Never Enough? The Fear of Letting Go of Perfectionism
The flawed nature of perfectionism has been well documented. In my experience as a psychotherapist, many people are reluctant to acknowledge that perfectionist tendencies are problematic even though they list out symptoms that are often linked to their unrealistic expectations of themselves. They are not sure that there is a better way to approach life that keeps them respectable.
“Perfectionism is self destructive simply because there’s no such thing as perfect. Perfection is an unattainable goal.” — Brené Brown
With high-achieving folks, I think there is a real fear of having to learn how to live in the middle. “If I am not a perfectionist, then I will be a lazy loser — well, I certainly don’t want to be a loser, so I will be a perfectionist instead.” However, it may be more challenging to push yourself and be kind to yourself because you don’t know where to draw the line. Perfectionists tend to use “all-or-nothing” thinking, which severely limits their options in life.
One of the arguments my achievement-oriented clients raise is that if they adjust their expectations, doesn’t it mean they are settling? My counter-argument is, what is the point in constantly moving your self-expectation higher and higher to the detriment of your quality of life and mental health? People identify that they don’t like feeling anxious or dissatisfied with their current life experience, which objectively-speaking seems pretty decent, if not impressive. To that end, they often judge themselves for their feelings given their life — “my life is pretty good — I’m healthy, I have a good paying job, I have family and friends, I live in sunny Bay Area, so why don’t I feel happy or content?” Popular culture even has a term for these kinds of concerns as “first world problems”. This becomes a perpetual cycle of a positive — but perhaps temporary — sense of worth (having high standards) mixed with dissatisfaction with life and possibly feelings of emptiness.
To be fair, when considering the context of being an immigrant or child of immigrants in the US, striving for perfection can be a real survival strategy! With an immigrant background, you can feel a sense of obligation (spoken or unspoken) to make the most of the opportunities given to you since your family sacrificed a lot to come to the US. Culturally speaking, many of us also feel a duty to do well for the collective sake of our family’s well-being.
In other cases, if you hold one or more marginalized identities, you may experience the very real burden of having to perform that much better in systems that tend to cater to White heterosexual male privilege. However, you do not need to measure your accomplishments and value based on external standards or validation (see Koritha Mitchell’s beautiful essay from 4/27/21).
So how do you pry your hands off the familiar standard of perfectionism and embrace a more reasonable standard of “healthy pursuit of excellence”?
- Identify values and purpose
- Develop self-compassion. Self-compassion ≠ self-pity
- Make space for seemingly competing concepts of acceptance and change
1. Identify values and purpose. Part of this process may mean examining your values and purpose with a critical lens and an openness to adjusting some of them.
How do you balance the values (and obligations) you hold with self-compassion and personal well-being and mental health? This is a complicated matter. We learned most of our values through our home environment growing up, whether they were taught implicitly or explicitly. We also internalize values from our school and social environments, oftentimes heavily influenced by dominant American culture. If you haven’t done so before (or in awhile), you may consider reflecting critically on the context of those values and how well they sit with you in your lived experience.
For instance, many East Asian cultures value duty and familial obligation, and prioritizing others over oneself may be expected. However, I offer the questions, “what are the limits to this expectation? Are you allowed to set limits? Do you always prioritize someone else over yourself no matter the situation?” Another example is capitalist culture — the values of competition and achievement result in a higher emphasis on individuality; your worth is often measured by how much better you are than others (higher grades, higher salary, bigger house). In contrast, consider the Nap Ministry’s “rest is resistance” movement where rest is the foundation to resisting racial and social injustices and valuing collective well-being over productivity.
2. Develop self-compassion.
Some people fear that being kind to yourself is a sign of weakness and/or a matter of lowering your standards. The idea of being kind to yourself is captured by the concept of self-compassion, which includes the elements of mindfulness (non-judgment of current experience), a feeling of common humanity, and kindness to self. I’ve heard people express concerns about self-compassion resulting in losing your standards and not being motivated or persistent anymore. On the contrary, research shows that self-compassion actually can be motivating — it doesn’t necessarily lead to being complacent and not pushing yourself. Self-compassion can help you avoid harsh self-criticism or in contrast, a false sense of self-esteem, when dealing with your imperfections. It encourages a non-judgmental approach in addressing negative aspects of yourself; by creating a safer context for personal growth, you are then more likely to feel motivated to make effective improvements compared to when you are motivated or paralyzed by fear of failure.
3. Make space for seemingly competing concepts of acceptance and change.
Borrowing a concept from Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), I encourage you to be both 1) accepting of yourself as you are now, and 2) working on making change in your life. Without self-acceptance, it’s that much harder for you to be in contact with your resilience and strengths as you may be trapped in a narrative about your short-comings rather than seeing yourself wholly. If you are dwelling on your limitations, how will you see the possibilities for growth and start working towards them?
By letting go of perfectionism and a never-ending chase of achievement, you can motivate yourself through purpose and self-compassion. When you ground yourself in purpose, self-compassion, and self-acceptance, you don’t have to be driven by anxiety to be more productive for the sake (and hollow value) of being productive. The urge to be productive for productivity’s sake may not go away completely, but my hope is for you to develop a more meaningful internal compass. I wish you peace and self-acceptance as you continue to grow and learn from your experiences. May we all learn how to celebrate ourselves more and let ourselves be enough.