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  • Dina Cohen

Calling All Perfectionists

Updated: Nov 27, 2019

“I think perfectionism is just a high-end, haute couture version of fear. I think perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it’s just terrified.”

- Elizabeth Gilbert

Perfectionism is the kind of problem that is envied by people who don't have it, as in, "THAT'S your problem?" They envision perfectionism as a trait that helps produce perfect papers, perfect houses, perfect appearances, and perfect lives. They don't recognize that people who don't meet deadlines, don't get the housework done, don't go out, and feel like their lives are a mess might also struggle with perfectionism. When standards are set impossibly high, sometimes people just give up. But even the ones who seem like they have it all together can be suffering terribly.

Essentially, perfectionism is anxiety, just all dressed up. It's thinking, I need to do things perfectly so that bad things don't happen. This is reinforced by a world that tells us that if we don't feel good on the inside, it's because things don't look good enough on the outside. In order to avoid experiencing anxiety, the perfectionist will direct her energy toward ensuring that everything is done just right. However, setting the bar so high creates its own anxiety. It’s HARD to be perfect all the time.

Many of my clients struggle with perfectionism, and this struggle can manifest as a need to look perfect, eating perfectly "healthy", or even to follow my recommendations perfectly. It can also show up as feeling like they need to "do recovery" perfectly. When I ask if they would have these same expectations for another person, the answer is generally, "Oh, no, it would be fine for someone else not to do this, but I NEED to." This brings me to Point to Ponder #1:

1. "If your rules for yourself are different from your rules for other people, there's probably something pathological about those rules."

If someone else can leave the house without perfect hair but you need every strand in place, that's an indication that you need to examine your rules. If someone else can eat a cookie but you cannot ever eat processed foods, this requires attention. If your standards for yourself are higher than your standards for other people, and if this feels like a necessity to you and not a preference, then those standards - and their root - needs to be examined.

Perfectionism can be hard to recognize as a problem because it looks like you're doing a good thing.

"I'm eating healthier!"

"I'm exercising more!"

"I'm preparing beautiful meals!"

But are you? Point to Ponder #2:

2. You are probably getting in your own way.

Sometimes, you might find yourself in a situation like the one my client described to me yesterday.

"So I talked about wanting to prepare more nutritious meals last time we spoke, and I thought I would do it, but it hasn't happened."

Why? My client got so overwhelmed by her expectation that every meal needed to be "nutritious and wholesome" that she decided she had to drop the entire goal altogether. Of course she did! Her mental image of "nutritious meals" was so intimidating that she just stuck with what was familiar. When your approach is all-or-nothing, sometimes you end up with nothing. It can be hard to lower the bar, but once you do, you can end up with something rather than nothing!

What if that doesn't describe you? What if you are managing to do it "all"? Well, I wonder how that's working for you in the big picture. If you are eating "healthier" but obsessing about every bite you take and missing out on social events because they'll be serving the "wrong" foods, is that truly healthier? A relaxed mind and an active social life are more beneficial to your health than micromanaging the specific nutrient profile of every item you consume. Are you actually getting what you're after?

If you decided to exercise more because it improves your mood but you find yourself snapping at everyone around you until you get your workout done, or if you don't have time for other activities you enjoy because you are so militant about your exercise schedule, is that actually enhancing your life?

Once you begin to realize that the "all-or-nothing" approach is not getting you to a happier place, you may decide it's worth trying to do only "something". However, this is a very tough shift for a perfectionist. Why is that?

Point to Ponder #3:

3. The Only Way Out is Through

Once you step out of the high heels and take off the mink coat, you're left with just plain old fear. Something is scaring you about not being perfect. We know this is true because otherwise it wouldn't be so terrifying to lower the bar. What comes up when you think about not measuring up? Or when you imagine being "just average"? What is the fear for YOU? Is it that you'll looked down upon? Inadequate? Unloved? Alone?

Psychologist Beth Frenkel, Ph.D., says, "Perfectionists are essentially afraid of being negatively judged, both by others and by themselves.  Their standards are so high that they cannot consistently meet them and they therefore (frequently) see themselves as failures and are convinced that others do or will see them this way if they are not perfect every time."

It's not easy to live with this constant fear of judgement, especially when you are your own worst critic. If you are struggling in your life and suspect that your perfectionism is a culprit , then uncovering your fear and working through it is a journey you will need to take. There's no getting around it. A therapist can be very beneficial in this process by identifying problematic thought patterns and helping you develop healthier, more effective ways of being in the world.

You might be thinking, Hey, wait a second. Isn't perfectionism genetic? Isn't it something I'm just born with?

Listen up. Here's Point to Ponder #4:

4. You Are Not Your Nature

Yes, certain traits (like a high-achieving nature) are hereditary, but you don't have to let a particular tendency determine the course of your life. You can work with a personality trait to let its positive aspects enhance your life rather than allow its unhealthy features destroy your well-being. Warning: this is the kind of work that feels worse before it gets better. Maybe even a lot worse. But ask any recovered perfectionist: the mess is well worthwhile.

To all you current perfectionists - keep the faith.

It is possible to have a relaxed and joyful relationship with food.

It is possible to have an accepting and respectful relationship with your body.

It is possible to have a peaceful and positive relationship with yourself.

It’s perfectly true.

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