By Heather Gillam – BA, MS, NCC, Kirsten Lind Seal – PhD, LMFT
“Perfectionism is not the same thing has striving to be your best. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement, and shame.”
~ Brené Brown
Perfectionism is the pursuit of “perfect” where anything less is failure.
It requires constant judgement of oneself or others, and demands nothing less than 100%. It is living by a set of impossible standards. These standards might be self-imposed based on a belief that that’s what others want, imposed by others onto us, or imposed on ourselves because our self-worth depends on it.
No matter the reasoning for this demand for perfection they all results in the same thing: disappointment, a feeling of failure, depression, low self-esteem, anxiety, etc.
Because perfection is unattainable. No one is perfect. No one has ever been perfect. No one will ever be perfect.
The pursuit of perfection is not one new to human kind.
The people of ancient civilizations and cultures struggled with the same emotional and psychological challenges we deal with today. They didn’t have life coaches, therapists, or psychologists do help them with these issues.
Instead, they had philosophers who questioned the world and developed ideas on how to live a good life. Most of them believed that a good life was one free of negative emotions, including those emotions that result when one pursues perfection and falls short.
One such philosophical school of thought called Stoicism blossomed in Ancient Rome.
In this philosophy we find some concepts to help break the chains perfectionism places upon us, freeing ourselves from the resulting negative emotions.
Indifference to Standards and Opinions of Others
Ancient Stoics valued freedom. They were unwilling to do anything that gives another person power over them.
The high standards of someone who pursues perfection are often the standards that others have placed on them, they have placed on themselves because they believe others demand it, or they place on themselves in order to be loved, accepted, or valued by others.
In each of these cases, the person pursuing perfection gives up the freedom to be themselves. They must speak or act in a certain way to meet these impossible standards to please another.
When they fail to meet these standards, in rushes feelings of failure and anxiety. These standards are impossible to meet because the standards or what pleases a person are constantly in flux. They change from person to person and moment to moment.
The Stoic solution to these standards is indifference. Indifference both toward pleasing or displeasing others via being indifferent to these standards.
So then, how to you practice indifference?
You can’t just walk outside your home one day and say, “I am indifferent to society’s standards of beauty” and mean it. Indifference takes practice, so start small. Perfectionism is unpleasant. It’s likely you don’t agree with all the standards you are trying to meet.
Pick one, a small one at first, and rebel.
Don’t like the demand that you must dress a certain way? Make a small rebellion and wear fun socks. What about that you must be busy 24/7 to be valued/productive?
Take a nap, see a movie, REST! Do what you feel is best for you. You will not only be freeing yourself from impossible standards, but you are free to be you as well! You may even see your quality of life improve.
Over time, it will be easier and easier to be indifferent to others’ standards and do what’s true to you.
Identify What you Can and Cannot Control
Stoic ideas of indifference are also consistent with identifying and distinguishing what you can control and what you cannot control, another important Stoic concept.
In the case with indifference, you cannot control what standards others hold for you, or the opinion they have of you whether or not you meet their standards.
You cannot control outside influences that may prevent you from achieving these standards of perfection. You cannot control society’s standards or ideas of “what is perfect.” In some of these cases, you may have some influence but not complete control over the results.
For example, you may have some influence on someone’s opinion of you by acting kindly, but not complete control over the opinion they form. You cannot force someone to have a good opinion of you.
On the other hand, you can control your own thoughts and actions, how you respond to people, what you pursue or your goals, your character, and your values.
Placing focus on what you can control, rather than what you cannot control changes your goal and moves away from perfectionistic standards.
Internal vs. External Goals
The standards of perfectionism, can be understood as external goals.
They are goals that are outside ourselves. An example of a perfectionistic goal might be getting a score of 100% on every test. This is a goal to work toward, though is not guaranteed.
One could be sick, or having an off day, the test may be too hard or be time limited which makes achieving a 100% difficult, if not impossible. The key then is to switch to an internal goal, one which originates within you in which you can absolutely achieve.
An internal goal in the above situation is to do your best despite the circumstances.
Pay attention in class, study, get a good night’s rest and just do the best quality work you can. You may get a 89%, or a 97% or a 75%, but no matter the score you can always be satisfied if you did the best you could.
The reason for this is that it is easier to accept that what we wanted didn’t happen if we feel good that we did everything we could.
If you pursue an impossible standard with the intention of just doing your best, you are always satisfied whether you meet that standard or not because you did all that you could. Doing your best is ALWAYS achievable.
Stoics believed that part of living a good life was having the right goals (internal), focusing on what could be controlled and being indifferent to what could not be controlled.
As a result, it freed them to be who they wanted to be, increased their satisfaction, and improved their quality of life.
These concepts provide a framework for overcoming perfectionism, which focuses on unattainable standards (external goals) beyond one’s control which result in feelings of failure, anxiety, disappointment, dissatisfaction in life, and low self-esteem.
These Stoic concepts are as relevant today as they were in Ancient Rome, providing us with philosophical advice on overcoming perfectionism and living a good life.
Heather Gillam, BA, MS, NCC – www.sisulumicounseling.com
We live in a society where perfectionism is actually rewarded more often than not.
And then we wonder why we all are running around being brutal with ourselves regarding our failures, procrastinations, and other non-perfect realities. We can drive ourselves crazy trying to be perfect, though we may pay lip service to being “okay” with just being “okay.”
So why do we do this to ourselves?
Perfectionism is often rooted in our deep desire to please others.
This desire can be seen as a type of evolutionary strategy to stay safe beginning at an early age, when we are less able to care for or protect ourselves.
Making sure that we are pleasing the ones who care for us (beginning with, most usually, our parents or caregivers) can be seen as a lifesaving strategy, but – and this is a big but – this strategy starts to fail us as we grow up.
So understanding this internal dynamic is key to understanding how to combat perfectionism.
And this is not easy stuff. It takes time and effort to change the way we think which will then change the way we behave.
Listed below are some practical tips for noticing, examining and then shifting how we manage our tendencies towards perfectionism:
- When you feel that pull towards making something “perfect” or trying to be “perfect” ask yourself, “Who am I trying to please?”
If the first answer is “myself” then ask again – there is someone else in your life that came first. Who was this?
- Once you have identified this person (who may or may not still be in your life or in this life) ask yourself “If I don’t please this person, then what is the worst that can happen?”
Most likely the answer that comes to mind will be tied to old ways or past hurts. Think about this.
- Say to yourself, “I don’t have to hold myself to someone else’s standard.”
And then think about what your own real standard is. Make sure that this is something you can back up with evidence, and not some old pull that is from long ago.
Clearly, there are plenty of people we need to please as we journey through life: bosses, spouses, friends, etc.
BUT we don’t need to please them at the expense of ourselves and our well-being. Looking deeper within to disentangle the old cords holding us to old standards is one of the keys to combating perfectionism. You can do this!!
Kirsten Lind Seal, PhD, LMFT – www.kirstenlindseal.com