The Paradox of Perfectionism

Kellie Shamenski RCCRelationships, Trauma

Is perfectionism healthy for us? If you were to ask most counselors and psychotherapists you may get several ideas and explanations, however, the overall, resounding answer from most professionals would be: no, not really’. The concept of ‘healthy perfectionism’ can be compared to the concept of ‘healthy alcoholism’. Once this inner drive becomes an over-functioning addiction to achievement the benefits come at a great cost. Perfectionism is not the same as ‘striving for excellence’ as much as having a few drinks is not the same as alcoholism. 

How do I know when striving to achieve has become an addiction?

Achievement becomes an addiction when we are driven to display our inherent value and worthiness by the impossible desire to always avoid mistakes. Over time the stress load becomes too much and we experience constant self-criticism accompanied by a fear of failure. Standards once thought to maintain our importance, status, and value can morph into anxiety, procrastination, and mental health issues like depression. 

In our minds we think perfectionism is how we  ‘got here’, how we have achieved our goals and maintained our position or purpose thus far. Perfectionism is considered by many to be a prosocial trait and yet it is easy to lose sight of the cost. 

When expectations are raised to this degree our world shrinks, we start to feel helpless, and hopeless, we become absorbed and stressed all the time. We ruminate over mistakes and become targets of our self-judgment. The bar of achievement becomes higher and the reward smaller. You may begin to notice that the dopamine hit achieved doesn’t quite add up to all the negative costs of being a perfectionist. 

Why do we become addicted?

Perfectionism is a survival strategy often driven by two factors- early life trauma and attachment issues. People who display perfectionism as adults very often did not receive a consistent message of what’s known as, ‘unconditional positive regard’ from their early environment. Positive regard such as caring, kindness, attention, love, affection, mirroring, praise, and nurturing may have been given out sparingly and when we ‘earned it’. There was no emotional reward at home for coming in second or simply ‘doing well’ so we felt the need to strive for exemplary marks, achieve more than others around us, and display constant excellence to feel worthy of affection and love. 

The compromise solution became perfectionism. We needed to feel in control of our environment (‘if I can do this perfectly no one will be mad at me and I won’t feel shame) and shield ourselves from the negative feelings brought on by others’ expectations. 

At some point, we had to make a decision (conscious or unconscious) to never feel this lack of control. We then develop habits to make ourselves useful and essential by taking on too much. Often our mindset becomes rigid, we become critical of people who don’t meet our standards, we are disappointed very easily and compare ourselves to others, feeling envy and distrust. 

How can I start to make changes to this pattern?

Begin to identify the standards you have for yourself and ask:

-Explore the costs of perfectionism to your mental health and relationships. 

-Who is or was imposing these standards on you and what is their motivation for that?

Often special attention came with meeting special standards at home. (“If I wasn’t perfect, what was it”?)

-Begin to get curious about the term ‘satisficient’.  What is both satisfactory and efficient? It’s okay to apply a standard of excellence to some aspects of your life but applying these standards generally and unilaterally is exhausting.

-Know the difference between holding yourself accountable with warm regard vs. taking yourself apart with shame. 

-Define your criteria for ‘being done’ or ‘moving on’ and begin to set limits for yourself.

-Experiment with doing things differently and making gradient level changes in the certainty of a job ‘well done’. Begin by striving to be 90% certain, instead of 100% certain, for example. 

In conclusion, it can help to have support from a friend or family member as well as clinical assistance from a counsellor to work through both underlying issues that arise during these challenges and create new habits and expectations for yourself.