The Perfectionism Trap: How to Let Go of Unrealistic Expectations and Embrace Imperfection
Updated: Mar 31
"Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be our best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfectly, look perfectly, and act perfectly, we can avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. It's a shield." - Brené Brown
Are you frequently burdened by stress, anxiety, or an overpowering need for perfection? You are not alone in this struggle. Perfectionism, a pervasive trait nurtured by societal influences, can significantly affect our sense of self-worth and inner tranquility. This mindset insists on the flawless execution of every task, giving rise to unattainable expectations and an incessant sense of inadequacy. While perfectionism may appear to propel us towards greater accomplishments and self-improvement, it often simultaneously contributes to heightened anxiety, stress, shame, and even depression.
Types of Perfectionism
Perfectionism presents itself in various forms, each characterized by distinct features that uniquely influence our lives. Studies conducted by Stoeber and Otto (2006), Hewitt and Flett (1991), and Flett et al. (1995) have delved into the diverse manifestations of perfectionism, examining their correlations with psychopathology, performance, and physiological responses to acute psychological stress. Gaining insight into these specific types of perfectionism enables us to recognize our own inclinations and devise effective strategies to cope with and surmount them.
Self-oriented perfectionism entails the establishment of unattainable standards for ourselves and the pursuit of faultless performance in every aspect of our lives. Individuals with self-oriented perfectionism often experience dissatisfaction with their accomplishments, giving rise to anxiety, excessive self-criticism, and self-doubt when these elevated standards are not met.
Other-oriented perfectionism is typified by imposing exceedingly high expectations on others, resulting in a compulsion to control and micromanage, as well as a reluctance to delegate tasks. This form of perfectionism can be detrimental to relationships, fostering unrealistic expectations and harsh judgments of others.
Socially-prescribed perfectionism encompasses the belief that we must meet the expectations of others to be considered perfect, often originating from societal pressures to adhere to certain norms. This type of perfectionism can provoke feelings of inadequacy and anxiety when faced with the pressure to fulfill perceived societal expectations.
Multidimensional perfectionism involves the pursuit of perfection across multiple facets of our lives, such as work, personal objectives, and relationships. Individuals with multidimensional perfectionism may feel that their self-worth hinges on their capacity to attain perfection in all areas of their lives, ultimately leading to burnout and exhaustion.
Why do we develop perfectionism?
Perfectionism can develop due to various factors, including upbringing, personality traits, fear of failure and rejection, and unrealistic societal expectations.
Upbringing and environment: Perfectionism may originate from familial expectations and the pressure to excel in specific areas, such as academics or sports. Parents who set high expectations for their children and commend only their accomplishments, rather than their efforts, can foster the development of perfectionism. Furthermore, being raised in a highly competitive environment or surrounded by high-achieving individuals can heighten the propensity to develop perfectionism (Curran & Hill, 2017).
Personality traits: Certain personality characteristics, such as elevated conscientiousness and neuroticism, are linked to perfectionism. Individuals with high conscientiousness may harbor a strong desire to achieve their goals and execute tasks to an exceptional standard. Simultaneously, heightened neuroticism is correlated with a tendency to be overly self-critical and struggle with anxiety and self-doubt (Stoeber & Otto, 2006).
Fear of failure and rejection: The dread of failure and rejection can also contribute to the emergence of perfectionism. We may believe that we must attain perfection to evade criticism or unfavorable feedback, resulting in a persistent need for validation and approval (Sirois & Molnar, 2014).
Unrealistic societal expectations: Unattainable societal expectations (such as adhering to specific appearance standards or embracing a particular lifestyle) can contribute to the development of perfectionism. Social media and other forms of media may propagate these unrealistic expectations, leading us to feel that we must strive for perfection in all aspects of our lives (The Canadian Mental Health Association, 2019).
Attachment Theory and Perfectionism
Attachment theory posits that our early experiences with caregivers mold our beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world around us. It proposes four distinct attachment styles that develop during childhood, with three being classified as insecure.
The first attachment style, preoccupied attachment, is characterized by a fear of abandonment and a need for reassurance from others. Individuals with this attachment style may harbor a fear of rejection and require validation and assurance that they are accepted as they are. The second insecure attachment style, avoidant attachment, is marked by a fear of intimacy and emotional vulnerability. Those of us with this attachment style may wear perfectionism as a shield, hiding from our vulnerability and the intimacy of being authentically seen (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2005). The third insecure attachment style, disorganized attachment, is typified by a lack of a coherent attachment strategy. Individuals with this style may grapple with perfectionism due to conflicting feelings about themselves and others.Those of us with this attachment style may struggle with perfectionism due to confusion and conflicting feelings towards others and ourselves. Perfectionism may assist them in managing their distrust of others and their own sense of shame and inadequacy. Finally, secure attachment is characterized by a positive view of oneself and others. Individuals with this attachment style have a sense of security in relationships and can handle setbacks and disappointments without becoming overly critical or self-doubting.
