“At its root, perfectionism isn’t really about a deep love of being meticulous. It’s about fear. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of disappointing others. Fear of failure. Fear of success.”Michael Law
As a recovering Perfectionist, I thought it would be best to start with this topic. I use the word ‘recovering’ as I personally see it as an ongoing process and not an easy fix. Our world has changed a lot in the last few decades, at a very fast pace. If we are to keep up with the slew of information thrown at us from all angles, keep up with economic and socio-political changes, AND deal with the images that we see in social media on a daily basis-then we really need to start and sustain a conversation about perfectionism.
What is perfectionism?
Perfectionism, in simple terms, is a need to strive for high and flawless standards. Perfectionism can be either adaptive or maladaptive. When adaptive, it can help drive you to achieve higher standards by putting in the hard work that is required and at the same time enjoying the success that comes with it. Maladaptive perfectionism, is extremely unhealthy, whether it is turned inward or outward leading to disappointment, discouragement, frustration, anxiety and/or depression. A harmful combination, if left unchecked.
Perfectionism can take three major forms
1. Self oriented, where you put unrealistic expectations on yourself to be either the prettiest, most successful, most organized person. This would be akin to putting yourself in a drowning boat. You are so busy trying to row, that you do not notice that you are drowning in the sea of despair.
2. Other oriented, where you impose those unrealistic standards on significant others which could be a parent, partner, sibling, child, friend, coworker, employee, or a boss. It is a doom we set for all our relationships, both personal and professional. At work, you will see a steep drop in performance and on the personal front, you will see your relationships suffer. Continuing on with the drowning boat analogy, here it isn’t just you, but you are taking someone along with you.
3. Socially prescribed, where you think others are imposing unrealistic standards on you. Going back to the drowning boat analogy, think of this as you being in the drowning boat, and thinking that you are expected to stay there and you continue to stay there even when people try to throw a lifebuoy at you.
Perfectionism has been a growing concern in recent times. We have only now begun to move from a product orientation to a process orientation, only now beginning to recognize that romanticizing perfectionism has dire consequences. And honestly, there isn’t any one particular person or a thing, but a large accumulation of consumerism, social media, Instagram filters, and an availability of products that promise quick luxurious fixes.
On a personal front, I was a perfectionist even as a kid. I read novels that idolized relationships, gave me a set idea of how things should be. My inclination towards art didn’t help it either as I found myself in extremely competitive environment where beauty and perfection (art pieces) were applauded all the time. While no one ever gave me direct negative feedback, it led me to assume that perfection was all that was appreciated.
Think about it. How often do we acknowledge, much less appreciate, less than awesome products? Even if we did, we do not take out the time to acknowledge small gestures. I was lucky to have one such teacher who did. He noticed that I erased everything I drew before starting all over again. He seemed really angry about this, looked at me in this eyes and said, ‘You do not use an eraser ever. What you have done, stays as is. It is a proof of what you are capable of now and helps you see how far you have come.’
I did not realize this till much later in life, that this would be my first lesson in acceptance of my imperfections, being okay with who I am. I have taught Mandala and Zentangle to a lot of different age groups and this lesson stays with me. The ‘no eraser’ rule is both mind-boggling and liberating at the same time. As suddenly, people find themselves free to make mistakes, free to attempt art without judgement and still take pride in it.
I hope to share more articles on Perfectionism that will cover its impact on Mental Health and strategies to deal with perfectionism. If you like any other topics to be covered, let me know in the comment section. Till then, look around for an imperfect object that you find beautiful!
This article is not meant to be a substitute for medical intervention or psychotherapy. Kindly seek professional services if you are looking for mental health support.
If you are experiencing significant distress call 911 for emergency or click here for resources in Ontario.
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