You may have heard a friend or even yourself say, "I am a perfectionist.” It is even a common answer to the job interview question, "what is your greatest weakness?" However, what really defines perfectionism? What is it really about? Researchers state that perfectionism can be both adaptive and maladaptive. The difference may lie in whether there is a personal desire to excel and have high standards or a desire to be perfect. The mere fact that being perfect is unattainable and does not exist makes its pursuit unfulfilling. The desire to be perfect can become obsessive because there is an erroneous belief that we can affect others perceptions and doing so will bring us happiness. Thus failing to meet the unrealistic standard of perfection may generate stress.
It seems that considering the reasons and precursors of perfectionism can help understand its function in the human mind. The interpersonal needs fulfilled by perfectionist behavior can range from feeling accepted and belonging with others. Sociologist Dr. Brene Brown defines perfectionism as, "a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: “If I look perfect, live perfectly, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame (Brown, 2010). " According to her research, people protect themselves from feeling emotionally hurt by striving to be perfect.
Feeling scared, shamed, judged and blamed are normal emotional responses that are part of the human experience. However, when we try to be or act perfect there is an increased chance we will feel these emotions even more. Mainly because perfectionist thinking often leads to self-blame and a faulty belief that we are being judged, shamed, or blamed because we are failing and are not good enough (Brown, 2010). Often people will have a difficulty admitting the pain associated with being judged, blamed or shamed but feel comfortable stating that they are a perfectionist. There is a difference between trying to be our best selves for positive reasons and being perfectionist in order to avoid feeling hurt. In order to overcome perfectionism and create deeper connections with others we should practice acknowledging our authenticity and vulnerabilities to the universal experiences of shame judgment, and blame (Brown, 2010). Developing shame resilience and practicing self-compassion canbetter motivates us to be our best selves.
Ernestina Perez, LPC
Brown, B. (2010). The gifts of imperfection: Let go of who you think you're supposed to be and embrace who you are.