Striving to be perfect is not always the best route to happiness

Paralyzed by perfection

For many years, I admired others I viewed as perfectionists. They seemed to do everything so well.

While having high-standards is a good thing, it isn’t the same as being a perfectionist. There’s a difference between excellence and perfectionism.

I wore perfectionism like a suit of armour. If everything looked perfect, and I paid great attention to detail and worked harder, I felt safe. If I did things perfectly, there was nothing for anyone to criticize and I felt I had value.

It worked for quite a long time, until it didn’t. It led me to an epic burnout, when my mind and body said, “Stop!” I didn’t recognize my own tendency towards striving for perfection or understand it for many years.

I thought my new co-worker was crazy when she handed me a paper listing the qualities of a perfectionist during my first week of orientation at the university. I didn’t get it, I surely didn’t feel like I had a right to claim the moniker, until I read it.

Others saw it, and it was encouraged and rewarded by many. Who doesn’t want a perfectionist on their team? My work was always done, with painstaking attention to detail. My family was proud of my fabulous GPA, my house was perfectly clean and in order, and every task was done with great attention to detail. It all looked good on the outside, but inside it felt crappy, and it felt like anything but perfect.

I work with many people who are suffering because of their drive for perfection. Researchers report the tendency of perfectionism is rising in society today, especially among young people.

Perfectionism doesn’t always look or feel like perfection. It has some surprising faces:

• Procrastination

• Feeling paralyzed to take action

• Avoiding new things or things that can’t be done perfectly

• Fear of making decisions

• Getting caught up in small details

• Being hyper-critical; more focussed on what’s wrong instead of what’s going well

• Feeling anxious and/or depressed

• Never feeling enough are hallmarks of the perfectionist

Perfection prevents us from expanding our horizons as we endeavour to stay safe within what we’re good at. It limits self-growth when restricts us from exploring new possibilities.

For me, I avoided things I couldn’t do perfectly. Important things got put on the back-burner, which was a cause for inner shame. I had analysis-paralysis when faced with big decisions, and got so caught up with insignificant details that other, more important things, got missed.

I held challenging emotions close to my chest, not wanting others to see my vulnerability.

Perfectionism isn’t one-size-fits-all, as there are different types of perfectionism. You can take an online test to determine the source of your perfectionism, but receiving the help of a wise professional is invaluable.

For me, perfectionist traits were a buffer for feelings of vulnerability, and made it hard to bounce back from challenge. Mindfulness and gaining awareness into my own tendencies was, and continues to be, essential.

Becoming aware of my negative self-talk was shocking. I’d never speak to another person the way I did to myself. Learning to challenge my all-or-nothing mentality was powerful, as was finding out the world wouldn’t end if everything wasn’t perfect.

Learning to drop the very critical lens I had of myself, and hold my quirks and foibles with self-compassion and a good amount of humor, has allowed me to relax and chill. Vulnerability has now become one of my greatest strengths. Brene Brown was right about The Gifts of Imperfection.

While I still have to remain aware and alert to my tendency toward perfectionism, it doesn’t limit and destroy my happiness like it once did. Sometimes good enough is enough.

Understanding perfectionism, gaining insight into myself, and learning a new way of being was instrumental in recovering from burnout and a life of striving for what was unattainable. The tendency still remains, but I’ve learned to address it when it appears.

I still like to do things well, but giving up striving for what’s not real has allowed me to relax, enjoy life more, and feel happier and more resilient.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Corinne is first a wife, mother, and grandmother, whose eclectic background has created a rich alchemy that serves to inform her perspectives on life.

An assistant minister at the Centre for Spiritual Living Kelowna, she is a retired nurse with a master’s degree in health science and is a hospice volunteer.  She is also an adjunct professor with the school of nursing  at UBC Okanagan and currently spends her time teaching smartUBC, a unique mindfulness program offered at UBC, to the public. 

She is a speaker and presenter and from her diverse experience and knowledge, both personally and professionally, she has developed an extraordinary passion for helping people gain a new perspective, awaken and recognize we do not have to be a slave to our thoughts, stress or to life. We are always at a point of change.

Through this column, Corinne blends her insights and research to provide food for the mind and the heart, to encourage an awakening of the power and potential within everyone.

Corinne lives in Kelowna with her husband of 44 years and can be reached at [email protected].

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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