‘Perfectionism’ is regarded as a strong need to perform at a mistake-free level and holding absolute high standards. In today’s fast-paced world, ambition and success are often thought to go hand-in-hand with perfectionism. Unfortunately, this positive connotation can hide the consequences of it such as burnout, and a negative impact on mental health, including symptoms of depression and anxiety. Often, perfectionism may also mask more deep-seated issues related to self-esteem. Another detriment of perfectionism not commonly thought of is that it may actually stunt productivity, spontaneity, and creativity.

So how does perfectionism develop and how can you manage it? During the developmental years, you tend to develop internal templates of how you feel about yourself and how you relate to others. These templates are a combination of your inherent temperament and the environment such as interactions with caregivers, peers, and situations. These templates and belief systems impact how you feel about yourself and how you relate to others. Common belief systems underlying perfectionism, are “I am not good enough” or “I am not allowed to fail” based on anticipated negative judgement by others. In order to manage these deep, often painful feelings about yourself that may get triggered by specific experiences such as failure, you develop psychological responses such as suppressing emotions or compensatory behaviours such as perfectionism.

An example of how this may manifest is as follows: You have an assignment due that seems difficult. Your belief system gets triggered – “I am not allowed to fail. I am not allowed to make a mistake. I am not allowed to show that I don’t know…or else… (insert negative self-judgement)”. Instead of asking for help, you spend hours and hours perfecting it, compromising your own self-care in the process. The result: “perfect” task (or so it may seem) at the cost of your own self, mental health, and, at times, even relationships.

So how can we manage perfectionism? A 2018 Dutch study has found self-compassion to moderate perfectionism and depression in adolescents and adults. So what is meant by self-compassion? Self-compassion is cultivated when one takes a stance of curiosity and openness to one’s own experience and feelings. This includes recognising that failure is a common human experience. So essentially, moving away from perfectionism (where mistakes are not allowed) toward doing your best under the given circumstances and normalising the possibility of limitations. So how does self-compassion work?

  • Cultivate inner curiosity to understand the meaning of your perfectionism. What are the underlying thoughts that drive your perfectionism? You may find that this is difficult and uncomfortable to look at, as your inner critic may be triggered.
  • When the inner critic is triggered, try to notice it as a thought rather than taking it on board as the absolute truth.
  • Remind yourself of the negative consequences of perfectionism. Does it compromise your self-care? Does it compromise relationships? Does it stunt your productivity, resulting in procrastination and need for working more than you want to?
  • Visualise the freedom of relinquishing the drive for flawlessness. It may give you a glimpse of creativity, spontaneity and freedom of self-expression that is not possible under the ruling thumb of perfectionism.

It is time to say farewell to your inner critic (whether they like it or not) and make space for your inner self-compassion companion.

Watch this space – self-freedom and work-flow may follow!

written by Lize Ligthelm, Clinical psychologist