Did you know perfectionism can take root in one life area and not another?
I always thought it was a package deal.
A year-round weed that invades every inch of your garden.
My partner Loïc executes an architect’s plan down to a T, but one look at his closet: a wild mess of strewed shirts and crumpled socks.
On the other hand, I’ve tried to perfect every aspect of my life, as if each one were a video game level to surmount.
Perhaps you can relate?
In this study, researchers reviewed perfectionism in 22 life areas, with work and studies being the most common among participants.
For the sake of simplicity, let’s focus on 5 life areas.
1) Work / studies
Tonight’s homework: draw one of the elegant 19th-century buildings on the campus. *groan*
I trudged through French conjugations, Le Cid and writing about Rita Dove’s poem “Vacation”. Then I glanced at the building in question, just outside my window.
I had no desire to draw right then. So, I took a nap… that lasted until 6am. In a flurry, I scrambled to start and finish the drawing in 2 hours.
The result resembled the work of a child: rough lines, aggressive shadows and odd proportions.
I felt ashamed during the critique session.
This wasn’t the first time my perfectionism caused problems. I knew I could do the work; it’d just take me 10 hours, that’s all.
Upholding impossible standards meant I’d take much longer than others to finish tasks. If I felt unsure of my abilities, I’d procrastinate or avoid tasks altogether.
Paradox: the drive to do well can hinder your performance. Of course, there’s a vast difference between striving for excellence and perfection. So, how do you know when you’ve gone too far?
List the pros of pursuing perfection:
- I like to do things well.
- It feels good being #1 in my class/team.
- It’s easy to find things because I’m well organized.
Then, weigh the cons:
- I have no free time.
- Fear of failure paralyzes me, so I never start the task.
- I must always do more to feel good enough.
Reflect on your list of pros and cons. Observe the emotions, sensations and images that arise.
Is it worth loosening your standards?
Holding friends, family and partners to unrealistic standards causes strain in your relationships.
If you’re a perfectionist though, you most likely think your expectations are valid. Oftentimes, you just want to help your loved one become a better person.
- My best friend must never be late to a hangout.
- My daughter should always get good grades.
- My partner should always look impeccable.
However, no one likes feeling controlled or manipulated.
When you compare loved ones to your ideals, it forges walls and crushes authenticity: You don’t interact with your loved one, but an image of them.
Relationships flourish when we let go of our agendas and meet loved ones where they are.
“If I love you because you love me, that is mere trade, a thing to be bought in the market; it is not love. To love is not to ask anything in return, not even to feel that you are giving something—and it is only such love that can know freedom.” ―Jiddu Krishnamurti
Obviously, I’m not saying let people walk all over you. Respect your boundaries. But the next time you criticize a friend, ask yourself, Am I criticizing because of my rigid standards?
We tend to criticize what we don’t accept about ourselves—to save loved ones from the rejection and shame we’ve experienced.
So, to nourish fulfilling relationships, we should first start with the relationship we have with ourselves.
Embrace your light and shadow.
Quiet your inner critic.
Then, feel the love that awaits.
3) Health / sports
After a health scare in 2009, I decided to avoid all unhealthy food.
I experimented with different diets, believing one would bring me optimum health. Various studies and books persuaded me to change my habits:
- Reduce meat
- Eat whole grains
- Consume vegetables raw
- Eliminate dairy
- Avoid sugar (including fruits)
Though my discipline to adhere to strict dietary guidelines was laudable, my efforts to ward off illness stressed me: I read about nutrition for entire days, forced Loïc to eat like me and beat myself up for having a cold.
I had done it again—I let my perfectionism push me to extremes. (Hmm, was my obsession to eat healthy a condition?)
Have you experienced something similar?
Perhaps you get caught up in perfecting your sports performance.
Striving for perfection in sports cultivates a good work ethic and desire to improve your skills—which likely helps all life areas.
But you’re doing yourself no favors if you believe perfection is attainable. Working towards an elusive goal can feel overwhelming, stressful and bleak.
Worst, it can lead to eating disorders and exercise addiction.
Instead of focusing on results, embrace the journey.
Breathe deeply into your fear of illness, failure or disapproval.
Trust that you’ll be alright.
“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty six times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” —Michael Jordan
4) Physical appearance
When you’re perfectionistic about your physical appearance, you can worry too much about grooming, hairstyle or what to wear.
Though, what’s most heartbreaking is that many cultures glorify thinness or certain physical traits: You’re unworthy unless you look xyz.
During my freshman year in college, my roommate D. and I talked for 2 hours straight as soon as we met. We cheerfully unpacked our belongings to get ready for the next 4 years.
Each night in the dining hall, I marveled at the ever-changing cuisines (Indian, French, vegan, yippee!), while D. grimaced at the lack of red kidney beans or feta cheese (her staple diet). I should’ve raised an eyebrow when she’d only eat 7 chocolate-dipped bananas for dinner.
D. had a contagious optimism, nonetheless. She inspired me to crack jokes with our growing French vocabulary, try salsa dancing and uplift the most vulnerable.
Then, one evening, she confessed her struggle with bulimia.
I felt enraged. I didn’t have the maturity and knowledge to understand. D. calmly answered my hail of questions. It shocked me that she hadn’t been aware of her actions.
Now I know. Defense mechanisms like denial are unconscious responses to protect us from conflicts, anxiety or pain. D. somehow found her way through the fog and reached out to me—that takes courage.
We all feel the pressure to meet conventional beauty standards.
But conforming to them harms everyone. Each time you criticize your body or someone else’s, you’ve fallen prey to consumerism.
“A flower does not think of competing to the flower next to it. It just blooms.” ―Zen Shin
So, let’s follow the flowers.
Reach for support.
And bloom together.
5) Home / environment
Do you spend tons of time and energy tidying your space?
Sometimes, I get so stressed about vacuuming. I wait until dust bunnies and hair strands gather in the corners of my house. Because vacuuming entails dusting, wiping floors and washing windows… !
When I discovered Dominique Loreau’s L’Art de la Simplicité: How to Live More with Less, it inspired me to declutter like a madwoman.
Certainly, minimalism helped me create a home sanctuary, but it also aggravated my perfectionistic tendencies.
Now that I have few objects and furniture, I can more easily spot clutter. The space around objects speak louder, creating an eerie museum-like aura.
All in all, anything taken to extremes is detrimental.
When you try to perfect your home, understand what’s really happening: controlling your corner of the world helps you feel safe and accepted.
But, it’s not about how you fold your shirts. Nor if your papers stack up neatly.
It’s about accepting that life is messy. And that you’ll be ok.
If you muster up the courage to leave some dirty dishes, maybe you can go outside and play.
Peace comes with acceptance
Perfectionism strikes when we don’t accept life as it is.
It’s understandable: We’ve learned years ago that it’s easier to please others to avoid judgment.
However, living that way keeps us small and bound.
Don’t let perfectionism blind you anymore.
Your strengths and weaknesses make you human.
And that’s an exquisite thing.
About the author
Annie Moussu is a mindfulness coach on a mission to help people let go of perfectionism, self-doubt and people-pleasing. Sign up for her newsletter to get blog articles twice a month.