scenarios as well. Imagine yourself getting into a jam and getting out of it. Try envisioning small mistakes or missteps and then learning something unexpected. Better yet, daydream about how enjoyable the process will be, rather than the outcome.

2. Not trying new things. There are a lot of opportunities to try new things at the start of a semester. If you are a perfectionist, you might hesitate before signing up for a sport, academic subject, or activity you haven’t tried before, worried you won’t be great from the get-go. Even though you know rationally that you probably won’t be good at something the first few times you try it, your inner perfectionist freaks out at the thought of being less-than-awesome. Your inner perfectionist convinces you that being a beginner is too scary or humiliating, so don’t even try.
What can I do? Sign up anyway! Pick one or two new things and try them out. When you encounter the normal bumps of learning something new, try to be gentle with yourself. Imagine what you might say to a friend who is a beginner and talk to yourself with the same kindness and compassion you would show them. And make sure you also have some activities and classes you are confident about, so you get a break from the stress of being a beginner!

3. Feeling “not good enough.” When you are having all those “what did you do over the summer” conversations, it’s tempting to compare yourself to everyone else and judge yourself as “not good enough.” Your inner perfectionist might criticize you for not being ambitious or productive enough, not having enough fun or adventure, not being creative enough… the potential for self-criticism is nearly endless!
What can I do? Before you have any how-was-your-summer? conversations, take a few moments to sit and review all the good stuff about your break. First think about everything that was fun, even the small moments, and write them all down. Think back to all the activities that were relaxing, list those too. Write out all the things you accomplished as well. Make lists for any other categories that matter to you…feeling connected to friends, creative pursuits, saving money from a job, etc. You’ll probably notice your inner perfectionist interrupting you during this process, trying to point out all the things that were “wrong” or not perfect. Try saying “not now” or something similar, and return to making your lists of good things. When you are done, reread your list and let yourself feel happy, proud, and content for at least 30 seconds (I’m serious, set a timer). You don’t necessarily have to share all or any of these things with other people who ask about your summer, but it’s important for you to have a sense of everything that was good about your summer — and everything that is good right now.

 

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Three Ways Perfectionism Poisons Relationships

Perfectionism doesn’t just impact your mood, self-esteem, and productivity. It can also cause real harm to romantic partnerships. Here are a few direct and indirect way perfectionism gets in the way of you having the relationship you want:

  1. Your partner feels helpless as they watch you suffer. You are likely very aware of the pains of perfectionism. You beat yourself up for tiny mistakes, you get paralyzed with anxiety, you procrastinate and avoid your way into misery. What you’re not always aware of is how painful it can be for someone who cares about you to watch you struggle, especially if you (like many perfectionists) have a hard time accepting any comfort or help.
  2. You expect perfection from your partner too, not just from yourself. Perfectionism can bring up feelings of frustration with your partner, for the same kind of tiny mistakes that make you angry at yourself. Maybe this results in you criticizing your partner, or shutting them out, or bottling up irritation until you explode for no good reason.
  3. Avoiding social situations takes a toll. Perfectionist anxiety can lead to avoiding social events….a fear that you might not look perfect or have the exact right thing to say can be so distressing that you just stay home. Your partner might feel hurt or angry if you are avoiding spending time with their family or important friends. They could also feel resentful, worried, or bored as more and more fun activities get abandoned. There’s nothing wrong with staying home and nesting if it’s coming from a place of desire for quiet time, rather than fear of being out in the world.

Being hard on yourself hurts you, and hurts the people who care about you. It’s important not to turn this insight into another layer of self-criticism and self-loathing though! The point is not to beat yourself up for being a “bad” (less than perfect) partner. Try to bring some self-compassion to this process — relationships are hard work, and reforming unhealthy perfectionism is also hard work. As you practice mindfulness about when and how perfectionism is showing up in your relationship, be gentle with yourself. You are not alone in this struggle! Once you are aware that perfectionism is guiding your thoughts or actions, see if you can make a different choice, one that brings connection, compassion, and joy to your relationship, instead of perfectionist distress.

Perfectionism and the Price of Admission

Most of the time when we think of perfectionists, we think of people having impossibly high standards for themselves. But perfectionism can also show up in relationships, if the form of impossibly high standards for friends, family, or romantic partners. Do any of these sound familiar?

  • You expect your partner to never forget a date or  promise, no matter how small (like picking something up on the way home from work)
  • You have trouble letting your partner’s occasional bad moods or bad days roll off you (you hold a grudge)
  • Offer a lot of unsolicited advice and criticism for how your partner could do things “better”
  • Find yourself making “jokes” that have a sharp edge to them, that end up hurting others more than you intended

Expecting perfection from others is a set-up for anger and disappointment. No one can be perfect. No matter how much your partner loves you or how hard they work at the relationship, there will always be ways they don’t measure up to your “ideal,” there will inevitably be moments of hurt feelings or conflict and disagreement. These imperfections are the price of admission (to quote Dan Savage) to be in relationship. You have to put up with some annoying habits and small disappointments if you are going to make any relationship work. You have to truly accept others’ imperfections (as well as your own).

