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How perfectionism holds you back and how to overcome it

perfectionism
Photo by Ksenia Makagonova on Unsplash

Perfectionism has become a buzz word, a humble brag people use to excuse their high standards.

But perfectionism is more than a cute character trait that makes you a little harder on yourself. It shares many of the characteristics of unresolved childhood trauma.

Hallmarks of perfectionism include setting unreasonably high expectations for oneself, a loud inner critic, rigid structures and rules, terror of making mistakes, and trouble trusting others.

Hallmarks of perfectionism include setting unreasonably high expectations for oneself, a loud inner critic, rigid structures and rules, terror of making mistakes, and trouble trusting others. Click To Tweet

Similarly, the traumatized brain can’t tolerate mistakes, engages in black and white thinking, mistrusts others, and struggles to meet challenges required to achieve big goals.

So, perfectionism is less cute and more nefarious than many of us think. It could well be a conditioned response to a childhood in which “good enough” was not an option.

Let’s look at the signs of perfectionism.

Imposter syndrome

Rather than pat yourself on the back for your achievements, you chalk them up to luck or other factors beyond your control.

This inspires you to work harder to prove yourself. Which in turn results in greater achievement and increased imposter syndrome. A never-ending cycle.

Self-punishment

You have a loud inner critic that never seems to let you off the hook. Nothing you do is good enough. You compare yourself to others and come up short.

Never mind those others have decades of experience you don’t. You feel as though you have to get it right the first time.

Procrastination

The need to be perfect paralyzes us. We fear making mistakes and not being good enough, so we fail to begin at all.

The need to be perfect paralyzes us. We fear making mistakes and not being good enough, so we fail to begin at all. Click To Tweet

This leads to underachievement and disappointment with ourselves.

While others are throwing spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks, we’re fretting about criticism that might come if we put ourselves out there. So we don’t.

Unrealistic expectations

Perfectionists expect too much from themselves. But, more than that, they underestimate how long and how difficult it will be to achieve a goal.

The perfectionist believes success should come at the first attempt. They fail to realize how many years and decades of effort are required to attain the excellence they seek.

Why we suffer from perfectionism

Social conditioning

It’s not your fault for expecting perfection or excellence in your early attempts. Society has conditioned you to believe success should come easily.

Media hides the messy truth behind famous success stories. That’s why “overnight successes” are almost always preceded by years or decades of toil and trouble.

It’s human nature to gloss over the less pretty parts of someone’s journey to the top. And to hide our own failures and vulnerabilities.

Poor parenting

Parental pressure creates perfectionism in children when the parent lives vicariously through their offspring. The child feels pressured to make her parents happy because they can’t seem to make themselves happy.

As mentioned above, children who’ve been traumatized grow up with a brain that can’t tolerate making mistakes. It’s been rewired to be more rigid and controlling, less trusting of others, and unable to face challenges required to accomplish goals.

It’s no coincidence these are also the traits associated with perfectionism.

How to overcome perfectionism

Strive for “good enough” rather than perfect

A British psychoanalyst coined the term “good enough” to help parents deal with their feelings of failure over their parenting skills.

He noticed an impossibly high standard parents set for themselves in their roles. Rather than setting themselves up for failure, he encouraged them to strive for “good enough”.

Allow yourself to do things badly at first. My greatest lesson as a writer came in learning to write “vomit drafts”.

Allow yourself to do things badly at first. You can edit a first draft, but you can't improve on something that doesn't exist. Click To Tweet

Also known as Draft Zero (because they don’t count), these firsts have one purpose: to get words on a page. You can edit a draft, but you can’t improve on something that doesn’t exist.

See the story behind the story

Reject the societal narrative and focus on the failures successful people had to endure to get where they are today.

Celebrate your own attempts and failures. See them as growth opportunities and necessary steps on the road to success.

Stop looking ahead for one hot minute and take a look back at what you’ve done well in your life (or good enough).

Embrace discomfort

Get outside your comfort zone. Say yes when you normally say no. Stop overthinking and fretting over what might happen. In the words of Nike, “just do it”.

Congratulate yourself not for your achievements, but because you took the risk. Value courage more than accomplishment.

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