I am a recovering overachieving perfectionist.
I’m recovering from the belief that I have to justify my worth based on the things I do and how well I can do them. I’m letting go of the idea that I’ll be good enough when [insert accomplishment here].
I’m embracing the belief that I am worthy and good enough now.
Perfectionism can look and show up differently in everyone’s lives and in different areas of life. There are so many layers that overlap with other cognitive distortions, coping mechanisms, or trauma responses.
For me, this mindset was fueled by the belief that nothing I did was ever good enough and so I had to keep doing more and more and more (going above and beyond) to gain approval or favor from my parents, my teachers, my bosses, or even my peers. I believed that I wasn’t good enough until...something--until I achieved something, gained something, or proved something. Something that wasn’t exactly clear, but it was...something.
But the most mind-boggling thing to me about perfectionism? Most perfectionists don’t believe they’re perfectionists because they don’t think they’re good enough or hardworking enough to be a perfectionist!
So how did I realize I had perfectionist tendencies even though I was also battling depression and, consequently, low motivation? Because I believed that the things I did or didn’t do made up my identity or worth as a human being, and this belief was reinforced by my family, teachers, bosses, and even friends.
I just thought I had a good work ethic.
But it wasn’t about high achieving, but overachieving.
Going above and beyond.
To possibly, finally gain or receive what we think we will eventually deserve.
And despite all of this doing, there was no real forward progress, there was no true personal development or growth. If anything it kept me stuck. Trapped.
Brene Brown says it best, “Perfectionism is not the same thing as 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. It’s a shield. It’s a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from flight.” (Gifts of Imperfection)
At the root of my perfectionism and overachieving was (and still can be) the desire to be acknowledged, to be praised for my hard work, to be told “I’m proud of you” -- all of which weren’t given to me during childhood. And because I never received these things, but was constantly critiqued, shamed, or compared to other smarter, better, more “successful” people I had very low confidence and self worth.
But when is enough...enough?
When is good enough...good enough?
I had no idea. Trying to live up to that unknown expectation made it incredibly hard to take pride in the things I did do. But I felt immense and incredible shame if I didn’t do something well or if I failed, perceived or otherwise. Failures ranged from making a small mistake at work, to being a few minutes late to an appointment.
If you follow me on instagram, you know I’ve been working on further unlearning perfectionism by re-learning how to play piano. I grew up taking piano lessons, but looking back, these were some of the first moments that I can remember being taught by my parents that I had to get things right the first time or I was a failure and was wasting time and money.
That expectation followed me throughout my childhood. There was no room for error. There was no room for practice. But there was also no room for celebration of the (many) things I did do or how well I did them.
So I kept doing more, searching for the thing that would finally bring me the response I desired. And when I didn’t get it, then I did more.
For so long I thought this doing and doing and doing, going above and beyond, exceeding expectations was just a good work ethic. And, sure, that was part of it. But the reality was that I was waiting on external sources to give me validation, and on some level permission to...live.
During the two-week, therapist-mandated break from my (old) job back in August 2020, I had to participate in a work stress group therapy program where I seriously confronted my relationship with work and performance. Perfectionism, as a mindset and behavior, was clearly laid out for me for the first time in my life and I felt personally attacked. Also in that program I learned about the Heaven’s Reward Fallacy: believing that sacrificial behavior will definitely be rewarded when there is no evidence a reward is coming. But we keep doing it anyway.
Looking back on it, I can’t help but laugh at myself and think, “No wonder I was so hypervigilant all those years!”
It’s also no wonder why I didn’t know about or have any boundaries! I truly believed that doing everything and being everything for everyone would finally get me the love, acceptance, acknowledgement, or validation I craved. Even when people didn’t ask for my help, I was always ready to jump into fixer mode for everyone but myself, even when I felt overwhelmed or stuck. I just thought, “Well that’s just the way it is! This is what life is like!” Because I grew up learning that self sacrificial behavior was a marker of a “good” person.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. I don’t have to be or do everything for everyone else. And that doesn’t lessen my value or worth as a person.
So how do we let go of perfectionism?
As with most things when it comes to healing, there isn’t a step-by-step checklist or blueprint, but I think there’s a rough sketch of a foundation that we get to customize and build upon. And as with most things when it comes to healing, one of the first steps -- if not the first step -- is awareness: becoming aware of how this behavior, mindset, or lifestyle is impacting you. And then once it’s safe enough to do so (remember, creating safety is key) it can be healing to acknowledge, recognize, or even celebrate how those behaviors did serve you at one point in time, and now you get to choose what strengths you’ve cultivated from these behaviors to carry with you (e.g. perseverance, adaptability, resilience, hard work, etc).
The opposite of perfectionism isn’t im-perfectionism, necessarily. But I do believe that part of the antidote to perfectionist tendencies is embracing our flaws, embracing our limits, embracing our humanity. And most of all, meeting ourselves where we are and extending ourselves heaps and heaps of self love and compassion. Also, learn to laugh at yourself! Laughter can be so healing and even more so when it helps relieve the pressure we put or society puts on us. (See: Radical self-acceptance)
For me, a big part of recovering from perfectionism looked like addressing a lot of the internal dialogue that had been conditioned into me. Instead of berating myself for a mistake or a failed relationship -- using an old script that had been repeated over and over and over again -- I spoke to myself with kindness and compassion. It felt weird and foreign at first. At times it was overwhelming, in a good way. Learning how to reframe those thoughts paved the way (literally repaved neural pathways in my brain) to help create a constant and sustainable compassionate inner voice.
I got intentional about what I was doing and who I was doing it for. I was less focused on the outcome and more focused on the process, allowing for progress, not perfection.
And this is the cool, or not-so-cool, part about healing. We get to decide how we want to move forward, we get to explore all the different modalities and methods to heal. As a recovering perfectionist that can feel scary and overwhelming -- jumping into the unknown. But I believe in you. And I believe you can believe in you too.
Maybe you already know why you have perfectionist tendencies. Maybe you already know what this behavior or thoughts are protecting you from. And maybe you already know how this is impacting you.
So, how will you move forward? What’s the smallest, easiest step you can take?
Looking for support as you release perfectionism and embrace self compassion? Check out my 1:1 coaching services and see how I can support you where you are on the way to where you want to be!