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The perils of perfectionism.

November 2, 2016

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it.” 

 Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
 

I’m aware the internet is no longer a digital business card for therapists, it’s an opportunity to create a dynamic connection with potential clients, and offer something of value to my community. I want to grow a healthy, helpful, meaningful practice, and all the expert advice tells me a blog is a great tool to achieve this goal, gain visibility online, and grow my credibility.

 

And yet, I feel storm clouds of “should” hanging over the process from the outset: I should update my blog frequently, weekly if possible. I should offer fresh insights. I should offer substantial posts, but not drone on. I should come across as relatable but professional.

 

My professional prosperity hangs in the balance. The storm clouds have me huddling in a corner, reluctant to poke my head out.

 

What if putting myself out there gets me less of what I need, not more? Tarnishes my image, rather than enhancing it? What if I fail? If I can’t do this perfectly, why do it at all? Why take the risk?

 

I’ll let those angsty questions hang in the air a bit, before I circle back and attempt to answer them the best I can.

 

While you ponder them, did you know there’s a strong connection between perfectionism and suicide? By some estimates as many as 50-70% of completed suicides are committed by individuals described by close loved ones as perfectionists, or high in traits associated with perfectionism. I doubt the connection is a direct one, that is, I doubt perfectionism causes suicide, per se. Rather, the two phenomena seem to share a strikingly similar psychological profile: high internal pressures (intolerance of mistakes, tendency toward self-punishment, et cetera), high sensitivity to judgment and social demands, low self-compassion and sense of self-worth, low help seeking, and the list goes on.

 

I don’t share this to scare anyone, rather, to convey the seriousness of perfectionism and the hidden suffering going on beneath a trait many of us take pride in or associate with success and prestige. A trait many of us recognize as unhealthy, but secretly believe to lead to happiness and success, nonetheless.

 

Surveys of leaders in many professions show success to correlate with low perfectionism, not high. Perhaps this is unsurprising when you consider research on expert performance which underscores the fact failure, and reflection on errors are absolutely essential to getting better at just about anything. We learn best from our mistakes, not by being “perfect” from the outset and pretending we never make them. Counterintuitively, perfectionism doesn’t drive success, it cripples it. Think about this for a moment. If you take this idea seriously, and truly want more success, the best thing you can do is make more mistakes. Seriously.

 

Of course, when many of us hear this, it’s just one more failure to beat ourselves up about: “I’m not even failing right, I’m failing at failure. I must get better at not being the best.” You know the drill.

 

A perfectionist doesn’t have impossibly high standards because she thinks highly of herself and such standards conform to her favorable impression of herself, a perfectionist has high standards because he feels lousy about himself, and the only place he believes he can obtain worth, love, and validation are from external recognition of extraordinary achievements. Perfectionism doesn’t come from pride, it comes from shame.

 

And no wonder. Our society is built around troubling myths about human performance, intelligence, and competition. We don’t cultivate a growth mindset. We don’t praise our children for working hard and improving. We have a fixed mindset. We set about measuring and separating children from birth based on fictional properties of fixed intelligence, and do so based on performance metrics that punish errors and reward false presentation of perfection. We reap what we sow.

 

That being said, there’s lots and lots of good news here too.

The first is a bit touchy-feely for some of you, but nonetheless true: you are already perfect in every way worth wanting. The spectrum of intelligence and capability we supposedly compete upon? It’s made up, artificial… not real!

 

I hope you experience this in your families, from your romantic partner, in your faith tradition(s), or in creative expression, but ultimately, I hope you experience it in quiet moments with yourself. No amount of success or failure in the world changes your worth one bit. You are human, you are perfect, from cradle to grave.

 

Still, for some reason, our psyche needs approval and love like plants need water and sunshine. We want others to think we’re perfect, not ourselves. Relationships are a nutrient vital to psychological health. Failure and rejection hurt like having a limb sawn off (literally). Praise and connection are deeply rewarding and seem to free us to go out in the world and face challenges.

 

So why put ourselves out there, risking the precious commodity of approval and esteem in a world where we can’t be perfect, can’t guarantee success, or avoid failure? Why risk it?

 

Because the happiest people are those who pursue meaning, even if it’s hard, not those who avoid failure.

 

If you believe stress will kill you, it will. If instead you believe you are resilient and have what it takes to meet challenges head on, your body enacts the “physiology of courage”, a distinct vascular profile that honors the fear of social consequences being as real as mortal danger, and gives your body the resources it needs to get out there and try anyway, without incurring the cumulative damage of fear and worry. Bad stress is bad, good stress is great.

 

Life is too complex to control. Those who say they can promise you results, how to sell more, be more popular, more productive, more successful, win more, lose less: they’re peddling perfectionism. Don’t buy it. No one is perfect. 

 

Nature and the human mind don’t work that way. We dance, we cook, and paint, not like robots, like humans. We can’t comprehend the sound of a crashing wave, and we sure can’t predict the stock market. We all must act in the face of imperfection, limited comprehension, and precious little control over outcomes, and we get better by making lots and lots of mistakes.

 

Mistakes are beautiful. Nobody knows how to guarantee success, and why would we want to? Failure is the path to success, meaning, maturity, pride, and happiness. There’s great loss in relinquishing perfection, but there's salvation in it, too.

 

 

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