What stops you from writing or creating with wild abandon?
What holds you back from going for it as a brave leader?
What prevents you from going after your most wild inner longings?
Likely, your answer is fear.
Fear of failure. Fear of rejection. Fear of making a mistake.
And I would clarify that behind that fear is something else: Perfectionism.
Every single one of my private coaching clients who are trying to uplevel in their life, business or career has struggled with some form of perfectionism.
And this is one obstacle I know that prevents so many creatives, entrepreneurs and changemakers from living and leading more boldly so that we can show up more visibly and confidently in this world and make a difference.
I would absolutely call myself, at this point, a healing perfectionist. I am not yet in full recovery as I still struggle to lay down my perfectionistic tendencies in some parts of my life. But I am absolutely on track to care less about just about everything very soon. And, I’m learning to live a Brave Yes Life despite of my own perfectionism.
But, first, let’s talk about what perfectionism is — and isn’t.
Listen to this episode now or keep reading below.
The politics of perfectionism?
Last week, I talked about the politics of overworking and overdoing as part of my series called The Politics of Languishing, a multi-article look into the reason women have been languishing between survival mode and thriving for years.
Now, I want to talk about overworking’s very close cousin — perfectionism.
Nearly every woman I talk to says, proudly, she’s a perfectionist.
That’s not surprising. Calling ourselves perfectionists has become a bit of a self-indulgent way to describe one’s self.
However, being a perfectionist can be dangerous and unhealthy.
But first, let’s dive into how we became so obsessed with perfectionism.
My own love-hate with the Internet and social media began in 2016 because of the pressure of perfectionism.
Prior to 2016, I loved social media and the beautiful connections it brought into my life. I used Facebook and Instagram avidly.
Until I no longer felt like I could keep up with the image of it all — or just refused to keep up with it all.
To this day, I adore my computer friends — coaches, business owners, writers, creatives, makers, changemakers around the world who I connect with and feel on the same page with even if we’ll never — or rarely — ever meet in person.
But at some point over the last decade, though, real life got snatched up by perfect idealism and what we see online now is a level of perfectionism that is nearly impossible to attain, and yet attractive enough to keep women striving for it all.
And this leaves you feeling as if you are not enough.
When algorithms began rewarding beautiful lifestyle influencer culture and that took over and began to flood the airwaves, one thing was clear: I would not be able to keep up with the gorgeous-at-all-times aesthetic and elegant behind-the-scenes of the online world.
I just wasn’t into that sort of thing. And so I haven’t put much energy into social media as a result — until recently when I re-joined Instagram with a whole new intention.
I care about people — especially empowering women and girls. I don’t care what your rooms look like. I care what your inner landscape FEELS like.
And I can tell you that from my own understanding of human beings, from my own research and awareness, I can, without a doubt, declare that most women feel exhausted from all the striving they are doing to keep up.
And so today’s installment of The Politics of Languishing is diving into the power and influence that perfectionism has over us and how it’s truly exhausting us, possibly more than all that hard work we’ve been doing to keep up.
Not only are women working longer and longer hours — either in the home, at work or in their business — to keep up, but they are also striving endlessly to live a life of perfection.
If it’s true that women have been languishing for years, and overworking and overdoing is contributing to that feeling of emptiness, then it’s also important that we recognize and become fully aware of the pressure that perfectionism is adding into our everyday lives.
What is Destructive Perfectionism and Why Does it Haunt Us So?
We can argue that striving for perfection is not a new struggle for women. Just think back to June Cleaver in Leave it to Beaver. Women wanted to be June, the archetypical suburban white mom that was held up as the ideal woman.
And so the idea of perfectionism isn’t new but it has evolved and even gotten more and more out of hand.
Paul Hewitt, author of Perfectionism: A Relational Approach to Conceptualization, Assessment and Treatment, said in a recent interview on perfectionism as a mental health issue that “Perfectionism is a broad personality style characterized by a hypercritical relationship with one’s self.
“Setting high standards and aiming for excellence can be positive traits, but perfectionism is dysfunctional because it’s underscored by a person’s sense of themselves as permanently flawed or defective.” PAUL HEWITT
Tanya Geisler, a coach and expert in the Imposter Complex, says that perfectionism is a common behavior for imposter complex.
“We are constantly bombarded with images of what perfect looks like — even if it is mostly completely unattainable — and we internalize it from a young age,” she wrote in her post on overcoming imposter complex.
