“No one is perfect… that’s why pencils have erasers!”

2
May
2011


By Teri Claassen MSW, LCSW

If you heard someone say, “I’m perfect”, you would automatically discount their word. They are lying. It is an impossible goal.

So why are there so many perfectionists in the world? Many people I work with in therapy struggle with this issue, including myself! Our emotional brain says, “Strive for it”, while our logical brain says, “You’ll only fail”. But the emotional brain’s power takes over, and we try over and over again.

Wise Words about Perfectionism

A man would do nothing if he waited until he could do it so well that no one could find fault.  ~John Henry Newman

Once you accept the fact that you’re not perfect, then you develop some confidence.  ~Rosalynn Carte

They say that nobody is perfect.  Then they tell you practice makes perfect.  I wish they’d make up their minds.  ~Wilt Chamberlain

Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.  ~Salvador Dali

Am I a perfectionist?

People often think of a perfectionist as it relates to cleaning, but it has many more common “holds” on other areas of life.

You might be a perfectionist if:

  1. You have trouble not eating everything on your plate.
  2. You push yourself to finish reading until the next bold heading or to the end of the chapter even if you are falling asleep.
  3. Things have a certain spot in the refrigerator and when they are misplaced you feel frustrated.
  4. You have to put all the pillows on the couch before going to bed or leaving things in disarray creates some anxiety.
  5. You have trouble dropping things at a moments notice because what you are doing was not complete.
  6. You avoid trying new things for fear you might not be good at it, or that you’ll look stupid.
  7. You place high expectations on yourself and others. You would rather do everything on your own, because others just don’t do it right.
  8. You have a strong need to be in control.

Traits of a perfectionist

A perfectionist tends to have all or nothing thinking. They strive to do it all, but tend to get overwhelmed and spiral to end up doing nothing. They often struggle with procrastination, negative self talk, and being highly self critical.

“A ‘normal’ perfectionist will set reasonable goals and realistic standards that lead to self satisfaction and enhance self-esteem. A neurotic perfectionist strives for excessively high standards and is motivated by fears of failure and concern about disappointing others. They are never satisfied with their performance” (Laubach, 2010).

Perfectionistic thinkers are highly critical of themselves, but will become defensive if others are critical of them. They get defensive and react when feeling attacked. When this happens, they often criticize the other person in order to bring them down.

It is also common for a perfectionist to be prone to depression. Their expectations are to be perfect, which constantly set them up to fail. But they fear failure, so they actually sabotage themselves to make their fear become a reality. This can easily spiral into depression.

Gordon Flett, a professor and researcher in this field, says these are top signs you are a perfectionist:

  1. You can’t stop thinking about a mistake you made.
  2. You are intensely competitive and can’t stand doing worse than others.
  3. You either want to do something “just right” or not at all.
  4. You demand perfection from other people.
  5. You won’t ask for help if asking can be perceived as a flaw or weakness.
  6. You will persist at a task long after other people have quit.
  7. You are a fault-finder who must correct other people when they are wrong.
  8. You are highly aware of other people’s demands and expectations.
  9. You are very self-conscious about making mistakes in front of other people.

What can I do?

Fighting the perfectionist “monster” is a difficult, but possible task! One of the biggest first steps is to be aware of it. Watch how it takes over your life in the simple ways. The more you know about it, the more you can see it. The more you see it, the better you can change it.

Another important thing to work on as you tackle this issue is your self talk. How would it be to watch the conversation you have with yourself happen between two separate people. You might think you are witnessing abuse and want to stop it! When we realize the talk in our heads is a form of abuse, it helps us soften our approach. Talk to yourself as if you are talking to someone else. This could create the shift you need to deflate the perfectionist’s power.

I always encourage my perfectionist clients to practice “some”. They get so lost in the all or nothing thinking, they forget that “some” is an option. We go over several ways to practice some in their weak areas. This practice gives you permission to not be perfect and helps you be ok with lowering standards of yourself.

Whether you are just realizing you are a perfectionist, or you’ve known for years, it is important to get support from others who can help you through the journey of healing. Whether it is a friend, loved one, pastor, or therapist, know that you might not be able to do it alone.

Admitting your struggle is one of the first steps to recovery- it’s admitting you AREN’T perfect!

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