Perfectionism is the need to be better, fitter, more productive. It’s the feeling that everything can be “better” and that unless you’ve achieved perfection, you’re just not working hard enough. However, if you’re constantly seeking perfection you’ll never allow yourself to be happy with where you are. Striving for perfection leads people to feel constantly dissatisfied with what they have, who they are, and what’s going on in their lives.
It’s time to stop the cycle.
Our culture is obsessed with perfection. Instagram influencers flaunt perfect bodies, perfect skin, perfect pictures, perfect lives. Pinterest shows perfect decorating, perfect cakes, perfect kids parties, perfect vacations. Facebook is filled with perfect businesses, perfect strategies, perfect families.
No wonder we all feel that we have to be perfect!
Work Harder! Do More! Hustle your ass off!
We live in a culture that has glorified busyness and put a halo around the idea that if we all just work harder, we’ll reach this longed for title called “Perfection“.
Most people, especially entrepreneurs, end up feeling inadequate because they’re not doing enough.
The personal growth and self-development industries are riddled with perfection seekers.
Urging you to do more in less time.
To tighten those abs.
Take leaps into 58-degree plunge pools every day to reach “peak performance” (Tony Robbins actually does this).
Increase your productivity.
To do. Do. Do.
If you’re not careful, perfectionism will sabotage your success. It will leave you feeling depressed, broke, and miserable.
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Success Is An Individual Thing
Success is a word that is individually defined. For some, it means being a best-selling author. For others, it means having more time to work on their goals and aspirations. While other people feel that success means making more money. For some it means freedom to travel the world.
Yet somewhere along the line, we’ve been sold a pre-packaged version of success that looks something like the pages of a magazine.
Perfect toned and tanned bodies.
8 figure businesses.
Never a blemish or a bad day to be found anywhere.
Baking perfect cupcakes for the kids bake sale.
Only sleeping 5 hours a night.
Always having a perfect blow out and chip-free nails
A smile plastered across your face even though you barely have time to eat.
This drive to be perfect is leaving us anxious, depressed, and sick.
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How Perfectionism Ends Up Making You Feel Unworthy
When I first started as an entrepreneur, I naively bought into the rhetoric of what I call the “hustle coaches“.
They taught that if you hustle your ass off, work 16 hours a day, that you too would become a 7 figure millionaire in under a year.
At their core, they all promised the same thing – wild success, popularity, and finally being good enough if you just sacrificed your lame-assed belief that you should be entitled to slow down and enjoy your life.
Perfectionism Has You Trading Away Your Life
Workaholics were praised and those who prioritized family or happiness “just didn’t want it bad enough”.
I literally remember one of these coaches bragging that her hobby was working. She told us that she only had time for one friend because she’s “so focused on her business”. She taught that if you’re not as focused as she was that something was wrong with you.
I worked 80 hour weeks for the first year after starting my business. Two full-time jobs took up all my time – my coaching business plus a second job on top.
I couldn’t fit in more work time. Yet the 7-figure dream just wasn’t happening.
I wondered why I wasn’t as successful as all of these promises that had been made by the hustle coach I hired.
“You need to quit your job and work more on your business” I was told.
My coach was urging me to work more and would brag to her group about how much I would get done. What a “superstar” I was. I would find out years later that she would actually guilt her other clients because “Look how much Ashlee gets done”.
I had bought into it. For over a year I worked myself stupid trying to reach that shiny trophy of “success” that I was being sold where “finally I’d be happy and able to relax”.
I was striving for likes, follows, comments. Rigging my posts based on what would get more approval from my audience so that I could “reach more people”. I was changing my messaging to fit in with what people reacted to.
I was changing myself to try to get more people to like me.
Perfectionism Makes You Feel Something Is Wrong With You
It was killing me inside. I almost burned out and had many mini-breakdowns from stress and from feeling like something must be wrong with me. A badass ex-psychologist who WASN’T an overnight success? What was I doing wrong?
“There must be something wrong with me” I would reason in the small moments I’d stop to take a breath.
The same sentiments are echoed by the woman who feels unworthy of love because her body isn’t a size 2.
