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The Whys, Whats and Whens of Perfectionism.

Yesterday, I was contacted by a 15 year old Danish girl. She asked for my feedback and thoughts on perfectionism, where it comes from, when and how it first begins, how it changes people and what the future looks like for perfectionists. 

Aside from being excited that she was asking such great questions, I was thrilled to sit and distil my knowledge in this area into answers for her. I also feel happy to be sharing those answers with you here. 

When we are smaller, we learn that we will gain approval and "good" feedback, feel accepted by our parents etc by playing the part of the good girl or boy. We learn that if we do things RIGHT, we will not get into trouble. We learn that when we do it RIGHT we go some way to avoiding the anger, disapproval, sad or frustration of our parents.

As little ones, we would do anything (!!) to avoid upsetting our parents.  Additionally, we learn that we like the nice warm feeling we have when they are happy, or pleased with us ... even simply "not angry" is a nice feeling too.  We also learn we get that nice warm feeling from our teachers, our grandparents, the neighbours, even complete strangers. During those very early years, we learn that doing things RIGHT is worth it for the feeling we get to experience.
We learn that the response that comes from doing it WRONG is not one we want to repeat because there is so much shame and abandonment, isolation and fear associated with performances that significant people in our lives judge as BAD.
Perfectionism doesn't just occur ... it is something that begins as wanting one feeling instead of another feeling (see my answer above). We then start chasing that warm, nice feeling that we have attached/connected to doing things RIGHT, we want to do things RIGHT all the time ... anything to avoid having the "bad" feeling that comes from getting it wrong!!!

So we work really, really hard, with increasing effort and determination, to get control over the way we do things all the time - we start to feel that we can't cope if we get anything WRONG (because then we have to deal with those uncomfortable feelings and that is a place we have decided we don't want to go).

This effort and determination leads to perfectionism: we want to control ALL of our performances (the things we do, the results we get, our emotions, our responses to life) to ensure that they are all RIGHT rather than imperfect, messy, unpolished. 

Perfectionist tendancies develop gradually. When we consider where it comes from, we can also see that anyone with a perfectionist bent was focusing so diligently on getting things RIGHT that they were unable to develop in a balanced way.  Their world involved a lot of control and fear, they developed along the path of caution, anxiety, hiding. As a result, there is little time for joy and relaxing, chilling out, letting things go, or wait-and-see, I've-got-this style thinking.
There was no room for trust: of themselves or the process of life, and oftentimes of anyone else around them. 

For anyone who suffers from this, there is a generally increasing level of anxiety and noise in their heads ... as they have to work harder and harder to control everything they do and say and feel in an effort to give the RIGHT performance. 

I see people all the time who are suffering from general and acute anxiety disorders coupled with depression and/or other mental illnesses that are paralysing them and their ability to move through their lives with a sense of freedom or joy. It's hard to feel joy, even for a moment, when you live your whole life preparing for the next RIGHT performance.

There is a lot of pain, and associated issues such as trouble sleeping and eating, social difficulties, disconnect from the self and from other relationships.

Perfection is a goal that is never met, never satisfied and therefore completely unattainable. Anyone striving for it is exhausted, isolated, constantly fearful, and either going to elaborate lengths to maintain a facade, or withdrawing from life because they have learnt that no matter what they do, they cannot come up to the impossible standards they've set themselves. 

If you can relate to any of this or would like to ask a question, either comment below and I will respond there so everyone can share, or PM me with your questions and I will share answer anonymously in the comments section below. 

Above all, remember you are NOT ALONE. 

Sarah xx


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Reader Comments (3)

Thank you for writing this. It resonated with me and shed light on why I strive for perfectionism and have experienced anxiety for all of my life. Thank you for having this forum to bring light to a sensitive subject to many. I look forward to reading more of your posts. Namaste

March 20, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie

Thank you for this post, it could not be timelier for me. Wise words, as always. Looking forward to the next one! xoxo

March 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDana

Well done you have "perfectly" summarised this condition ;)...The control, the anxiety and the noise in your head.
It does paralyse you from moving ahead and making a decision through a fear of failing. And this personal perfectionism which means the bar is always set so high that it is hard to be happy with anything you do or even don't do. And then eventually the perfectionism becomes a judgement of others and how they don't measure up to the standards that you yourself cannot achieve. How do we break the cycle?

March 27, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterKath

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