Letting Go of Perfectionism

There is no such thing as being perfect, yet so many of us keep striving – often to the detriment of our mental and emotional health – for this unattainable and often destructive goal. Never feeling ‘good enough’, never quite ‘being enough’, left feeling demoralized and exhausted.

What can we do about this self-destructive and addictive belief system and is it all bad?

Research suggests that not all perfectionism is unhealthy and that it is in fact a multidimensional construct consisting of both maladaptive and adaptive dimensions. Both maladaptive and adaptive perfectionists tend to maintain high personal standards for themselves and implement high standards of performance.

Maladaptive perfectionists however, tend to become overly critical when they fall short of these standards and engage in excessive self-criticism concerning performance.

Maladaptive perfectionism has been linked to:

  • increased levels of depression
  • higher incidence of burnout
  • reduced self-efficacy
  • heightened levels of stress
  • an increased use of unhealthy coping mechanisms

Adaptive perfectionists, on the other hand, do not become excessively critical when they fall short of achieving these high standards and tend to be less concerned when their own elevated standards are not met.

Adaptive perfectionism has been linked to:

  • hopefulness
  • positive family relationships
  • life satisfaction
  • positive affect
  • endurance

With social platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and, more recently, TikTok and other emerging apps occupying 2 out of every 5 minutes of our time spent online, individuals are becoming increasingly preoccupied with curating the perfect life and public image. Research also suggests that individuals are increasingly more dissatisfied with their lives and with who they are as people try to perfect their lives in relation to others.

How can we move away from the maladaptive chokehold and become more adaptive in our perfectionism? As Anna Quindlen says in her bestselling book, Being Perfect, “How can we give up on being overly perfect and begin the work of becoming ourselves?”

Cognitive behavioral interventions. Perfectionism is thought to be principally maintained by maladaptive thinking patterns and cognitive biases. These standards are pursued regardless of unfavorable consequences Often expressed as “shoulds” and “musts” events are interpreted as involving failure; standards held are rigid; and there is a tendency toward self-criticism and ‘black and white thinking’. Interrupting these maladaptive cognitive processes, and training new, more adaptive ways of thinking, cognitive behavioral treatment, otherwise known as CBT, has the ability to significantly improve maladaptive perfectionism.

Increasing self-compassion. A hallmark of maladaptive perfectionism is self-criticism toward perceived failures. Research by Dr. Kristen Neff, suggests that an absence of self-compassion or kindness toward oneself when confronting failure, may account for the negative outcomes associated with perfectionists. Individuals who learn to see their perceived limitations with self-compassionate kindness; and who increase awareness around critical and harsh self-treatment can significantly reduce the negative outcomes associated with maladaptive perfectionism.

In alignment with a self-compassionate attitude is that of mindfulness.

Dr. Neff states that a mindful approach would enable individuals to experience self-compassion. It is suggested that self-compassion techniques such as meditation and breathwork may be very beneficial for those with maladaptive personality characteristics.

As Dr. Brene Brown, bestselling author and researcher writes in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, “Perfectionism never happens in a vacuum. It touches everyone around us. We pass it to our children, we infect our workplace with impossible expectations, and it’s suffocating for our friends, families and ourselves”.

Letting go of the damaging side of perfectionism may not be easy – but it is worth it.

Written by: Lara Adams