Of course you don’t want to swing too far in the other direction and expect too little from your partner. Expecting your partner to treat you with kindness and respect shows you have healthy self-esteem and value yourself. You don’t want to be a doormat that lets other people get away with anything, and never apologize. The price of admission for a relationship can’t be your values or sense of self-worth.

The key of course is finding a balance. A place where you can let little things go, where you can have empathy for your partner’s needs, feelings, moods. From a balanced place, you can also voice hurt or anger when appropriate, genuinely accept an apology and move on.  

The Perfect Apology

A lot of people find it hard to apologize. Perfectionists can find it especially tortuous. Admitting you are slightly less than perfect is a gut punch, a hit at a fundamental (and false) belief that you have to be perfect in order to be accepted, loved, successful. Owning up to a mistake can make you feel inadequate and fear rejection from others.

The thought of hurting someone else’s feelings—even accidentally—can make you want to hide under the covers and never speak to that person again. Of course, none of us want to hurt people we care about, and it’s wonderful to strive for kindness toward everyone. But it’s basically impossible to have a close relationship with others and never cause them pain, even accidentally. Any two people who care about each other will hurt each other’s feelings at some point in their relationship. The important question is: what do you do after?

Psychology researchers have found that relationships that have solid repairs—sincere apologies and meaningful changes to address problems—are healthier and stronger than relationships where it seems like nothing goes wrong in the first place. Making mistakes and then repairing them actually strengthens relationships and builds trust.

So how do you make a repair that strengthens your relationship? You start with a healthy apology, which means three things: regret, responsibility, and remedy.

  • Regret means a sincere “Sorry” or “I apologize.”
  • Responsibility means naming what you did wrong, and how it impacted the other person—“I forgot your birthday, and I let you down.”
  • Remedy means offering a way to right the wrong—fixing what you broke, promising to do better in the future, or asking how you can make it up to your friend.

Not all apologies are healthy, however, and if you’re missing the elements above, you may end up saying “I’m sorry” in a way that keeps the wound open instead of healing it. These are some common aspects of unhealthy apologies:

  • “But”s and “if”s: Apologies lose their power when you follow them with “but” and an angry defense of your actions. Similarly, saying “I’m sorry if you were hurt” or “I’m sorry, but I was really tired that night” also weakens your message.
  • Taking too much responsibility: Overapologizing (“OMG, I’m the worst friend ever, I’m so sorry! I suck.”) can sound insincere or can make the other person feel like now she has to make you feel better.
  • Avoiding: It’s natural to feel upset, embarrassed, guilty, or any number of emotions after you hurt someone or make a mistake. It’s tempting to avoid the subject or dodge the person so you don’t have to deal with it. This can keep the wound open and painful, instead of resolving and healing the hurt.

Of course, all this said, resist the temptation to be perfect at apologizing.
Adapted from The Perfectionism Workbook for Teens by Ann Marie Dobosz, MFT

“Good” Vs “Bad” Anger

Anger has a bad reputation in our culture. It’s considered toxic by some, for others it brings up bad memories of family shit, for others it is entangled with violence. But anger has a purpose, and — when expressed appropriately — has an important place in relationships.

First, let’s differentiate between anger that is a core emotion and anger that is a defensive feeling. A defensive emotion is one that is used to keep other people away, and to cover up a different core emotion that feels too vulnerable to show. For example, you feel hurt by something your partner said, but rather than feeling that emotion, you feel angry and find yourself wanting to lash out with an angry comment of your own. That’s defensive anger — it’s covering up the true feeling (hurt) and serves the purpose of pushing your partner away so you can have some space in an attempt to feel safe again.

When anger is a core emotion, it looks and feels different. Core emotions (anger is one, the others are joy, sadness, fear, surprise, and disgust) are crucial to our survival as human beings, that’s why evolution has kept them around. Core emotions give us important authentic information and deliver that info fast, much faster than our rational brains take to come to logical conclusions. All core emotions have an “adaptive action tendency” — which means they inspire some action that is beneficial to you. For example, fear tells you to fight or flee. Sadness causes you to seek out others for comfort. And anger fuels you to assert your boundaries. If your boss orders you to stay late despite your previous agreement about ending your work day in time to pick up your kid, you might feel anger rise up to let you know that something is not right and you want to stand up for yourself.

