Perfectionism beyond the stereotype
Although perfectionism tends to be conceived in all-or-nothing terms, as an exaggerated focus on high standards, its scope goes far beyond that. Because we are individuals of a complex nature, the very meaning of a “high standard” varies from person to person. Before becoming a vegan, I used to make a vegetarian pizza on a weekly basis. For it to taste good, it had to contain 150 gm of cheddar cheese, the equivalent of a single package from my local supermarket. That was my standard. When I would get excited about making that pizza but find there was less than 150 gm in a package left in the fridge, I would get extremely disappointed, not make it or force myself to drive to the supermarket to get a new package. After trying to cut down on cheese and having realised that I could bend my own rule and reduce that quantity, I was surprised to find out that my pizza tasted as good as before! As a perfectionist, my experience had been limited by a rigid rule which caused stress that could easily have been avoided by a small change in perspective.
You do not have to constantly strive for super high standards in everything you do to be influenced by perfectionism. As any vulnerability, perfectionism fits your personal views and values, whatever they are. You can be a hippie, an academic or a footballer and still act in a perfectionist way. As long as you behave as a slave to a rigid set of rules which you believe to reflect a high standard or goal, perfectionism is at play. It is important to highlight the significance of individual perspective to perfectionism. As much as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, perfectionism is in the brains of those who struggle with low self-esteem. If you value physical appearance and find a sporty look glamorous, you may become a perfectionist and invest time and money in the way you look so to achieve that standard. Your house can still reflect you lack of care and be disorganised and dirty, and not bother you half as much as looking as good as you think you should on the outside, in order to feel good enough on the inside. When you need a new mattress to help with your back pain, but you have your eyes on those trendy sneakers that cost a fortune, you forget all about it as soon as you picture yourself walking around in them, looking good, feeling great and getting praise and attention from others.
Perfectionism is all about holding inflexible conditions of worth which – even though may have never been challenged – have meaning on an individual level and must be kept at all costs. Therefore, if you have standards of quality that remain constant over time and do not adapt to the changes in you and your life, you may find that perfectionism is one of the main reasons why you struggle to feel balanced and reach a state of personal contentment and fulfilment. Due to its flexibility, it fits “perfectly” with any low self-esteem attitude of conditional worth and wellbeing. Perfectionism in action can be observed in every parent’s obsession in making their children’s experience as pain free as possible, for instance, as if feeling negative emotions would permanently damage their development ((unaware) emotion phobia being one of perfectionism’s most common features) and compromise his or her ability to act as a good mom or dad. While that may be true in abuse, neglect and childhood trauma cases, most children – those who are exposed to good enough parenting – do quite well with some share of unconditional love and attention which do not require their parents’ struggle and suffering.
If you have identified with the above at some level, be aware that your perfectionist attitude does not affect only you, but also those around you. As the emotional cost of perfectionism is high, it tends to be intrinsically related to relationship problems, as well as a great array of psychopathologies such as eating disorders, depression and anxiety. You do not have to be fully aware of how much of your struggle to keep centred is a result of your perfectionism, or the extent to which affects your co-workers and family, for it to be damaging to all of you. The irony here is that the struggle to keep a fixed standard going so to guarantee wellbeing and happiness is the very cause of emotional health problems and misery! To get out of the perfectionist trap, start challenging rigid beliefs – whatever their meaning and application – consciously and proactively, while playing with not feeling bothered by the idea of being “below average” or even “lousy”. Additionally, increase emotional connection and wholeness by allowing yourself to feel bad every now and then and around others. The more self-acceptance and unconditional love you bring into your life, the more you will tolerate the imperfections of others. The more comfortable they feel around you, the stronger your connections become, as well as the benefit of your influence.