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The Prison of Perfectionism

Can you never quite do anything perfectly enough for your own standards? Do your colleagues consistently fall short?

I'll always remember the description of a perfectionist character from the televised version of the Cadfael series - that he would never die, "heaven being unlikely to meet his high standards."

We think of perfectionists as life's natural editors - the ones who see that we can do better, who see what can be rather than just what is, who don't let us stand still.

But there's a difference between being conscientious and thinking critically on the one hand and being a clinical perfectionist on the other. Perfectionism is a series of self-critical mental constructs linking failure directly to our sense of self. It's what lets that critical voice deprive us of acceptance of the present moment. When that happens, we stand in their own way and everyone else's.

What does that look like?

  • Not starting because we can't do it perfectly yet, thereby losing out on experience that would help us improve

  • Standing in the way of 'good enough for now' because perfectionism takes over our sense of priorities.

  • Becoming intolerable to everyone else who can't see our vision of perfection

  • Refusal to discuss and take in criticism and modify our ideas according to new information and account for the complexities of the real world which leads to

  • Passionately advancing ideas that we only realize later were far off base

  • Punishing ourselves for perceived failures to the point where we can't move forward in life

Perfectionism in its worst form is self-censorship, categorical rejection of failure and mess, and thus an inability to accept what is.

That's why it's so very worrying that rates of perfectionism are rising in younger generations.

This shouldn't be surprising - we exist in an allegedly meritocratic society where stable employment is rare and getting rarer, where competition for top colleges and universities begins in preschool, where failure can easily result in a life on the economic margins. The mentality behind our economy literally inculcates maladaptive perfectionism into all of us, with the idea that success is a measure of our personal worth.

Perfectionism has become a public health issue, linked to numerous clinical disorders from depression to PTSD to social anxiety disorder to chronic fatigue, to name just a few. When every perceived failure, every crisis is one's whole self on the line, every day is a tooth-and-nail struggle for survival.

Shame, guilt, anger and stress rapidly accumulate. Perfectionists avoid whatever they can't immediately master, and especially find it unacceptable to fail in front of an audience, leading to severe performance anxiety.

The psychological purpose of perfectionism is to avoid shame. That's why perfectionists are also master procrastinators, why they give up when presented with negative feedback, and why they often live with, and conceal, depression.

It is a very samurai way of thinking - the shame of failure is too much to take. And it leads to a samurai response - suicidal ideation.

And with all that stress, it's no surprise that perfectionists have worse health outcomes.

The Great Escape

The question then is how to escape this perfect mental trap. The simple answer, which you'll hear a lot when this subject comes up, is to practice 'self-compassion'.

But that's a bit too simple. Going right to self-compassion severely underestimates how deeply perfectionists feel their survival is at stake in maintaining perfection. Failure is literally death as far as they are concerned. In that situation, self-compassion is a luxury to the perfectionist mind.

The most powerful way to deal with that feeling directly is to embrace the practice of what Eckhart Tolle calls presence. This won't come easily to many people, but there are tools to help it along, from guided meditation to qigong and yoga.

The ability to bring the mind back to what you are feeling in this moment, paying attention to that feeling without judgment and letting it relax, that reconnects us to the very quality of relaxation we lose with the perfectionist mindset. Accepting the anxiety allows it to dissolve somewhat, to the point where self-compassion becomes possible once more.

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