This brings me to the second important point about anger: feeling is different than expressing. The anger you feel towards your boss contains wisdom about what is good for you, and can fuel adaptive, productive action to help you get your needs met — provided you express that anger appropriately. There is nothing wise nor productive about punching your boss in the face in this example. Nor hurling insults or making passive aggressive comments. An example of an adaptive action would be breathing through the first intense wave of anger, composing yourself, and then using all the energy and fire of that anger to give you the courage to calmly and assertively remind your boss of your agreement about your hours. In this case, anger is not covering up another emotion, and it is not trying to push someone away. The anger is expressing a survival need — to take care of yourself — and is trying to keep you in relationship with your boss by asserting or negotiating your needs.

Getting to know yourself and your experience of anger takes some time and practice. It helps to build a regular habit of having one “foot” in observing your emotions while your other “foot” is experiencing the feelings. Using your observing self, notice everything you can about what is happening right now. What body sensations come with this anger? What thoughts? And — very important — what other feelings are there? If you stay with your anger for a moment, just feeling without acting on it, are there other feelings just under the surface of the anger? Do you feel sadness, or grief? Hurt? Something else?

With a regular practice of observing yourself, you can get to know yourself and your anger. You can start to detect very quickly when you are feeling a wave of core anger that you should listen to, and when you are feeling a wall of defensive anger that you need to look beyond.

Do you want to be right or do you want to be loved?

Couples often come to counseling in hopes that the therapist will be a referee, declaring a winner and a loser in each argument. For a lot of people, being “right” is really important. They lay out evidence, argue about who said what when, focus on facts and ignore feelings.

Being right feels good for a minute. It’s a little high, you feel in control of the world for a minute, superior to others. But those feelings are not lasting, or satisfying, because the truth is, you are not really in control of the world or better than others. Being “right” also means the other person is “wrong,” and if being right makes you feel good for a minute, being wrong makes the other person feel defensive, sad, angry, and lonely. And those emotions tend to last a whole lot longer than your good feelings last.

Many times, being attached to being “right” is rooted in a feeling of insecurity and fear. Arguing and arrogance get put on like a mask to hide those awful feelings. Insecurity is so understandable in relationships. Connecting to a partner makes you incredibly vulnerable. It’s scary and can bring up your worst fears about being “not good enough,” and your fears of being rejected. So you turn that fear on its head, put on a show of feeling “better than” to mask the underlying feeling of “less than.” And then you have to defend that position at all costs, you  have to be right about everything. Because being “wrong” will bring back those feelings of vulnerability, insecurity, and fear.

So trying to be right all the time is a strategy to protect against vulnerability and fear of rejection. The irony is, being right all the time leads to some major relationship problems, and actually increases the likelihood of rejection. You create the situation you feared.

In couples therapy, it’s important to let go of the question of who is right and who is wrong. If you are insistent about being “right” (and trying to make yourself feel good), then you are also insistent about your partner being “wrong” (and feeling bad). Being determined to make your partner feel bad is not a recipe for relationship success.

Focusing on feeling loved instead of being right doesn’t mean you have to let go of your brain completely or never have an intellectual debate again. It doesn’t mean collapsing into a defeated “fine, you win” stance, or an insincere “whatever, I guess you are right” response, either. It means choosing to focus on the love and care you feel for your partner, and responding authentically from that place.

Next time you find yourself locked in an endless fight or holding a grudge, try pausing and taking a breath. Check in with yourself: is it more important to be right about this detail, or is it more important to be loving and feel loved? What is more valuable to me: being right about this, or having a happy and caring relationship? See if once in awhile you want to try dropping the fight and trying for connection instead. After connecting with your partner, check back in with yourself. Does it still feel so important to be right?

 

Fear of Feeling

“So much of [what] leads individuals to seek therapy can be traced to the terror of affect. People disconnect from their emotional experience, afraid of being overwhelmed, humiliated, or revealed as inadequate by the force of feelings, only to pay the price later in depression, isolation, and anxiety.” –Diana Fosha, founder of AEDP

Fear of feelings is huge. I hear it all the time. Clients say: If I let myself feel this sadness, it’ll take over. I’ll become depressed. I’ll stop being able to function.

This fear is often rooted in real experience. Maybe you have this fear because you’ve felt sadness nibbling away at your edges for a long time… weeks, months, years. You find it very distracting and painful, and it feels like it never totally goes away. It makes sense that you assume letting yourself feel more of it will be like opening the floodgates, and you’ll be drowning in sadness.

But the truth is, sadness is not endless. No emotion is. When you let yourself really feel an emotion, the wave washes over you… and it comes to an end. It doesn’t continue forever. The duration of core emotions is measured in seconds or minutes, not years. If you really let yourself feel the full experience of your sadness, it flows, it ebbs, it comes to an end, you feel a sense of relief.

