It seems we are never doing enough. At every turn, there is someone accomplishing more, telling us we should be doing more, too, and more often than not, promising us that once we do, we will be happy.
Yet this is just the myth of perfectionism — that bigger, better, faster will also mean happier. The problem is, of course, we never get there. Perfect doesn’t really exist.
“In the beginning, perfectionism feel like strength, a way to accomplish great things, be rewarded, and avoid criticism. But it also creates unnecessary stress and anxiety,” writes author Sharon Martin.
In her new book, The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism: Evidence-Based Skills to Help You Let Go of Self-Criticism, Build Self-Esteem & Find Balance, Martin offers an active guide to shift our perspective on perfect, find what matters most, and importantly, allow for some mistakes along the way.
Martin’s advice to her readers begins like this: “The exercises should be challenging; this is how you grow and change. So try to allow yourself to do them imperfectly and learn by making mistakes.”
One misconception perfectionists often make is that their achievements will correct for their inadequacies. Martin writes, “As perfectionists, we base our self-worth on our performance and achievements. We aren’t particularly resilient, in that we don’t easily bounce back from setbacks, mistakes stick with us, damage our self-esteem and leave us feeling worthless or incompetent. The only way we feel valued or worthy is by achieving, winning, and being flawless.”
The drives underlying perfectionism include a deep need to be liked, a desire to avoid disappointing others, and the need to sidestep vulnerability. Perfectionism can make us impose impossible expectations on ourselves and others and can affect many areas of our lives, tainting our professional accomplishments, our appearance or athletic performance, and our physical environment.
In overestimating their failures and underestimating their strengths, perfectionists often think in black and white — perfect or hopeless failure. Martin writes, “Perfectionist thinking is based on a belief that we’re inadequate: ‘I’m not enough, and the only way to be enough is to accomplish ____________________.”’
Perfectionism also often causes us to ruminate and overthink things, have a hard time relaxing, have trouble being happy for others’ success, feel stressed, tense and anxious, be goal-driven, highly critical of ourselves and others, and crave organization.
One question Martin suggests we consider is: What would happen if you worked less?
For perfectionists, the allure of being praised for outworking others is elusive. “In addition to our busyness, we miss out on a lot of life’s pleasures because of fear. Our fears can be so deep that we actually convince ourselves that we don’t want to do things rather than tap into the awareness that we’re afraid of failure, embarrassment, criticism, rejection, and not being as good as everyone else,” writes Martin.
Again, Martin asks us to consider what might be different if we began to accept our imperfections. One area where perfectionism can cause the most damage is in our connections with others. She writes, “Frequent and harsh criticism hurts relationships. It doesn’t feel good to be criticized. People will naturally pull away from someone who is always pointing out their flaws and telling them what they are doing wrong.”
Interestingly, demanding parents are not the only root cause of perfectionism. Parents who are overwhelmed with their own traumas or life stressors, or parents who are distracted can also fail to be attuned to a child’s needs, resulting in a child that learns to be perfect simply to get noticed.
Martin also points to social media as a proponent of perfectionism. She writes, “We are spending more and more time watching television and YouTube, surfing the web, and perusing social media. These things all give us a specific image of who we are supposed to be, what we are supposed to look like and what we are supposed to be doing. And that message is: You should be able to do everything, and you should make it look effortless.”
While our fears can seem overwhelming, acknowledging them is the first step to uncovering our underlying beliefs, which can then be challenged. Similarly, we can look for evidence to refute our negative self-criticism and open the door for self-compassion and forgiveness.
One exercise Martin suggests is a time audit, where we not only account for how much time we are spending in busyness, but what might be missing from our lives, such as being mindfully present, enjoying rest and relaxation, sleeping, participating in the things we love and practicing gratitude.
Perfectionism can feel enveloping and, in many ways, addictive. However, underlying the allure of attention and praise is a deep need to find peace, happiness and contentment. Martin’s new book not only provides the understanding necessary to see perfectionism for what it is, but the exercises needed to take active steps toward overcoming it and reclaiming your life in the process.
The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism: Evidence-Based Skills to Help You Let Go of Self-Criticism, Build Self-Esteem & Find Balance
New Harbinger, January 2019
Paperback, 213 pages