What is Perfectionism? Part 3: What can we do about it?

The long term solution to challenging perfectionism is to dismantle the oppressive system that says what we produce and what we look like determines our worth. Our ultimate objective — to cultivate an environment that fosters confident, compassionate, healthily ambitious girls/young people of all colors, bodies, and backgrounds — includes abolishing sexism, racism, classism, sizeism, ableism, and other forms of discrimination. Of course, this is an ambitious goal that will require time and significant overhauls of many conventional beliefs. There is no individual blame, but rather products of an entrenched system that impacts all of us. In the meantime, we can take immediate steps towards that ultimate objective — by addressing individual issues including understanding desire for extensive control, breaking free of the pressure of constant advancement, and broadening our definition of success.

A common characteristic of perfectionism is the need for control. Depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other mental illnesses often associated with perfectionism share this desire for control, indicating an effective antidote in learning how to relinquish obsessive control. In his book The Pursuit of Perfect, author and teacher Tal Ben-Shahar differentiates between “optimalists” and “perfectionists:” optimalists find the benefits in a situation by accepting inescapable circumstances and understanding the full implications and opportunities presented. Optimalism and perfectionism are not binary philosophies as simple as optimism and pessimism. As described by Brian Johnson in his Philosopher’s Notes on The Pursuit of Perfect, not only does everyone possess both optimalistic and perfectionistic tendencies, but optimalism indicates “EMBRAC[ING] the constraints of reality” whereas perfectionism includes “REJECT[ING] those constraints,” paving the way to failure and devastation.

As a complement to the age-old Golden Rule guiding interpersonal relationships, Ben-Shahar introduces the Platinum Rule: “Do not do unto yourself what you would not do unto others.” This principle of self-compassion includes avoiding unrealistic expectations of oneself and harsh reactions to failure unlikely to come from someone else. Other strategies for learning self-compassion involve exploring self-care techniques and positive self-talk.

Perfectionists often feel that asking for help is admitting failure, and therefore will chastise themselves and fall further into self-loathing should they need assistance. By teaching compassion for others — in addition to self-compassion — and collaboration skills, we can cultivate a supportive and nonjudgmental atmosphere. It is in this environment that young people can feel confident and grounded enough to think critically, analyze and discuss data and opinions, and formulate our own beliefs without losing ourselves in or feeling intimidated by external judgements.

Because we live in a fast-paced, growth-based society, the focus is frequently placed on the next step to greater success. We are all waiting for the next award, the next deal, opportunities for expansion, and what tomorrow’s schedule looks like. Yet, when I am able to step away from the continuous need to forge ahead, I am able to reflect, appreciate the work I’ve done and the people I’ve encountered, and actually live in the present moment — the only moment that truly exists. Personally, releasing the urge to jump straight from a completed project to a coming one allows me to feel more energized, peaceful, and equipped to handle the unknown challenges inherent in life. It is in these times of surrender and pause that I have come to understand what success truly means to me. Some of my most meaningful and gratifying accomplishments include learning to relinquish the need for relentless happiness and feeling solidly rooted in my own self-worth even as I take in external evaluations, judgements, and situations. By broadening the definition of success to include unconventional milestones that are personal and unique to each individual, we allow for personalized standards of achievement. Instead of basing progress and worth on standardized, often unattainable results that may or may not actually align with many people’s desires for a fulfilling life, we can lay the groundwork for a system that values people rather than perfection.  

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