Perfectionism is the refusal to accept any standard short of perfection. And although we are all human, subject to human faults and missteps, many of us still strive for this ideal.
Of course, striving to do our best and look our best is generally a good thing, it becomes a something much darker if we feel like a failure when we fall short of our ideal. Unfortunately, perfectionism is on the rise, exacerbated by a celebrity-driven culture that worships beauty and perfection.
Dr. Jane Bluestein, internationally renowned speaker and repeat guest expert on numerous talk-shows, shares the vast research she has done on perfectionism in her new book, The Perfection Deception: Why Trying to Be Perfect Is Sabotaging Your Relationships, Making You Sick, and Holding Your Happiness Hostage, a review copy of which I recently received. Impressed by what I saw, I invited Dr. Bluestein to answer a few questions and to be a guest on The C.A.P. Podcast. Her episode will post next month.
Carma Spence: At the beginning of the book you mention that you had several people asking you, “What’s wrong with perfectionism?” How did you answer them?
Dr. Jane Bluestein: Well, it actually took most of the book to answer that question! The shortest possible answer compares perfectionism (and the need to pull off a certain image or avoid anticipated negative reactions to making mistakes) with the healthy pursuit of excellence. I’m actually quite a big fan of accuracy, precision, and doing the best we can do. As an educator, I also know that our best efforts can always be improved upon, and that growth and learning involves imperfect steps along the way.
CS: How can you tell the difference between unhealthy perfectionism and the healthy pursuit of excellence?JB: This is where it gets tricky, because perfectionism can look a lot like the healthier version of trying to do our best. But “healthy striving” does not usually involve trying to prove ourselves or our worth, and it wouldn’t be likely to be used as a way of avoiding feelings or dealing with the real issues in our lives. Not only that, but my perfectionism may look very different from how it shows up in someone else.
I tend to cross the line when I’m overcommitting or overcorrecting, or when I actually think I can accomplish a to-do list that would reasonably take weeks to finish. For other people, it may demand plastic surgery or self-starvation to get their body to look a certain way, a failure to start a project (or finish one), not letting their kids have friends over because it will mess up the house, or, say not being able to work if there is one stray paper clip on their desk.
CS: You mention in your book the impact of the media, saying that “the media may be the easiest to target, but it is also the hardest to ignore.” Does that mean the media causes perfectionism?
JB: No, I wouldn’t blame the media for perfectionism. The images and values that confront us in the media (and especially advertising) do, however, encourage the pursuit of certain ideals that are not especially realistic for most people. We are barraged with messages about who we are supposed to be, how we’re supposed to look, what our lives are supposed to look like. I don’t think that’s likely to change.
My main concern was about what makes us vulnerable to these messages, to feeling like we’re inadequate if we don’t drive a certain car, wear a certain brand — not to mention size — make a certain income, or live up to standards that really are not appropriate for who we really are.
CS: Why do you think fear is such a big component of perfectionism?
JB: I was a bit surprised how often that word came up in the research and interviews I did while I was working on this book. The whole idea of needing to be (or appear) perfect is almost always linked to some kind of fear, whether we’re talking about a fear of failure, rejection, intimacy, or abandonment, or a perceived risk to our job or financial security or social status. What fascinated me was how much these fears can cost us in terms of our physical and mental health, and in some instances, financially as well.
CS: It seems to me that the seeds of perfectionism come from our earliest childhood experiences. Is this true?
JB: A few of the resources I used mentioned a biological, inborn personality trait that would make us more hard-wired for perfectionistic tendencies. However, each of these resources also acknowledged the impact of the environment and experiences, especially when we’re very young. Infants and young children who are not getting the responses they need from the adults in their lives, including very basic needs for food, safety, or attention, will do everything in their power to get these needs met.
Unfortunately, a lot of parents, including well-intentioned adults, have other issues and stress they’re dealing with and aren’t always there for their kids the way their kids need them to be. So the children develop a repertoire of coping mechanisms, which often includes trying to be good enough, or trying to keep the parents happy enough (to avoid the parents getting angry, for example), trying to control a lot of factors that are not within their ability or responsibility to manage. This can also happen with parents who are a little too over-attached or smothering.
Either way, if we’re not getting the responses we need from the people on whom we depend, it’s easy to start believing that there must be something wrong with us.
CS: How can parents encourage their kids without encouraging perfectionism?
JB: It’s all about responses — to achievements and mistakes. If we express anger, impatience, or even disappointment whenever kids make mistakes, it’s easy for kids to develop a false sense of their ability to influence and control how people feel. The same is true when we connect kids’ achievements to our happiness. I’d like to see kids making choices for some outcome besides how-other-people-will-react. (Look at the connection to the power of peer pressure here.) Kids’ mistakes are great opportunities for helping them learn how to make better decisions next time.
If we can shift from labeling kids as “good” or “smart” to focusing on their efforts and progress, we don’t tie up their value with their performance. Likewise, if we can describe what kids have done and connect their choices to some meaningful positive outcomes of their efforts, kids start to see the power they have to influence and change their lives when something isn’t working for them. Let’s just quit telling kids that they’re good or worthwhile or that they make us happy when they do good things, and respond to failures and mistakes simply as steps along the way to learning.
CS: What would you say is the biggest problem perfectionists face?
JB: Well, clearly there are quite a few, but I think that most of the problems start with a tendency toward all-or-nothing thinking. That’s where we get the idea that mistakes equal failures, where one cookie leads to a binge, where not being at the top of our class tempts us to drop out, procrastinate, or assume we are at the bottom of the heap, even if we’re only in second place. It’s what drives us to “get it right” and what inspires us to just give up when we can’t. It’s the “always” or “never” statements we make about our worth or our abilities. It’s incredibly disabling and it’s so much a part of our culture that we don’t even realize how often we reduce a person to some superficial, 2-dimensional tagline that we nevertheless accept as real.
CS: How can you tell if you’re suffering from perfectionism?
JB: I’d probably start by looking at my intentions: Am I doing something to satisfy curiosity or a particular passion, or am I’m doing it to look good, get approval, gain self-worth, or avoid negative reactions from others? There’s a big difference in motivation. If I’m interested in growth — learning, improving, or producing, trying to get ahead of where I was when I started — then I’m not quite so worried about getting it right, especially in the beginning.
I’d also want to look at the cost against whatever benefit I’m seeking. Is it worth the stress, pain, health risks to rewrite a paper a dozen times, starve or carve myself to fit into some random cultural ideal of beauty, meet an unrealistic deadline, or say, choose a career or mate based on pressure to get conditional approval or acceptance from some person or group that’s important to me? I guess the bottom line is: is this right for me?
CS: Can you cure perfectionism?
JB: Rather than looking for a cure — which, frankly, feels like a rather all-or-nothing approach to healing perfectionism — I think it might make more sense to look at ways we can recognize our inclinations and perhaps get to a point where they aren’t running our lives. I also think that it may be easier to understand this disorder on an intellectual level than it is to actually heal the parts of ourselves deep down that created these tendencies in the first place.
Yes, we need to deal with the anxiety and stress and depression, but if we don’t look at the belief system that says “I’m not good enough unless (or until)…” then we’re really only dealing with a surface piece of what could be a challenging and recovery process, one that could take some time to get through. I would not recommend looking for a quick fix for dealing with these issues.
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