The man who fears that she’s not good at inspiring people because sometimes she breaks down and has a panic attack when it all becomes too much.
The woman who feels she’s not a good enough parent because she has to buy the bake sale goods at the store because she doesn’t have time to make something from scratch.
Or the man who beats himself up for another failed relationship that didn’t work out, even though there were clear red flags about his lover from the start.
These people all look at themselves and figure they’re the problem. That something is wrong with them.
“What’s wrong with me?”
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Why High-Achievers Suffer More From Perfectionism
This is how perfectionism works. The high achieving person never looks to their environment to find what’s not working. Instead, you always blame yourself.
You figure you just didn’t “try hard enough”. Whether it was a business, raising your children, or salvaging a relationship. You figure that if you would have been better you could have saved the day.
This is because of something called an “internal locus of control”.
In psychology, there is both an “internal locus of control” and an “external locus of control”.
An internal locus of control means that you attribute success to your inward traits. In other words, when you’re successful it’s because of your own efforts and abilities.
An external locus of control means that you blame things external to you for your success (or lack thereof). So you blame your boss for holding you back. You blame your childhood for your inability to focus.
High-achieving people tend to have an internal locus of control that says “I can be successful at whatever I apply myself to”. However, the flip-side of that is that they also blame themselves when they’re not successful. They believe that it’s something inside of them that’s holding them back. So even though they’re much more likely to be successful and achieve more. They’re also more likely to feel that “something is wrong with me” when they don’t succeed.
Perfectionism Stops Persistence
The problem is that when you feel you have to be perfect, you’re never satisfied. You feel that unless you’re competing with other people who “have it all” that something is wrong with you.
That superhero cape can get heavy for the person who feels they have to do it all and be it all. Who has to be the picture-perfect entrepreneur badass who is the best parent, lover, and partner anyone has ever seen. And who never even breaks a sweat doing it (geez, that exhausts me just typing that).
The truth is that sometimes, no matter how hard you try, things just aren’t going to work out the way you planned. And the striving for perfection and the internalized self-blame that happens when things don’t go according to plan end up sabotaging your ability to persist despite failure.
Persistence is the ability to make mistakes. It’s the ability to mess it all up and not have to be perfect.
- When you learn to walk, you fall on your butt. And that’s okay, you just get back up again and keep on trucking.
- When you learn a musical instrument, you play plenty of sour notes. But you keep practicing and you get better.
- When you first have sex you were probably pretty terrible at it, but with more practice came to the lovemaking you’d always read about.
- When you first do public speaking you trip over your words and might even stand there staring blankly at the audience. But with time and practice, you can speak eloquently and by the seat of your pants.
Making Mistakes Is Key To Creativity
Screwing things up is part of learning. So if you’re never allowing yourself to fail, you’re never allowing yourself to truly expand and to learn.
This is part of the problem that’s inherent in social media. People striving for the likes and comments, like I did when I worked for the hustle coach (whoa – Freudian slip – when I hired the hustle coach).
What happens is that your self-esteem gets wrapped up in how much approval and acknowledgment you get.
So you drive yourself to keep getting approval and acknowledgment – which essentially means you never allow yourself the glorious luxury of screwing up and being unpopular and messy.
Perfectionism Makes Things Boring
This is why so much stuff on social media and in the personal development field (and in MANY fields) is so yawn-worthy and derivative.
Everyone is striving for this acknowledgment and is narrowing their focus more and more to what will bring them more approval.
Not going out on the limb and thinking radical ideas.
Fear of possibly embarrassing themselves and being ridiculous.
Stopping themselves from creating great art and putting forth revolutionary concepts that blow the lid off of the lives of others.
In an attempt to be seen as “flawless” and conform to the ideas of “success” they’re trading-in their creativity and giving into the idea that they can never make a mistake “or they’re ruined”. The same happens to anyone who has genius and greatness within them.
Anyone who wishes to be great at anything must risk failing spectacularly at that thing.
Otherwise, you’re just signing up for a popularity contest and not for a truly creative endeavor that engages your genius.
