“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life.” – Anne Lamott
You find yourself asking, “When will what I do be enough?” You wonder, “How do I know if I’m truly happy or just settling to be comfortable?” You catch yourself constantly striving for more—more money, more stuff, more beauty, more brains, more awards. But no matter how much you get, you never know if what you desire will help you become your best self or just drive you further down the dissatisfying road of perfectionism. I know the journey of perfectionism far too well. Every once in a while, when I least expect it, my own perfectionistic motivations creep up on me. They come into play most when I’m making decisions, working, or interacting with others.
It’s that feeling you get when you expect things of yourself that you’d never expect from others. It’s working yourself to exhaustion in hopes that you’ll feel whole, complete, worthy. It’s basing your self-worth on external accomplishments, feeling like you have something to prove all the time. It’s piling on the emotions of guilt, burnout, and self-hate. It’s always coloring inside the lines and giving yourself the metaphorical whip if you screw up.
Perfectionism lives and breathes in your fear of making a mistake. When you’re afraid of what might happen, you don’t always make the best possible choices.
Instead, you limit your options because you believe you’ll be unable to handle the outcome of your choices if they happen to be negative. Allowing perfectionism to run the show is like being on a hamster wheel; you just keep going and going and going, even after you’ve reached your original goal. You increase the stakes every time so that when you do accomplish something, you wonder if you could have done it better.
Feeling and thinking this way makes perfect sense, because our culture puts a ton of pressure on us to be perfect. We’re made to feel as if there’s something wrong with us if we’re still single by a certain age, don’t make a certain amount of money, don’t have a big social media following, or don’t look a certain way. In the midst of all that pressure, it’s easy to forget all the great, unique things about ourselves.
Many of the people I work with in therapy are frustrated because no matter how hard they try, they still feel like nothing they do is good enough. Even after all the external successes they’ve achieved, they still aren’t happy, and they aren’t sure why. What I find is that most of the time, their goals never came from them. When you never feel good enough in the eyes of others, it’s hard to build a strong sense of yourself. It’s difficult to know what you truly want, what ultimately fills your true purpose.
Perfectionism stays alive when you look for other people to give you worth, relying on their opinions to give you a sense of your value.
It’s deceptive, because other people can’t make you feel like enough; that’s a decision you have to make for yourself. What’s enough and not enough, and how far you need to go, are more effective when they’re determined by your inner values. Needing and lacking approval and acceptance will inevitably lead you to feel that what you do is never enough; you’ll spend your life looking to do better and more.
That’s why I’m offering another way to be—an alternative to the endless cycle of looking for personal fulfillment through grand accomplishments. I want to help you put an end to the cycle of perfectionism. Knowing who you are and what you value is vital. Once you have that down, you can make the decision to be enough in every situation you face. And, in time, each situation will serve as a way to guide you toward your true self and free you from the need to be perfect.
So how do I let go of perfectionism and have a strong sense of self?
Do you methodically look for evidence that you’re a nobody, that you don’t deserve acceptance, or that you aren’t living up to your potential? If so, I know how demoralizing and demeaning it can be. It will better serve you to focus on progress rather than perfection and on how far you’ve come instead of how far you have left to go.
One of the biggest pushes towards perfectionism is the need to always “get it right.” We strive for perfection and huge successes, and when we fall short, we feel worthless. What we don’t seem to realize is that working toward our goals and being willing to put ourselves out there are accomplishments within themselves. Give yourself a well-deserved pat on the back for trying, making progress, and coming as far as you have.