Shelly obsesses about getting everything just right for client presentations. Her boss loves her attention to detail, but her perfectionism often makes her anxious. Worse yet, it frequently spills over into her relationship with coworkers when she demands the same performance from them.
Keith very much wants his children to succeed. However, when they fall short of his perfectionistic standards, he gets upset and shames them into doing better. As his kids get older, they feel resentful and are starting to rebel.
Perfectionism can be a good thing in many ways. It can motivate us to do our best and achieve our goals. However, it can also have some negative effects on us, our relationships, and the people around us.
The dark side of perfectionism
Some have described unhealthy perfectionism as having a ruthless inner critic. Allowing that inner voice to continue can lead to anxiety and depression.
Being perfect all the time is not possible. When we set unrealistic standards for ourselves, we can feel stressed and anxious about missing those lofty benchmarks. Then if we don’t meet them, we’ll likely feel depressed or maybe disgusted with ourselves.
Another problem with perfectionism is that it can prevent us from taking risks. If we’re afraid of making mistakes, we may avoid trying new things out of fear of failure. This can limit our opportunities and prevent us from reaching our full potential.
Damaging relationships is one more danger of perfectionism. Perfectionists can be demanding and critical of others, which puts a strain on those bonds. Because we often depend on others to accomplish things, it’s easy to apply our own expectations to them.
This is what Shelly was doing to her co-workers, even though they had their own projects, limitations, and time-constraints. In their mind, the value created by all her refinements wasn’t worth the extra time and effort. Her tactics—haranguing them for more—represents a boundary violation as she is not allowing them to choose how they spend their time.
Why the need to be perfect?
Why might we be driven to achieve perfection? Deeper down, it’s because we fear failure, disappointment, or rejection. We set these high standards and try to control the outcome because the thought of disappointing ourselves or being scorned by others is too uncomfortable.
Often, this fear is related to low self-esteem. We may believe we need to be perfect in order to be loved or accepted. We may have learned perfectionism from our parents, where mistakes were not tolerated or only accomplishments were praised. If we internalized that message, we’ll continue to feel the need to be flawless, even if our acceptance no longer depends on our performance.
Making matters worse, our society often values perfection. Many people worship those they perceive to be perfect but are quick to jump all over someone’s mistakes. It’s no wonder that we might feel the need to strive for precision, even though it’s not realistic or healthy.
The cure for perfectionism
If you find that perfectionism is having a negative impact on your life, there are things you can do to manage it.
Set realistic goals
Instead of setting impossible standards for yourself, set goals that are challenging but achievable. Great is achieved in a step by imperfect step fashion. Be content with and celebrate progress.
Keith realized that children started as blank slates and must learn everything—often through their mistakes. The process they went through when they learned to walk is one of those examples. They fell initially, but eventually they got it and are walking, running, and dancing now.
That metaphor helped him see their missteps as part of their development process. He also began to accept that they, like everyone else, are not going to be perfect. Still, they are worthy of love.
Focus on the process
If you fall short of a goal, it’s fine to determine what you could do better next time. That’s called learning. But don’t get too caught up in the end result. Instead, focus on doing the right things. Then trust that the results will eventually come and enjoy the journey.
I have a friend who is a very successful sales manager. Rather than setting revenue quotas, he sets contact quotas for his sales reps. He tells them that they can’t control the outcome—whether or not the customer buys—but they can control their effort and approach.
Focusing on the process will mean you measure success differently. You’ll stop beating yourself up for less-than-perfect results. Instead, you can replace “I wasn’t perfect” with “I did my best” and feel good about your effort.
When we project our perfectionism onto others, we’ve crossed a boundary line. Our expectations might not be theirs. None of us have a right to make others feel bad for not acting as we’d like them to. Let them determine their own principles and priorities.
This was another discovery for Keith. As his children grew and matured, they needed to make more decisions for themselves. It’s a natural part of becoming an adult. And they needed to know it was okay to make mistakes—that they were still loved and accepted when they did.
Keith stopped rewarding good grades or wins and shifted to telling his kids to do their best at school and in sports. He praised them for their effort and what they were learning in the process. His youngsters responded well to this different, non-shaming approach. Another upside is Keith found his role as encourager and advisor to be even more rewarding than being the standards enforcer.
Getting help with perfectionism
Perfectionism is not realistic or helpful. If this condition is causing you significant distress and damage to your relationships, don’t hesitate to seek professional help. A counselor can help you develop healthy coping mechanisms and manage your perfectionism.
You don’t need to be perfect to receive God’s love. He accepts you as you are—flaws and all. In fact, he knows you and I make mistakes and fall short. If we were able to be perfect, he would not have needed to send his son to die for our sins. We’re not, so he did, because he loves us.
He doesn’t want us striving so hard to achieve, to be flawless, to prove our value. That’s exhausting and not how we were made. He wants us to rely on him so we aren’t weighed down by our perfectionism. Read Matthew 11:28-30 to hear what Jesus said about giving us rest from the strain of trying to eliminate our imperfections.
God’s acceptance of us can help us accept others, too. Romans 15:7 says, “Therefore, accept each other just as Christ has accepted you so that God will be given glory.” When we realize we don’t need to be perfect, it’s easier to tolerate others with their flaws. In fact, giving them grace makes us a little more like God, which is why God wants us to live in harmony with other imperfect people.
Check out our video about perfectionism here.