The experience of endless sadness (or other feeling) actually comes with the holding back of emotions. The more you push down, numb out, cut yourself off, the more pressure builds up. The emotion never gets to resolve and complete, and you get stuck with constant low-grade emotion or anxiety. In addition, you often lose ability to feel the emotions you want to feel, like joy and pleasure, or you feel disconnected from others.

Letting yourself experience a difficult emotion like sadness (or anger, or even joy) can feel like a scary risk, but the rewards are big. You can get relief from that emotion that’s been lurking in the shadows for so long. Imagine what it would be like to let that sadness go.

When Other People Irritate the Crap Out Of You

“Do you think, in general, that people are doing the best they can?”

Brené Brown asks this question in “Rising Strong,” and wonders about what your answer reveals about you. Do you think that other people are usually trying hard to be kind, fair, generous? Or do you believe that on the whole, people are out to take advantage, make a buck, get ahead at any cost?

In her research, Brown found that 80 percent of people who answered “no” to this question did so because of their own self-judgment and perfectionist patterns. When you believe that you yourself are never working hard enough, you are also more likely to believe that others aren’t working hard enough or “doing their best.” If you hold yourself to impossible perfectionist standards and never feel good enough, it is easy to see the whole world through that lens.

When we talk about perfectionism, we often talk about how it impacts your relationship with yourself — how you beat yourself up, feel anxious or avoidant, demand the impossible. We sometimes forget the impact that perfectionism has on your relationship with others. When you feel cruel and stingy with yourself, only directing negative energy inward, that can leave you with only negative energy to direct towards others.

If you notice yourself feeling angry or impatient towards others, assuming they are not “doing their best,” take a moment and check in with yourself. Is the voice inside your head speaking those words the same voice that hammers you all the time for any small mistake or failure? Is your anger towards others connected to your anger towards yourself? Consider addressing your perfectionism — with compassion and kindness — as a way to shift your frustrated feelings towards other people.

An Introvert’s Guide to Surviving Holiday Party Season

December is a month of endless holiday party invitations, which for some people means endless social anxiety. It’s exhausting and uncomfortable to try to appear witty and graceful around acquaintances you want to impress. It’s draining to be “on” every night of the week. You want to have a few drinks to loosen up, but the next day you worry you embarrassed yourself. Sometimes you just need a break, but you feel guilty when you no-show or leave early to take care of yourself. The season of holiday cheer can start to feel like a season of torture.

What can you do to manage your anxiety and make it through the social pressures of the holiday season?

  1. Be realistic about how much socializing you can manage. Where do you fall on the introvert/extrovert spectrum? Some people can go to a party every night and feel great, others find their emotional battery drains after one event and they need a few days to fully recharge. Check in with yourself — how much socializing is comfortable for you? 
  2. Push yourself to a productive edge. Your presence at a holiday party may be  important to friends, bosses, clients, or other people in your life. Try stretching yourself a little past what’s comfortable — if two events a week is usually your max, try scheduling in three per week during this season.
  3. When you do choose to say no, do it with grace and acceptance. When you need to take an evening off and spend time alone, let yourself feel good about your decision. You need to take care of yourself! Too often we spend alone time beating ourselves up for not going out, or wavering back and forth about whether it’s not too late to get dressed and go out after all. When you do that, you don’t actually get the full benefit of recharging, because your anxiety is draining your battery. Let yourself really luxuriate in the solitude and quiet so you get the benefit from it, and are ready to go out to the next event.
  4. Be kind and honest when you decline: “My calendar is full that week! I’ll be there in spirit!” You don’t have to say outright that you need to stay home and take a bath, but resist the urge to invent some other event you’re not actually attending or some crisis that isn’t happening. Keeping up white lies creates a whole other layer of anxiety. Make a mental note to prioritize your next invite from that person.
  5. Give yourself time (or other treats) to help yourself recover. If you are stretching yourself to be more social than usual, make sure you are taking care of yourself in other ways. Buy yourself a little treat as a reward. Sneak out of work for a long, solo lunch to give yourself some quality alone time. Take an extra yoga class so you have a good excuse to turn your phone off for a couple hours.
  6. Breathe! When you are at a party and feeling overwhelmed, try focusing on your breath for a few cycles. Silently count your inhale and exhale, trying to make your out-breath twice as long as your in-breath. This can help turn off the fight-or-flight anxiety response and calm you down. Or, take a break. Go outside, in a separate room, or even to the bathroom, and enjoy the hell out of those few minutes of alone time.
  7. When in doubt, be honest. Despite what you may think and how other may appear, almost everyone feels some amount of anxiety at parties. If you’re strapped for a small talk subject, try just naming how you are feeling in that moment. You might be surprised how many other people are also feeling a bit anxious or exhausted from talking to so many people. It’s often a relief to be real about how you are feeling, and you can make a really genuine connection with someone feeling the same. So much better than another conversation about the weather or how busy you both are.