The idea that if I work hard and get everything just right, then there will be no conflict, no error, no problems- this comes up again and again with my clients. I’ll be honest, this comes up for me all the time in my personal life. It used to be a thought that I believed and put a ton of effort into. Now it’s a thought that I notice and reject.
Why? Because perfection doesn’t exist.
Not only does it not exist, its actually harmful.
Many of my clients feel trapped by the idea of perfection, as if they can’t take action until everything is just so. Others find their time and energy sucked away by a constant pursuit of an unattainable goal, leaving them feeling disappointed, unworthy, and upset with themselves.
- A way of avoiding conflict
- An attempt to create control
- A dysfunctional chase
- A compulsion
Perfectionism is painful. It can also be very defeating, leading to thoughts like “ Well if I can’t get it just right, what’s the point?”.
So how do we work with perfectionism in therapy? First of all, perfectionism isn’t a diagnosis. It’s not a mental illness, it’s not the main focus of treatment. Rather, it is a mindset that can be a part of many different presentations. Part of what we do is examine perfectionism for its true goal- what is this urge to be perfect trying to protect you from? Where did this idea and concept of “perfect” come from, and why is it important to you? Perfectionism often leads to distortions like black and white thinking ( that example I gave above, the idea of “ I get it right or I give up”, is black and white thinking, also called all or nothing thinking). This is problematic because it doesn’t allow for learning from our mistakes and building toward mastery. It doesn’t entertain the idea of progress, or of setbacks being an important part of growth, or take a moment to consider all the very understandable reasons why something may not have worked exactly the way you hoped.
Perfectionism also often doesn’t allow for self-compassion and self-nurturing. It’s harsh. It leads to negative self talk and thoughts of failure and self-disdain. Humans don’t thrive this way. Humans thrive with unconditional support and nurturing. Even from ourselves.
I work with clients to grow out of black and white thinking and into a more flexible, mastery-oriented mindset. This means understanding and accepting that progress isn’t linear, that mistakes are to be expected and learned from. It means tons and tons of practice rejecting self-critical thoughts and reframing them to be self-compassionate. We work to shift away from the thought that something has to be perfect to framing targets in terms of “ my best effort” or even “ plenty good enough” because, let’s face it, there are SO many things in life ( lunch, your hair today, that pass/ fail homework assignment, your last workout…) that absolutely don’t need to really be your best.
Letting go of the idea of perfect is so, so freeing.
If you’re struggling with perfectionism, my hope is that you are able to find freedom.