Perfectionism and the Patriarchy: The Root Cause of Perfectionism in Our Society
Perfectionism is deeply rooted in both the patriarchal — a system that favors men — and white supremacy culture — the system that favors white people.
Sociologist and gender (in)equality researcher Sylvia Walby defines patriarchy as “a system of social structures and practices in which men dominate, oppress, and exploit women”
And so how does perfectionism and patriarchal systems connect?
Women are constantly trying to strive to keep up. We do this through all behaviors that result in being perfect … showing up on time, how we dress and look, going above and beyond to stand out and make an impression, people pleasing and being extra kind so we’re taken more seriously.
All this efforting we’re doing day in and day out in order to be perfect is actualy intended to keep us feeling safe and comfortable. We don’t want to be rejected. We don’t want to be outcasts. We don’t want to miss out. We don’t want to look like imposters.
And so we strive all day and all night to keep up the appearance that have our act together and nothing is wrong.
And all that striving to look good and look joyful and look smart and look like our homes are ideal and our families are happy is absolutely exhausting.
Ah, but that’s not all.
There’s another power system at play in our perfectionistic standards as well — one that I believe is a huge problem we must address — and that’s how perfectionism and racism are tied together.
According to Showing Up for Racial Justice, white supremacy culture is upheld through perfectionism characteristics such as the following:
- little appreciation expressed among people for the work that others are doing; appreciation that is expressed usually directed to those who get most of the credit anyway
- more common is to point out either how the person or work is inadequate
- or even more common, to talk to others about the inadequacies of a person or their work without ever talking directly to them
- mistakes are seen as personal, i.e. they reflect badly on the person making them as opposed to being seen for what they are — mistakes
- making a mistake is confused with being a mistake, doing wrong with being wrong
- little time, energy, or money put into reflection or identifying lessons learned that can improve practice, in other words little or no learning from mistakes
- tendency to identify what ís wrong; little ability to identify, name, and appreciate what ís right
Destructive Perfectionism and the Negative Impact it’s Having on Your Mind, Body and Spirit
First, let me say that this article and this perspective is written by me and from my own research and experience as a white woman. It is rooted in my white privilege. It is rooted in my experience as a woman who grew up in a rural community and worked hard to live a very stereotypical life.
And, it’s also rooted in the work I do as a coach for creatives, entrepreneurs and changemakers who struggle with shedding perfectionism so they can live a more purpose-driven, impactful life of ease and joy.
We know that perfectionism is causing extreme exhaustion and a feeling of not enough. All we have to do is ask any working parents we see how they are doing right now.
It’s also possible that perfectionism is creating an enormous amount of stress and displeasure in our lives because we can’t possibly ever actually achieve the level of perfect we are striving for but we keep trying anyway.
And it could possibly be killing us, as well.
“The rise in perfectionism is especially troubling because it has been linked to an array of mental health issues — a meta-analysis of 284 studies found that high levels of perfectionism were correlated with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, deliberate self-harm and obsessive-compulsive disorder. The constant stress of striving to be perfect can also leave people fatigued, stressed and suffering from headaches and insomnia,” according to a well-researched article on Vox connecting mental health and perfectionism.
And, sadly, perfectionism is on the rise.
In that same article, the authors talked about a study on the prevalence of perfectionism that found an increase in the number of people struggling with perfectionism. In 1989, about nine percent of respondents posted high scores in socially prescribed perfectionism, but by the end of the study, that had doubled to about 18 percent.
“On average, young people are more perfectionistic than they used to be,” Andrew Hill of the University of Bath said in the Vox article, and “the belief that other people expect you to be perfect has increased the most.”
All of that destruction that perfectionism is doing is a concern because it’s been found that high levels of perfectionism can be linked to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, deliberate self-harm and obsessive, compulsive disorder.
It can also contribute to exhaustion, stress, headaches and insomnia.
Proving Ourselves in a Growing List of Perfect Life Domains
When June Cleaver was all that we aspired to be, we simply needed to have a nice home, nice clothing and a perfect family.
If June was still our role model, she would also also be volunteering as the PTO president, working a second or possibly a third job and putting up aesthetic pictures of her life on Instagram to prove her worth and her joy and trying to construct the perfect photo gallery wall of her perfect family life.
The truth is that there is much more rubble of perfectionism to climb out of as modern women.
