Being “Perfect.” The thing that most of us strive for in life, quite possibly the most important. At least, that’s what we’re all preached growing up. As a result, many of us develop perfectionism, the feeling or need to be perfect.
I know I struggle with wanting everything to be perfect at all times. I’m struggling writing this blog right now. Every line and sentence has to be perfect in order for people to want to read it. If I can just get this post perfect, then everyone will want to read it, therefore, everyone will like me and I’ll be “good enough.” That’s typically my thought process when writing. I love writing so much, but perfectionism causes one of my favorite hobbies to be less fun than it should be.
Why do I let it? Because it feels safe.
Everyone has very different experiences with perfectionism. Sometimes we use it to perfect our art in a more creative way, like writing. Other times we might push ourselves to get perfect grades. You could perfect everything in your life, which is what makes perfectionism such a hard thinking pattern to escape from. It is possible though, little by little and with lots of practice.
I push myself to do perfectly on every test and when I don’t get a perfect score, I often beat myself up. Sports are a huge part of my life too. Of course I want to perform as well as I can in them, but it’s easy to push myself too hard to be “the best.” I use a lot of negative self-talk or deprive myself of certain things if I don’t perform well enough. To overcome my obsession with performing perfectly in these areas, I am working on rewiring my brain to think completely differently. I have a couple of practices that have helped me that I still use to this day. Feel free to practice these on your own, because I found that they actually work really well. First I had to discover and become aware of my tendencies. For example, I noticed that before any type of quiz or when turning in homework, I would always check my answers over and over again. It got to a point where homework would take hours. I’ve always been a really good student, so I knew the answers, but I just didn’t trust myself to get it right. I started with doing anxiety relieving activities before and after homework to make sure I was as calm as I could be. Turning on a TV show or music in the background is often helpful too as a way to divert your focus on more than just homework. This may seem crazy, especially to a perfectionist, but just let yourself be bad at it. It doesn’t need to be grades or homework, it could be anything. Really challenge yourself to just suck. Try to just let go and shift your focus on having fun rather than doing well. Perform bad on something and try sitting with that anxiety. It isn’t the end of the world, is it? You’re still standing and loved, and no one is judging.
Another important factor to overcoming perfectionism is your self talk. I can’t stress the importance of positive self-talk enough. I know for a fact that almost all of us struggle with negative self-talk, which leads to low self-esteem. A common pattern for perfectionists is telling ourselves that we aren’t “good enough” or didn’t do as well as we should’ve. Once you can alter that thinking, you’re golden. The best way to start out with altering your thinking is by catching yourself. Once you can catch yourself and realize what thoughts are just hurting you, it becomes easier to change the way you view yourself. For example, I sometimes see myself in the mirror and don’t like what my body looks like. I tell myself that I’m ugly or worthless. I’ve learned to catch myself in the act and change up the thought. Instead of telling myself that I AM the thought, I tell myself that I’m HAVING this thought. Instead of saying “I’m worthless” I now tell myself that “I’m having a thought that I’m worthless right now” to help distinguish myself from that negative thought.
Think about your favorite people. They aren’t perfect, and we don’t expect or want them to be. Why do we think we’ll love ourselves more if we’re perfect when that doesn’t even apply to how we feel about others? We love other people despite their imperfections, or even because of them. That’s what makes them funny and fun to be around, so why do we expect that from ourselves? Why do we feel like we need to earn our worth, but don’t feel the same way towards others? You have to dig deep inside of yourself and get a clear view of how you treat yourself in order to make a change. Would I be criticizing my friend for showing up a little late or saying the “wrong thing?” I don’t think so. We’re a lot more empathetic towards others than we are towards ourselves. Try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes when you’re making a remark about something you did. “Would I tell my best friend that she’s worthless for making a mistake?” is a good place to start. The answer is most likely no. Learning self compassion can make such a beautiful change in your day to day life and how you feel about yourself.
Lots of factors contribute to perfectionism in teens. Society is one of the biggest. Growing up, we’re told to all look a certain way or act a certain way. If you're a girl, you're supposed to fit the beauty ideal. You’re told to be impossibly thin with perfect skin. Boys are told that they’re all supposed to have six packs and be incredibly athletic. We’re supposed to achieve these standards in order to be enough. In grade school, if you get a perfect score on a test or hit the perfect note on an instrument, you’re presented to the rest of the class as a success. If you don’t get a good grade, you’re pitied by the teachers and scolded at home. We’re afraid of people’s disappointment in us, because that’s how we’re told to feel. We’re often preached that “nobody’s perfect” and we “all make mistakes” but the second we make any sort of mistake or act anywhere far from perfect, we get criticized or shamed. When kids suffer with mental illness, it’s often hidden in every way possible by the families. Of course for reasons to protect the family’s privacy, but also out of selfishness to look perfect for everyone else. Parents tend to ignore the obvious cues of many mental health struggles and still encourage their kids to go to school and act like everything is fine. We grow up thinking that if our mental health is anything besides perfect, we’ve failed to be the perfect daughter or son, which is all completely untrue. Society has molded us this way, but we need to stop blaming ourselves.
Being “enough.” No one knows what that even means, but perfectionism strives to reach that single goal. The problem when trying to reach it? It’s constantly changing. Once we reach the next point, we have to be even better. You can never be “pretty enough” or “handsome enough.” There’s always going to be new beauty trends coming out, and the beauty standards are constantly changing. They change so fast, it can be impossible to keep up. The bar will always just keep getting set higher and higher. If only we could just be smart enough, happy enough, strong enough, etc. Maybe we’d finally get accepted and get the love that we so long for. If we can just be perfect and enough, then we’ll get that love and attention that we’ve been lacking. It’s all a huge trap though. We’ve never even stopped to think that maybe we’re waiting for love from the wrong people. We’re trying to fill that emotional hole inside of us with everyone else’s love and affection, when what really fills it is the self-love that we lack. Yes, a lot of us want to be perfect for somebody else, but a lot of the perfectionism and high expectations come from ourselves.
You can never truly overcome perfectionism without learning to love and accept yourself first, inside and out. When I’m feeling down on myself, I like to list some of my biggest accomplishments on a piece of paper. I make sure to be mindful while writing them to really understand the importance of what I'm writing. It’s easy to forget all of the great things you’ve done, especially after messing up. Seeing a physical list in front of you is a great reminder of that. Repeating daily affirmations to yourself is helpful as well. I know that affirmations can feel dumb and untrue, but it gets easier and more helpful the more you practice them. I used to think they were the dumbest thing in the world. I thought they were just another unrealistic practice that my therapist recommended to fix the way I thought of myself. You might not believe the affirmations that you’re telling yourself, but you have to start somewhere. When you keep repeating the same kind words to yourself, they start to feel more and more true. When I catch myself being hard and judgmental towards myself, I just simply remind myself that “I am enough.” Those three words are some of the most powerful words you can tell yourself. Keep practicing and “fake it till you make it.”
Perfectionism is challenging, draining, and a lifestyle worth giving up. Just because you're struggling with it right now doesn’t mean you have to forever. Practicing some of the strategies I mentioned is a great place to start. I hope this blog was helpful to you and made you feel validated, because you’re never alone! If you found this post helpful or interesting in any way, please share with friends and family to help it get noticed! Stay tuned for a new post next week and remember, stay strong because you ARE and have always been enough!