Perfectionism and How to Overcome It

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woman looking in mirror struggles with perfectionism and anxiety.

We live in a time when perfectionism is flourishing across the human landscape. Far too many people are burdened with the belief called: “I must be perfect.” We might believe that we need to have:

  • The perfect body
  • The perfect weight
  • A perfect diet
  • Perfect health
  • The perfect life

Or perhaps we live with the idea that we just need to be a perfect person who does everything perfectly. 

After all, if we’re perfect, wouldn’t that mean that everyone would love us? Wouldn’t that imply that we can live happily ever after, with no worries and no blemishes on our souls, simply because we have achieved perfection?

Perfectionism is so alluring because it promises us so much. 

And yet, what every perfectionist discovers at some point, is that perfectionism delivers so little. Not only does it fail to make us happy in any way, perfectionism actually keeps us locked into a state of constant tension.

In this article, I’ll talk about:

  • What perfectionism is
  • Where perfectionism comes from
  • Why perfectionism is toxic
  • The steps we can take to overcome perfectionism…

Let’s dive in…

What is Perfectionism?

Perfectionism is the belief that we can be a human being who is without fault. It’s a way of thinking that convinces us that we can exist without any blemishes, that we can do everything “right,” and that we can eliminate all shortcomings.

Consider perfectionism as a system of false beliefs.

It’s an inaccurate perception of the world, and of how life works.

When we adopt the perfectionist mindset, we are secretly hoping to transcend all of our unhappy and unwanted emotions. After all, if we’re perfect, we wouldn’t be feeling anything that would make us uncomfortable. 

Our mind falsely believes that when a state of perfection is reached, we can be the ultimate winner. No one can argue with us. No one can think ill of us. And we can live in a state where we are beyond all criticism simply because nobody in their right mind would criticize something or someone who is perfect.

Perfection promises us that we’ll be safe, and protected against all judgment.

This is especially attractive because we live in a world where judgment and criticism are so often out of control. We judge our body. Its shape. Its weight. Its specific parts. We judge our sexuality. Our looks. Our lovability. 

And all of that judgment is exhausting.

Here’s the thing:

To be a human being inherently means we are beautifully imperfect.

Life doesn’t instantly conform to our demands and desires. We make mistakes. We have our strengths and weaknesses. Our shortcomings. Our human flaws. Our challenges. None of us can get through life without struggle, without loss, and without learning some hard lessons. That’s just how life has been here on planet Earth, since forever.  

The world we live in, as you know, is anything but perfect.

And for good reason, we don’t like that. 

We don’t want to live in a world that has pain, suffering, abuse, injustice, unfairness, emotional hurt, disease, and death. We naturally and understandably want a world that makes us feel good in every way.

Perfectionism is the belief that if we just do things right, if we follow the right diet, sculpt the right body, please the right people, and if we just be the ideal person, then we can finally live happily ever after…

We can be saved from being human.

But as every perfectionist has experienced, we can never truly find perfection, or stay there for very long.

If you think perfectionism may be driving your eating habits or body image challenges, you may want to take a look at our online program, The Emotional Eating Breakthrough, to learn how to bring more peace and harmony to your relationship with food.

What Causes Perfectionism?

It’s perfectly reasonable to ask, where does perfectionism come from? Who started it all?

In many ways, perfectionism is woven into the human experience. It’s a timeless companion that has perhaps been around for endless generations. 

In the story of Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden was an idyllic place. It was perfect. No disease, no death, all the animals got along, and everybody was happy.

Then things went south. Adam and Eve behaved badly. And the result was no more perfection.

In many ways, perfectionism is a promise that we can return to the original garden, to an idyllic state where there is absolutely nothing to worry about.

The deeper truth is, our soul longs for a sense of wholeness.

We want to feel as if life is a safe place for us. We want people to love us. We want approval. We want to feel that we are doing things the right way.

For these reasons, perfectionism is an outgrowth of how the child within us thinks and operates. 

Children want to be loved and to feel safe. They want the adults in their world to approve of them. They want to be seen as worthy. This is a very sweet and innocent part of our human experience.

The challenge is though, we can bring this childhood need for ultimate approval and love into our adult life. And the result is that:

  • We can become people-pleasers.
  • We can be obsessed with having the perfect body or diet.
  • We can be fixated on having perfect health.
  • We can be focused on never ever making a mistake.
  • We can hold others to impossibly high standards – we expect them to adhere to our version of how they should be perfect.

Once again, the strategies of the perfectionist within us are driven by our childlike, innocent need for ultimate safety and approval.

Hidden within perfectionism is the beautiful desire to be loved and safe.

I think this is important to note because having an active perfectionist in you doesn’t mean there’s something “wrong” with you. It’s an indication that you have a deeper and sweeter human desire.

But before we can let go of perfectionism and reach for that deeper desire in a more effective way, let’s take a look at the downside of the perfectionist mindset.

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Why is Perfectionism Harmful?

Allow me to get right to the point of why the constant practice of perfectionism is so toxic to the human soul:

Always around the corner from perfectionism is self-abuse.

Show me a person who’s trying to be perfect – following the perfect diet, weighing the perfect amount, being the perfect son or daughter – and I’ll show you someone who will soon be steeped in self-abuse.

When we can’t follow our perfect diet perfectly, we often punish ourselves by eating even more food, or worse food. 

When we lose a pound, we love ourselves, but when we gain a pound, we will often punish ourselves with harsh words. 

When we do well, we reward ourselves. But when we feel we have underperformed, we can self-attack in the most unkind manner.

This is the dark side of perfectionism.

But there’s more.

Perfectionism is secretly competitive. 