If you want to be perfect. You might as well sign up now for being tepid. Because tepid is the only temperature everyone can agree on. CLICK TO TWEET
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Perfectionism Comes From A Toxic Childhood
Perfectionism usually comes from some kind of dysfunctional upbringing. A dysfunctional upbringing often involves dysfunctional parenting.
Parents who are:
- Narcissistic or demanding.
- Overly harsh, critical, and authoritarian.
- Abuse drugs or alcohol.
- Emotionally, verbally, or physically abusive to the child or to others.
- Filled with uncontrolled rage.
- Struggling with other addictions like gambling or sex or attention.
- Having their own emotional issues like struggling with divorce, fighting all the time, or untreated depression or anxiety.
- Absent because they’re working all the time.
Labeling parenting as dysfunctional isn’t about demonizing a parent. It’s about understanding the context from which these patterns come from in you.
Being raised in a dysfunctional home can put the constant pall of “be perfect or you’re nothing” over your head. Especially for those raised in overly critical homes or with narcissistic parents. The child feels the need to become the perfect example of what their parent wants them to be.
In other homes, like where a parent has an active addiction, emotional issues, or works all the time the child strives to be perfect because by “not causing trouble” the child lowers the stress level of the household and helps to maintain the very fragile equilibrium that could easily snap at any time.
You’re Perfect Or There’s Trouble
I understand this pattern intimately. When I was growing up there was narcissism and alcoholism in my family. I grew up to believe that I had to be EXCELLENT or else I was crap. I remember being screamed at as a child because I came home with B’s. Yes, I was gifted and A’s should have been easy. But I was bored and unchallenged in school. I also had undiagnosed ADHD and was bullied pretty harshly. Yet, instead of questioning the environment I was in, I was always told it was my fault. That I was lazy and just didn’t work hard enough.
I have another client who had parents who fought all the time. So she would attempt to bring home perfect grades, and be in every single club in school so that she could keep the peace at home. She knew that if she were to come home with anything less than perfection shit would really hit the fan. She didn’t want to do anything to fan the flames of the already incendiary situation at home. So instead she tried her hardest to be as good as possible and stay under the radar.
When you grow up with these kinds of conditions you believe that your worth is connected to how much you can keep those around you happy. You learn that the more you enroll in being a “good girl” and towing the line – the happier those people are. So you work hard to keep them happy by striving for higher and higher forms of perfection. By trying to gain approval when what you really desire is unconditional love.
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Perfectionism In The Social Media Age
A recent study came out that shows that Millennials actually have higher levels of perfectionism than any other generation.
Body dysmorphia and eating disorders have risen by almost 30% since the advent of social media.
Young people are feeling more anxious and depressed than ever before. And they feel the constant need to compare themselves socially to others.
They are literally living their lives in a state of constant comparison to others. Because this is the generation that has been brought up with social media their entire lives.
- Shiny personas
- Perfect pictures
- Expertly cultivated posts
They end up making a lot of people feel like crap about themselves. In the same way as perfection in advertising and in women’s magazines has hurt young girl’s self-esteem.
Needing Other People To Feel Worthy (Precursor To Narcissism?)
One of the saddest outcomes of this social media age is that other people are then seen as a type of vending machine you go to get your fix of acknowledgment and approval.
Instead of developing real and abiding intimacy with others (which necessitates being vulnerable and willing to make mistakes) relationships are seen as places to get your next fix.
What’s scary is that this is essentially the definition of narcissism. Using people this way instead of developing true intimacy. Seeing other people as just someone who likes or approves of you rather than as a living breathing human with significance and meaning all of their own.
This striving to gain approval from those around you is one of the ways that social media drives perfectionism.
You post something on Facebook only to examine whether or not enough people are liking and commenting on the post. Evaluating yourself and your potential for success by how well-received this post is. Does no one like the post? Just tear it down and post another. Screw authenticity or self-expression. The goal becomes gaining recognition and approval.
Your identity and self-perception become driven by the way in which you garner praise from others. “Success” is measured in how well received you are. How many pats on the head you get. How much more money and status and stuff you have compared to other people.
Perfectionism And Materialism
Perfectionism rolls into materialism. Into competition. Into a sense that there’s never enough.
That you’re never enough.
And so you drive yourself to be more in line with what other people desire, rather than what you desire.