Inconsistent parenting caused by a variety of possible factors, from socio-economic stress, immigration and mental health issues to substance abuse or marital problems, can lead to the development of perfectionism. Our parents may have lacked the capacity to offer consistent nurturing and attunement. Alternatively, they may have oscillated from over-protectiveness to neglect. As children, we internalize these conflicting messages and may develop a belief that we must be perfect in order to receive love and attunement. We may learn that perfectionism is essential for receiving love and care or an effective strategy to avoid being shamed, controlled or invaded. By recognizing our attachment style and working toward developing healthy and secure relationships with ourselves and others, we may begin to heal the foundational causes of our perfectionism. This process may involve collaborating with a therapist to cultivate self-awareness, self-compassion, and learning to identify and communicate our needs and boundaries within relationships (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2005).
How can we overcome perfectionism?
Perfectionism can be a difficult habit to break, but several strategies can help us manage and overcome it. One of the most effective therapies for addressing perfectionism is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which aids in identifying and altering negative thought and behavior patterns. CBT enables us to recognize and challenge unrealistic beliefs about ourselves and our abilities, fostering more balanced perspectives.
Narrative therapy offers another approach to help manage and treat perfectionism. This therapeutic method focuses on separating the individual from the problem by externalizing it, thereby allowing them to gain a new perspective on the issue, and identify it's influences on their life. Narrative therapy encourages individuals to challenge the dominant beliefs and values that perpetuate perfectionistic tendencies, while assisting them in redefining their understanding of success and failure. By reframing these concepts, individuals can develop a healthier perspective and better manage their perfectionism.
Another approach to managing perfectionism involves cultivating self-compassion. Practicing self-compassion means treating oneself with kindness, understanding, and acceptance when confronted with difficult situations or setbacks. This mindset allows us to reframe setbacks as part of the learning process and acknowledge that everyone makes mistakes. Imperfection and failure are part of our universal human experience. Developing self-compassion contributes to enhanced resilience and inner peace.
Mindfulness meditation can also help us disengage from perfectionistic thoughts and expectations. By focusing on the present moment and observing thoughts and feelings without judgment, we increase our awareness of negative thought patterns. This practice allows us to witness old patterns without reacting, fostering the awareness and potential for new perspectives and behaviors.
Additional steps to manage and mitigate perfectionism include:
Set realistic goals: Establishing unattainable goals can lead to feelings of disappointment and failure. Instead, create achievable goals that are challenging yet realistic.
Focus on progress, not perfection: Concentrate on the progress made throughout the journey, rather than solely on the outcome. Celebrate small victories and recognize the hard work and effort invested.
Embrace imperfection: Welcome imperfection by reframing mistakes and setbacks as opportunities for growth and learning. Remember that no one is perfect, and the pursuit of perfection can jeopardize our well-being.
Seek support: Enlisting support from friends, family, or a therapist can facilitate the management and overcoming of perfectionism. Discussing struggles with others can offer relief and aid in the development of new coping strategies.
It's important to remember that dealing with perfectionism is an ongoing journey. Building healthier relationships with ourselves and others takes time, effort, and patience. But don't worry, with the strategies we've talked about and a commitment to personal growth, we can learn to manage and even overcome perfectionism.
Perfectionism take a toll on our mental and emotional well-being. When we understand the different types of perfectionism and what causes them, we're better equipped to tackle them head-on. Several tactics can help manage perfectionism, such as identifying perfectionistic behaviors and thought patterns, practicing self-compassion and mindfulness meditation, and seeking support from friends, family, or a therapist.
If you're struggling with perfectionism and it's tough to handle on your own, it might be a good idea to reach out to a therapist. They can provide a safe and supportive environment where you can explore your perfectionistic tendencies and work on new ways to cope. Just remember, managing perfectionism is an ongoing process, but with time, effort, and a focus on self-growth, you can live a more fulfilling and balanced life.
Curran, T., & Hill, A. P. (2017). Perfectionism is increasing over time: A meta-analysis of birth cohort differences from 1989 to 2016. Psychological Bulletin, 145(4), 410-429. https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000138
Flett, G. L., Hewitt, P. L., Oliver, J. M., & MacDonald, S. (1995). Perfectionism in children and their parents: A developmental analysis. In G. L. Flett & P. L. Hewitt (Eds.), Perfectionism: Theory, research, and treatment (pp. 89–132). American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/10458-004
Hewitt, P. L., & Flett, G. L. (1991). Perfectionism in the self and social contexts: Conceptualization, assessment, and association with psychopathology. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60(3), 456-470. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.116
The Canadian Mental Health Association. (2019). Social Media and Mental Health. https://cmha.ca/documents/social-media-and-mental-health
Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2005). Attachment theory and emotions in close relationships: Exploring the attachment-related dynamics of emotional reactions to relational events. Personal Relationships, 12(2), 149-168. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1350-4126.2005.00108.x
Sirois, F. M., & Molnar, D. S. (2014). Perfectionism, health, and well-being. In F. M. Sirois & D. S. Molnar (Eds.), Perfectionism, health, and well-being (pp. 1-15). Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-18582-8_1
Stoeber, J., & Otto, K. (2006). Positive conceptions of perfectionism: Approaches, evidence, challenges. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10(4), 295-319. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327957pspr1004_2