We will often compare ourselves to others – who they are, how much money they have, what they weigh, how beautiful they are, or how glamorous they appear on social media. Life becomes a competition, and we so dearly want to be the winner.

What’s fascinating is that many people who express their perfectionism by creating their ideal body or weight actually achieve their goals and get the body they want, but still find themselves unhappy. They want to look perfect so others approve of them and desire them, and yet, they can’t enjoy the benefits of all their dieting and exercise.

That’s because perfectionism tends to take us out of our body and into our head.

We are in our head when we constantly worry about gaining the weight back, or straying from our diet. When we’re in a state of worry, we’re not so connected to our body, which means we’re experiencing far less pleasure.

If you have a perfectionist voice active within you, then you know that you always come up short. You’re never truly satisfied by the promises that perfection whispers in your ear. But even when we realize that perfectionism is a dead end, it can be so difficult to let go of the perfectionist mindset.

But there’s certainly a way through…

How To Overcome Perfectionism 

When perfectionism is present in your life, then consider it as a sign that it’s time to come down to Earth.

It’s time to get in line with how life truly works.

It’s time to liberate yourself from a false belief system that has never given you any lasting benefit.

On the other side of perfectionism lives the you that is beautifully imperfect, sweetly human, fallible, and is forever on a journey of learning and growth. 

On the other side of perfectionism is a more gentle experience of life where you don’t need to punish yourself or attack yourself for not being perfect.

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Ever wondered why it's so hard to eat what you know you "should" eat?

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With that in mind, here’s a 7-step process to liberating yourself from perfectionism:

#1: Realize that you’re tired of trying to be perfect.

We don’t tend to change until we notice that we’re done with the old way, and ready for a new way. Acknowledge to yourself that trying to be perfect has led to self-attack and self-harm. 

Affirm that perfectionism is a false belief system. Fully own that perfectionism simply has not worked for you no matter how hard you’ve tried. 

Make a list of all the ways that perfectionism has led to unhappiness in your life. Look at that list in an honest and sober way. Be clear that a change is being called for in your life. 

#2: Affirm that you’re a beautifully imperfect human.

If you want to let go of perfectionism, of a belief system that does not work, then it’s necessary to adopt a new and improved set of beliefs to replace perfectionism. 

So here’s your new belief: 

“I am a beautifully imperfect human being.” 

Remind yourself of this simple truth every single time you notice yourself thinking perfectionist thoughts or taking perfectionist actions. Acknowledge to yourself that life is messy, and it’s anything but perfect. Agree to join the rest of humanity by being imperfect. 

By making this an ongoing practice, you are affirming to yourself that there is a more gentle and accurate way to live your life. 

#3: Trust that you won’t die if you don’t do things perfectly.

For those who get caught in perfectionism, one of the underlying and irrational fears that drive this mindset is that we simply will not survive unless we are perfect. 

We believe that our life depends on our every action being perfect. 

So when we go off of our diet, make any kind of mistake, or gain a pound, we catastrophize. We imagine the worst possible outcomes will befall us because we have deviated from perfection. 

Every time you find yourself not being perfect, your job is to remind yourself that you’re not going to die. It’s okay. This is all about practicing bringing down your “stress temperature” around being perfect.

#4: Acknowledge that underneath perfectionism is the desire to feel loved and safe.

It’s important to be clear that just because you struggle with perfectionism, it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. It’s not a sign that you’re broken or defective. 

The deeper truth of our quest to be perfect is this: 

At the root of perfectionism is a secret desire to feel loved, and to feel safe. 

We think that being perfect will ensure our lovability and guarantee that all will be fine in our life. And the result is that we look for love and safety in all the wrong places. 

Affirm to yourself that you can be lovable without being perfect. Know that this is the deeper truth of what we want most as human beings.

#5: See perfectionism as a voice, a persona, an archetype.

Think of perfectionism as one of your many “multiple personalities.” It’s a voice inside of you, it’s an archetype. I’m using these terms interchangeably. 

When the perfectionist personality within us takes over, that’s our cue to take notice, to be aware, and to literally dialogue with that voice and let it know that it’s a perfectly understandable part of us, but it won’t be running the show. You won’t be letting it drive your behaviors and color your emotions. 

Instead, you do the following: 

#6: Call your wise adult to course-correct your perfectionist persona.

Standing in contrast to the perfectionist within us is a voice or archetype that we can call “The Good Parent.” 

The Good Parent is the part of us who loves and accepts us for who we are. Who always stands by our side. Who accepts us unconditionally and does not need us to be perfect. 

The Good Parent helps us feel safe, gives us unconditional love, doesn’t judge us, sees our vulnerability, understands that we just want to feel loved and safe, and talks to us in a soothing way. 

So whenever you notice the perfectionist in you taking over, your job is to call in, to invoke the Good Parent voice. Let this personality within you speak its wisdom and drive your choices.

#7: Make letting go of perfectionism a gentle practice.

See the process of letting go of perfectionism as an ongoing practice. Be patient. Be kind. Be gentle and compassionate with yourself. 

These are the very qualities that perfectionism doesn’t like and cannot flourish in. 

Don’t feel like you need to be perfect at letting go of perfectionism. Think of the perfectionist personality within you as part of your inner committee. It may be there for the rest of your life. You simply remind yourself that it doesn’t need to sit at the head of your board of directors and run the show.

I hope this conversation has been helpful for you.

To learn more about the perfectionist archetype and other archetypes within you that can drive your relationship with food, body and life, take a look at our free mini-course, The 8 Eating Archetypes.

woman looking in mirror struggles with perfectionism and anxiety.

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