Our domains to strive in and be perfect in have expanded immensely. It’s no longer about just how we look and our family life.
Here are just some of the perfect life domains I see my friends and colleagues struggling with as well as new clients of mine when they first come to work with me:
- The Perfect Body
- The Perfect Home
- The Perfect Self-Care
- The Perfect Family
- The Perfect Career
- The Perfect Vacation
- The Perfect Workspace
- The Perfect Image
- The Perfect Activist
- The Perfect Cook
- The Perfect Social Media Account
- The Perfect Reading Stack
- The Perfect Planner Pages
- The Perfect Bullet Journal Page
- The Perfect Meal
- The Perfect Plant Wall
- The Perfect Child
What happens when we see only visual images of perfection day in and day out, we don’t realize how those images seep into our brain and replace whatever enough was for us. And it begins a vicious cycle of not enough. In fact, all of this constant striving for perfectionism is so exhausting that even influencers are burning out.
And then there is the perfectionism of White Supremacy that is exhausting Black women who are tired of feeling like they need to be “Twice as Good” as white women and are realizing they need to unlearn perfect as a way of life.
I am concerned that the mental health issues we are seeing today are just as much about perfectionism as they are about our generation’s inability to unplug, slow down and rest. We are so caught up in the patriarchal system of overworking and overdoing of the past that we’re exhausting ourselves and being more ineffective as a result.
All this proving ourselves is causing more harm than good. The women who come to me for coaching tell me they are burned out, they are exhausted, they want to make a difference but the truth is they can barely find the energy to shower and do their work.
And I wonder if all that proving themselves is what’s more of their issue than they know.
Until we get under the hood of what is driving your perfectionism, it’s hard to tell.
A client of mine who has trouble relaxing recently told me about a quote she read that resonated with her and encouraged her to stop trying to hard to do everything so perfectly.
“If you have something to prove, you are still a prisoner,” by Edith Eger Edith who survived imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp. Her parents were murdered her first day there.
What’s Healthy Perfectionism and What’s Unhealthy?
Not all perfectionism is destructive.
But when it is we need to pay attention.
Just this week, I let myself off the hook to publish this piece on a Tuesday rather than a Monday, since Monday was a holiday here in the United States.
My brain was yelling at me and telling me that I am supposed to publish on a Monday. I must publish on a Monday. To do so, though, would have required taking time away from family and working on the weekend.
The voices in my head kept shouting: You can’t fail. They will reject you. You can’t let people down. You can’t possibly do something that isn’t what you said.
Well, I published on Tuesday, not Monday. And everyone survived.
And, quite frankly, no one cared, either.
Part of my identity is wrapped up in doing — and doing exceedingly well. In fact, one of my top strengths is having an appreciation of beauty and excellence.
I always strive for excellence but sometimes that can mean I stumble through and get stopped by perfectionism.
And so, as part of my own healing from this awful pressure that we put ourselves through, I’m learning to strive for excellence without expecting perfect, which means I focus on giving perfect effort not perfect results.
It means I am finishing things even if they aren’t how I envisioned them finished.
It means I’m choosing Radical Rest even when I know I could be perfecting something a little bit more — like this blog post.
When we strive for excellence, we are striving to do OUR best, which may not be perfect, but we can let go of what others are going to think of us in the process.
Like Toxic Productivity, which I discussed in the first piece in this series, toxic perfectionism shows up when we lean too far into the extremes and operate in an all-or-nothing mindset. Toxic perfectionism operates under the mindset that if it can’t be done perfectly it should not get done. Toxic perfectionism can also result in a diminished sense of self-worth if you tie perfectionistic outcomes to your inner worth.
The truth is that my own perfectionism runs toxic in only one area of my life — and that’s my creative output and my work.
My house is far from perfect. Same for my fashion sense. Even my hair, I’d argue, is never perfect. I am OK with imperfect children, though they would argue otherwise, and I’m OK with imperfect social media accounts.
But my creative work and coaching … that’s another situation entirely. In the past, if I didn’t think a project would turn out perfect, I would quit. Or, I’d easily let a mistake ruin my day or cause a dip into my own enoughness. And when something doesn’t turn out well, I beat myself up about it relentlessly.
This is my growth area.
Healthy perfectionism — which I prefer to say striving toward excellence rather than perfection — can be a very good thing for our lives.
