How Perfectionism Harms Us (and Those We Love)

Imagine coming home after a long day at work to a house cluttered with dishes, a stack of mail on the table, stray socks on the floor, and an overflowing trash can. You’re so exhausted, and with another intense day at the office awaiting you tomorrow, you’d love nothing more than to crawl under the blankets and go to sleep. Do you eat a snack, brush your teeth, and hit the sack? Or does your breath quicken as your eyes scan the room and you begin a mental list of everything you need to do before going to bed?

If you resonate with the second scenario, perhaps you’ve been called (or call yourself) a “Type A personality” or Perfectionist. Maybe you even internally criticized the type of person who’d relate to the first scenario…

Where does it come from?

There are plenty of reasons why some of us tend toward this personality trait categorized by unreasonably high expectations and the belief that it’s possible to achieve perfection. For some of us, it’s rooted in a deep longing for approval or praise (read: insecurity/inadequacy); for others, it’s because one or more of our caregivers displayed this kind of behavior in our formative years, so it just feels normal. It could also be a symptom of a mental health issue such as OCD or anxiety. No matter the cause, we can probably all agree that striving for constant perfection is exhausting at best and destructive at worst.

Why is perfectionism so harmful?

Perfectionism Blocks Joy

When I’m working on a task, even if it’s something I love, perfectionism will steal my joy. My mind gets so overly-focused on the future (where anxiety lives) that it’s almost impossible to experience the present moment (where joy lives). 

Joy is a spontaneous reaction to something simple yet exquisite that captures your full attention in that moment. It is the noticing of a ladybug crawling past; the appreciation of intricate structures or brilliant colors; the sound of a belly laugh. And if you’re too caught up in the finished product, your awareness is not open to what is happening right now—it’s focused on not messing up

This brings us to another way that perfectionism harms us…

Perfectionism Blocks Growth

I’ve written before about how much it sucks to suck at something. But despite that icky, uncomfortable feeling of being “bad” at something, the reality is that we only grow in our skills, knowledge, and talents if we are willing to try something new. Perfectionists loathe trying new things, and actually tend to be risk-averse because pursuing new, risky opportunities requires a trust fall into uncertainty. 

When something in your life is really unstable or uncertain, do you start hyper-controlling things that are within your capabilities? Examples include obsessively cleaning your house, getting overly rigid with exercise or nutrition, or busting out the hour-by-hour schedules and To Do Lists. 

You might think, “Well, what’s wrong with that? It feels great to be in control and have whatever I control be perfect!” What you might not immediately realize is that by holding yourself to these insurmountable standards, you aren’t just beating yourself up. You take everyone around you down with you. 

Perfectionism Destroys Intimacy

I’m not just talking about bedroom time with your beloved. I’m talking about a kind familiarity with your friends, your children, your coworkers, and anyone else in your circles. Because if unachieveable expectations are the norm for me, you can be sure that they are my norm for everyone else, too. And that means feelings of judgment, disappointment, frustration, and even anger and resentment when they don’t speak/live/do the way I think they should.

So, how do I stop this harmful impulse?

I’ve been noticing and contemplating my perfectionistic tendencies for many years now, and from my
experience, two powerful practices to counter them are Loving-Kindness meditation and Self-Compassion practices.

Loving-Kindness, or Metta, is a meditation practice that involves well-wishing for different people who evoke different sentiments in you including love, neutral feelings, and strong dislike or hatred. It also includes wishing yourself and all living beings the same goodwill. This simple yet profound practice invites us to wish ourselves and others to be happy, healthy, safe, and at peace. It’s very uncommon for perfectionists to wish these types of things for themselves; we are more likely to criticize or demean ourselves because we will never be perfect. Loving-Kindness overwrites thoughts of unworthiness.

Self-compassion practices that have worked well for me include soothing touch (my go-to’s are cradling my face with my palms or placing my hands over my heart) and affectionate speech. Sometimes just taking a deep breath and saying out loud, “Jeni, you’re doing the best that you can right now,” can be exactly what I need to settle my anxious mind and relax my muscles a bit. 

The invitation is always open to try these things for yourself. I encourage you to be curious about your motivations behind your over-achieving or rigid tendencies, and to begin noticing how perfectionism makes you feel inside. To me, it’s very hard, tight, contracting, and hot. Definitely not pleasant. If you begin to feel that in you, see if you can breathe a little into the tightness, soften your edges a bit, and practice letting go of “mistakes”. 

We are here to learn and grow; not to perform. There is no finish line, unless you count death (which I don’t). So, let’s learn together to embrace our skills and talents as well as our shortcomings. You never know what kind of beauty might unfold—and you will almost certainly sleep better!

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