Have you ever gone into a job interview and been asked the question “tell me about your biggest weakness?” A lot of people will strategically answer this question saying they are perfectionists, often thinking this is an “acceptable weakness” in the workplace, so to speak. And maybe it is! At Harmony Therapy Group, we are big believers that different emotions can be a huge strength in our lives, depending on how we go about expressing those emotions. For example, anger sometimes means someone is really passionate about something and they build an entire non-profit helping abused women! And sadness may mean someone cares a LOT about someone, so they bother to share how they are feeling with their partner instead of bottling up those feelings. Well, fear, anxiety and a high need for control can all work the same way. But what happens when they don’t? Have you experienced when these emotions really lead to a lot of perfectionism that gets in the way of living based on your values in life?
First I suppose we should define values a bit. Values are different than goals in the sense that you can’t really check these off a list. You can check of “get married” from your list, but “being honest” is kind of an ongoing thing! So things like honesty, reliability, prioritizing quality time with family, contributing to society in meaningful ways, learning, etc…are all various examples of what values may be for each of us.
Fear of making a mistake, anxiety about doing something just right, having such a need for control that anything less than “perfect” is intolerable are all examples of how perfectionism may manifest. I remember growing up and really struggling internally with such a fear of making a mistake with something new that I often just wouldn’t try it! I missed out on so much when I think about it now.
But this really began to change for me in my 20s when I decided not taking myself quite so seriously may help me have more of a sense of humor with myself (after all, I wasn’t judging OTHER people for the same mistakes I judged myself) and be a more approachable person to others. Just the other day I almost ate it in a parking lot when my ankle rolled a bit with the high heels I was wearing and I had wished my husband was there to see it so we could laugh together about it! Twenty years ago, I would have acted like I did that on purpose or acted like I hadn’t done it at all which first of all would have been awkward if anyone had been around me and secondly didn’t really serve me well in my quest to be more approachable and relatable!
Other people may struggle with perfectionism in other ways. For example, a lot of people who procrastinate or seem unreliable, such as not turning in projects or papers on time, are actually highly perfectionistic! They can emotionally feel so frozen by fear and anxiety that it almost feels better to not do something at all than to not do it perfectly. And it DOES feel better…temporarily. Then the shame usually sets it. “I can never do anything right.” “My boss really regrets hiring me, I just know it, I’m such an imposter.” “I’m a huge disappointment.”
Another aspect of perfectionism probably many of us can relate to is when our need for control gets out of control by being super rigid with rules or guidelines. I see this a lot with eating disorders. A seemingly innocent desire to just live a bit of a healthier lifestyle spirals into very restrictive eating patterns in no time that not only take away from physical health, but also increase mood and anxiety and social isolation. This quickly takes us away from living life based on our values!
So what do we do about this? It kinda depends. Some people do really well to challenge rigid thoughts that are very all or nothing. Others get too tangled up in these thoughts to really challenge them, so it may be better to just focus on behaviors being in line with values and not worrying so much about the thoughts. And others enjoy some tangible support by intentionally lowering standards from unrealistic standards too high standards to see how this feels emotionally. All of these things take practice, nothing really helps the first few times you try a new way of thinking or acting. But try it more than a few times, and you may just be on to something!
One tip is to make sure you’re not over adjusting to the complete opposite direction. A little bit of fear, anxiety, and need for control can be good for us! Sometimes this just leads to excellent planning, showing someone we care about something or doing a darn good job on that final paper! The key is to find a way to utilize these emotions in a helpful way so planning, caring and working hard do not ultimately get in the way of living a valued life.
If you’re interested in learning more, we have a free on-demand webinar on Perfectionism and Eating Disorders we’d love for you to take advantage of! Register here and it will take you right to this webinar!
And if you wanna skip right over the webinar and straight into scheduling a session with one of us, you can contact us here!