A Brief on Perfectionism

By Jourdan Bartels, LPC-Associate
Supervised by Jennifer Buffalo, LPC-S, LMFT

What is perfectionism? The short, anecdotal answer might be the way I felt like I needed to become an expert on perfectionism before writing this blog (yes, the irony here is palpable). The APA Dictionary offers a clearer description: “the tendency to demand of others or of oneself an extremely high or even flawless level of performance, in excess of what is required by the situation.” Perfectionism can show up as a belief that if something isn’t perfect, it doesn’t “count” or shouldn’t be done at all. Many people struggle with perfectionistic tendencies, and it can be related to other mental health concerns like anxiety, depression, and other patterns that can often interrupt our lives. Perfectionists may also experience higher levels of guilt, fear, internal criticism, defensiveness, and procrastination.

Perfectionists may have learned at some point in their lives that excelling equals approval or relational safety, and that making mistakes or being flawed leads to a lack of acceptance from loved ones. This belief can, over time, become closely tied to our sense of self-worth. From a trauma-informed perspective, perfectionism is an adaptive, protective pattern intended to keep the self safe. At the same time, perfectionism can create unsustainable measures of self-esteem and lead folks to struggle with allowing themselves to be full, imperfect humans. In this way, it is important to address perfectionism for what it often is: a strategy meant to be helpful that may be getting in the way of a more compassionate, gentler life.

Addressing perfectionism can come in many forms – cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), parts work, and tons of other therapeutic modalities. In CBT, perfectionism is viewed as a form of “all-or-nothing thinking” – a type of cognitive distortion. In parts work (Internal Family Systems therapy), one might view perfectionism as the presence of a part of self that took on the job of attaining safety through excelling. As a therapist who has perfectionistic tendencies at times (exemplified by my initial feelings about this blog), I find that self-compassion is a key component in any form of this process – to be fair, I am also a therapist who specializes in self-compassion. Self-compassion allows us to connect in with our inherent worth and deservingness of care, regardless of mistakes or failures, which can powerfully combat the beliefs internalized in perfectionism. This approach also allows us to have compassion for the way we learned or developed perfectionistic tendencies, and how that makes so much sense. When we are able to maintain our care and compassion for ourselves in the face of mistakes, or even flat-out failures, we are better equipped to try new things, challenge ourselves, and complete tasks that may have once seemed very daunting.

If you struggle with perfectionism, there are tons of ways to work through it and move toward more ease and comfort with being an imperfect human. Here at Luminary Counseling, we offer both individual therapy and support groups, including a Developing Self-Compassion support group! Reach out to us at contact@luminarycounseling.com if you’re interested.

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