You become dissociated from the truth of who you are and become a warped version of who other people think you should be to garner that attention and approval
In a recent episode of the Dystopian sci-fi show Black Mirror, we had a glimpse of this world where your value is derived from the perception of others. From the approval and likes that other people give you. It was highly depressing yet extremely prescient giving the direction our society is going in. (I highly suggest watching the whole episode. But warning – you will be disturbed!).
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Perfectionism Destroys Art
Where is the humanness left in a society that uses the metric of likes to determine the success of a life?
Great art is not made by conforming to standards that bring us all closer and closer to being the same person. More alike, more approved of, more rubber-stamped “successful” the duller and khaki we become. The less vibrant your life is because it becomes about what they want, not about what you want. Not about what makes you light up and feel really alive.
So the only way to continue forward is to either:
- Shed the icy grasp of perfectionism in your life.
- Continue to allow it to control you and stay in denial about who you really are.
To keep your art tucked away safely in the closet where it doesn’t have to face possible rejection.
To never ever confront the possibility of failure or messiness because you never risk trying something truly radical and new.
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How To Overcome Perfectionism
What do you do about all of this “work harder and you’ll be good enough” stuff? This “your value relies on other people’s approval” stuff?
Evaluate your life based on your own metric.
Do you love working harder? Are you yearning to work harder? Are you being so lazy that even your cat knows that you could work harder? Then maybe that ethos is right in line with what needs to be done in your life. Maybe that’s what would be a great fit for you. Not because it’s how you gain approval from others. But because it’s the right fit for you.
However, if you’re just striving to work harder, or for more perfection because of some slick marketing that keeps telling you that you’re not making enough money, you’re not thin enough, you’re not spiritually evolved enough, you’re not enough then time to chuck that crap out and allow yourself to be enough right here and now.
Establish what success means to you.
Is success being radical? Free? Is it gaining the approval of others? Is it about money? Making a difference? Raising a kickass family?
No one can define what success means to you. That’s your job. Because as long as you let them determine what success means, you’re giving them the power to determine whether or not you’re successful.
When you stop waiting to be good enough and you acknowledge that you are worthy NOW you become extremely powerful.
Stop waiting until you’ve lost that 10 pounds, made that next 100 grand, or found the love of your life to feel like you can finally relax and love yourself and your life.
When you look at yourself in the mirror and you can actually say “hey! I really like you!” without sarcasm and without a “but, you really could use an eyebrow wax” or whatever flaw you happen to fixate on.
Love yourself as you are
Yes, it’s important to feel all the discomfort that comes with not being where you want to be.
- Acknowledging that maybe your back hurts because you haven’t worked on strengthening it is important information.
- Seeing that maybe you would have an easier time being happy if you worked on releasing that inner critic is important for your growth.
- Knowing that you have a tendency to close down when it comes to conflict and that this is ruining your intimate relationships is important to cultivate the love you want.
Knowing all of that really can help you shift things.
But there’s a difference between knowing that something needs to change, and making it the reason to withhold worthiness, happiness, or love from yourself.
The Puppy Metaphor
I have long taught something I call the Puppy Metaphor. It was something I invented when I was a doctoral intern working with clients in my final year finishing up my Ph.D. in psychology.
Consider for a moment that you receive two puppies. One of these puppies you immediately love and bond with. The other puppy you’re a little “meh” about and kind of find annoying. Both puppies are chewing up the furniture and peeing on the rug. But one makes you respond with “awe, how cute!”. The other you scream and yell and chastise for being a “bad dog”. Which of those puppies do you think you’re going to put more love and attention into making into the best dang dog that ever existed? Which puppy is going to get the long walks, and the good expensive food, and the expensive trainer?
Yup, the puppy you already loved. Shitty behavior and all.
Growth happens a lot easier from self-acceptance, and dare I say self-love, than from self-denigration and criticism any day of the week.
Drop the attitude that you have to be perfect to be worthy. That you have to be perfect to do amazing things in this world.
You woke up worthy today and every day. You don’t have to earn it.
And once you believe that – your life starts to unfold like you wouldn’t believe.
You’re the only person withholding happiness from you.