A space for grace
Many perfectionists are self-proclaimed perfectionists. That's right, they know they have an unhealthy level of perfectionism and yet are not quite sure how to stop. What does perfectionism look like and how do we shed the shackles of it to live a more grace-filled life?
Scientific literature on perfectionism distinguishes that it is less about having high standards and more about attempting to create control. Perfectionism is a big source of unnecessary suffering, which is why grace can be such a helpful capability to build if you are a perfectionist or a recovering one.
Research, published in 2020 articulates two brands of perfectionism. A healthy kind and an unhealthy kind. The big difference? Both have impossibly high standards, but an unhealthy perfectionist will beat themselves up when they inevitably don't meet their goals. The healthy perfectionist will give themselves grace and chalk it up to learning. The unhealthy perfectionist will give credence to their inner critic that blames and shames them. Allowing this negativity to take the lead, unhealthy perfectionists will find the negativity seep into other parts of their lives and relationships and will have an increased need for external approval and validation.
Perfectionists create an unfortunate cycle, because when they beat themselves up for not reaching a goal or failing at an attempt, they inherently deepen a narrative that their grace and love for themselves is dependent on performance and achievement. Perfectionists tend to either be anxious or worrying about the future or be ruminating over the past. Either way, it makes the present moment feel like a high stakes environment where they are trying to avoid failing. This increases that stress hormone of cortisol and therefore their anxiety.
The healthy perfectionist, need not even be called a perfectionist at all, since perfection is not their expectation, excellence is - a more appropriate name is someone with a grace-filled pursuit of excellence. They gain deep satisfaction from achieving their goals and set very high standards, but are aware of their imperfections and inevitable failures on their path and therefore accept that their inner critic exists, even listen to it with curiosity to understand what it is trying to protect, but then shift their focus back to achieving excellence. Sound familiar? Someone who sets goals, embraces their imperfections, and focuses on learning?...YOU right now as you engage with this experience are already gaining practice at leading a grace-filled pursuit of excellence.
Where does perfectionism come from? Most literature pins it back to childhood, but literature is inconclusive if it can also be developed in adulthood. It can stem from many origins - constant critique, performance orientation, compensating for a perceived deficit, unpredictable situations, toxic environment - many of which leave a child striving for an illusion of control throughout their lives.
If this describes you, fear not - next week, some of the many strategies you will soon learn about will address evidence-based ways to work through unhealthy perfectionism.
Consider how you view success:
What expectations do you hold of yourself and others?
How do you talk to yourself after failure?
How might you evolve your definition of perfection or excellence to embrace failure, learning, and imperfections?