Healthy perfectionism shows up in characteristics such as:
- Setting meaningful, powerful goals and sticking to them
- Trying new things and being OK if you fail
- Using curiosity to solve problems
- Being OK with trial and error
- Feeling satisfied with your efforts
- Finishing things even if they aren’t how you envisioned them
A Simple Yet Powerful Way to Start to Heal Your Perfectionism
My clients are high achievers. As creatives, entrepreneurs and changemakers they want to do big things. Epic things. Everyday #BraveYes things that make an impact and a difference in their families and communities.
And they want ease and to enjoy this one life.
And, almost always, they hire me to help them because they are afraid.
Afraid of failing, of not getting it right, of messing up and much more. They are afraid of change. Afraid of doing it all alone. Afraid of not following through.
This is why I work with my clients on unearthing their best selves from the rubble of perfectionism, overworking and many other invisible obstacles so they can carve out new stories around what it means to have unshakeable resilience — so that when you do big, scary, life-changing things you don’t quit too early or give u entirely.
Part of that work we do is on creating a new story around making mistakes.
In their book, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Code, Emily and Amelia Nagoski wrote about the Mad Woman in the Attic, a reference to the book Jane Eyre.
I resonated with this metaphor very much as a Jane Eyre fan. In the book Jane Eyre, there is a wife in the attic who is not mentally well.
The authors of Burnout use this metaphor to talk about the inner critic that is hiding within all of us and they ask us to name it and visualize it so it’s not just some vague powerful bully hanging over us.
This is a similar exercise I use with my clients who are trapped under the rubble of extreme perfectionism. We work to identify your inner taskmaster that is influencing you to overwork, overdo and over-perfect everything so you can actually finish things, rest and take it easy on yourself. The goal is to make an impact with your art, work or leadership and stop getting in your own way.
And, honestly, it’s helpful for all of us because we all have an inner critic that is controlling us and it’s vital to know who she — or he — is so that we can address her fears and worries to bring a sense of comfort.
Sometimes we have multiple inner critics and it takes time to unearth them all. It’s important to keep getting to know this part of you to experience wholeness.
The Freedom to Be Whole AND Imperfectly Perfect
In my coaching work with creative visionaries who want to see their goals through to the finish line, I am focused on helping my clients feel and experience wholeness — where all your many parts can come together and align.
For me, when I feel whole, I feel free.
Wholeness requires that we let go of perfectionism. Wholeness demands access to all of our messiest, insecure parts. After all, it’s all of our many parts that make us, us.
Without my chaos and my overwhelmed brain and my empath ways, I am not me.
Just like without my intense spiritual gifts and strategic visioning skills, I am not me.
At dinner the other night, my husband and I were talking about the most free people we can think of in this lifetime.
I told him I think Jim Carrey is a free man. He can say what he wants. Do what he wants. He has no worries about what others think of him.
I idolize people like Jim Carrey, Pink, Madonna, and others who have no filter, that are willing to take life and career risks that pull no punches.
But not all of us are going to be the loud, dancing when everyone is looking kind of person.
Some of us are about quiet power.
Some of us are doing brave things without notice.
As an introvert, I believe in everyday Brave Yeses that aren’t going to make a big splash but will make a big impact.
And I continue to strive to be fully free like that though I have a long way to go.
So for this interest on this article, I researched it, and sure enough Jim Carrey is actually a perfectionist — as most of us are.
But that’s the thing. He’s risen above his perfectionism not for himself — but for others.
“My father used to brag that I wasn’t a ham — I was the whole pig. And he treated my talent as if it was his second chance. When I was about 28, after a decade as a professional comedian, I realized one night in LA that the purpose of my life had always been to free people from concern, like my dad. When I realized this, I dubbed my new devotion, “The Church of Freedom From Concern” — “The Church of FFC”— and I dedicated myself to that ministry,” he said in his commencement speech at Maharishi University of Management, May 24th, 2014.
We must trust each other to try and fail at things.
We must be willing to admit that we attempted the new or the impossible and it didn’t go as we had hoped and that’s OK.
We must be willing to let imperfect be perfectly OK.
We must be OK with yards with dandelions in the grass. Those weeds turn into seeds that spread wishes and dreams.
Only then can we ALL be free.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Shawn Fink is the host and founder of The Brave Yes Show. She is a coach that helps women dig out from the rubble of fear, shoulds and expectations in order to create, lead, live and love more courageously. Join her email list below.