Hi, my name is Scott and I’m a perfectionist.
What Perfectionism Feels Like
I’m the kind of person who notices what’s wrong more than what’s right. I obsess over one mistake rather than celebrating the many things I did well. I get hung up on how I broke a promise to a friend long after they’ve forgiven me and moved on. When I’m evaluating something, I have to discipline myself to spend more time on “what we did well”, instead of camping out in “what we learned and where we can improve.”
If any of these confessions sound familiar, you might be a perfectionist or know a perfectionist.
These qualities can be an asset to personal growth, helpful in pursuing excellence at work, and essential to ensuring accountability. But they can also make us paranoid and unable to love ourselves, much less allow others to love and accept us.
This month, I’m writing about four challenges which keep us from the meaningful, dynamic relationships for which our hearts long. (You can read week 1 here.) Each week, I’ll explore a barrier to connection and how we can overcome the barrier. If you’d like to receive the rest of this series directly in your inbox, enter your email address below.
The Two Words Perfectionists Overuse
Perfectionists have an unhealthy relationship with the words, “I’m sorry.” It’s not that we cannot say those two words; we often say them too much.
In her book, Brazen: The Courage to Find The You That’s Been Hiding, Leeana Tankersley writes about her struggle to not apologize for herself. Leeana is a good friend and her words accurately describe the experience of many perfectionists.
“I’ve been noticing an odd thing I do recently. I spend a lot of time apologizing for myself. Do you do this too? I’m just standing in the grocery store, looking at grapefruits, and someone comes up beside me to look too, and my immediate reaction is to apologize for taking up space. “Oh, I’m sorry.”
I have a vulnerable conversation with a friend, and I leave feeling like I’ve said too much, like I am too much. I run to my phone to text my concern and a caveat and an apology. ‘So sorry. I know that was way too much.’
Maybe it’s harmless. But I wonder.”
(PS – Leeana’s incredible book is on sale for a limited time! You can get a copy on Kindle for $1.99 today!)
Many perfectionists think our offer is to be most invaluable friend imaginable. But I’ve been thinking about how perfectionism is not an asset, but actually a liability. I’m becoming convinced it makes it more difficult for us to connect with others, not easier.
Lugging Around Our Shields
In chapter 5 of his book, The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery, author Ian Cron seeks to help perfectionists understand themselves and flourish as a result. He quotes Brené Brown who describes perfectionism as “a twenty-ton shield. We use it to defend ourselves but what it actually does is defend us from connecting with others.”
If we could only be perfect, then (enter your dream goal, desired outcomes or perfect future here). The problem is we aren’t perfect. We haven’t been perfect and we’ll never be perfect in the future.
Perfectionism Never Delivers on Its Empty Promises.
When it comes to our relationships, here are a few ways perfectionism keeps us from flourishing.
- We apply the same measurement we use on ourselves to others.
It is incredibly difficult to be a perfectionist with yourself and graceful with others. Eventually, we start expecting the same things of others we expect from ourselves. However, no one can measure up to our impossible standards, not even us.
- Other people feel inadequate when they see our drive and standards.
Word leaks out on us. “It’s difficult to be friends with Scott because he is so demanding. His expectations are ridiculous.” Over time, other people self-select and step away from perfectionists. They feel inadequate and don’t want that kind shame in their life.
- As perfectionists, we spend so much time comparing ourselves to others we never get around to love.
“It’s not enough to be my best self – I have to be the best PERIOD.” When we could be focusing on love others or being loved by them, we obsess with comparing myself to them. Comparison is a sorry replacement for love. Who has time to let people in when they are comparing themselves to others?
- We struggle to love or accept our faults, so we struggle to allow anyone else do the same.
In the same way, we begin to hold others to our impossible standards, we begin to expect others to reject us for our faults like we do ourselves. We accept the love we think we deserve – and for many us, that love is minimal at best.
- We start wearing a mask and faking that we’re fine
As many have recognized, we can only be loved to the extent we are known. And if we hide our flaws – our truest selves, no one will be able to truly love us. They’ll just love our masks, not our true selves. In her book, No More Faking Fine: Ending the Pretending, Esther Fleece writes, “When we fake fine, we fake our way out of authentic relationships with God, others, and ourselves.”
Good News on Valentine’s Day
This article is being posted on Valentine’s Day – a day of paradoxes. Over $18,000,000,000 will be spent on this holiday in America (yes, you read that number correctly and no, I didn’t make it up.) Yet, many of us do not have the kind of relationships we want – romantic or otherwise. I don’t have a cheesy card, a dozen overpriced roses or a box of chocolates for you. But I do have some good news and helpful solutions.
If perfectionism has been getting in the way of your relationships flourishing, here’s a few places you could start doing things differently.
1 – Determine the impact of your perfectionism.
Celes Chua, the founder of personalexcellence.co, has a super helpful chart to help you determine whether what you’re feeling is healthy or unhealthy (I prefer that term to neurotic.)
Check out the chart below and read her complete (super long) guide here.
2. Embrace your identity in God’s unconditional love.
As a pastor and follower of Jesus, I believe God created us and loves us. Because of that love, Jesus Christ came to give His life, so that we might find freedom (including from perfectionism). Whether you consider yourself a believer in Jesus or not, we’re all going to need to daily declare our worth and value (apart from our performance) if we’re going to overcome perfectionism.
Whether you’re standing in front a mirror naked like the man I mentioned in this post or you’re writing these words in a journal every day (“I am loved by God and the people who matter most for who I am, not what I do.”), this battle will need to be waged daily.
3. Increase your self-awareness.
Like shame, fear thrives in the shadows. When we acknowledge our apprehension about making mistakes, sensitivity to criticism and fear of saying or doing wrong things, we’re taking back the power.
The next time you’re in the throes of a perfectionism-induced spiral downward, pause and take a deep breath. Imagine yourself pulling that apprehension, fear, and sensitivity out of your chest and into your hand. Hold it in front of your body and examine it like you would an artifact or jewel.
The more you can learn about what you feel and what triggers those feelings, the more easily you’ll be able to disarm those feelings and call their bluffs. Self-awareness is a powerful asset.
4. Be increasingly transparent about the current state of your emotions and feelings.
As perfectionists, we prefer to keep true state of emotions under wraps like a closely-guarded national secret. But when we intentionally and strategically share our current emotions and feelings with someone we trust, the crushing weight doesn’t feel so overwhelming.
Many people around us perfectionists already see the struggle. They’re just waiting for us to be honest and own it. When we becoming increasingly transparent, we invite others to step into our struggle with love, acceptance, and encouragement.
The Hard and Amazing Work Begins Here
People cannot love our masks, they can only love who we really are. While perfectionism lies to us and tells us we’ll only be loved when we’re perfect, it’s actually our weaknesses and imperfections which give people connection points. When we become comfortable with ourselves – our imperfect selves, we might be surprised how comfortable others are too.
“The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.”
What does perfectionism feel like for you? How does it hinder your relationships? Leave a comment below!