If you’re a perfectionist, you can feel increasingly burdened by the ever-higher expectations that others develop for you.
The teenage quarterback who has led his team to three state championships and is being watched by professional scouts. The young mother who is getting promoted at her job for her outstanding contributions, but stays up until 2:00 am to get that very work done. The attorney who has an almost perfect trial record, attracting more and more difficult cases.
The pressure is intense. Yet giving it up is something you fear.
Years ago, my at-the-time very perfectionistic self told a therapist, “If I don’t keep my thumb at my back, pushing myself every minute, I”m afraid that I’ll become a slug.”
Fear is what keeps perfectionism alive. Fear of not being on top — of seeming as if you enjoy the affirmation– of not looking like you’ve got it all together — of making mistakes that will be noticed — of rejection or judgment. Fear that you won’t be as good as you were last time. Fear that you have to hide what you know to be painful. And the list goes on.
How social media affects fear…
Social media isn’t helping. Why? The shame of comparing your life with what you see on your tablet or phone can be staggering.
You can view vacation pictures from exotic places around the world — so your trip to Des Moines can fizzle. You can read the posts of the proud parents with kids going to elite colleges, while your kid is struggling to get through high school. You can track Joanna’e incredible weight loss journey, as she slugs down protein shakes. But you? You can’t seem to lose five pounds without gaining seven.
You forget that people lie on social media, painting their lives the way they want to be seen. They lie by commission to purposefully lead others to believe what isn’t true. And they lie by omission by simply leaving out the less glowing details.
You rarely know someone else’s truth.
You don’t hear how the couple on the exotic trip were so tired that they argued their way through Bora Bora. You’re not aware that the kid who got into Harvard really wanted to go a state university, but was pressured by her parents, and now she’s on medications for severe anxiety. You don’t know that Joanna has lost weight countless times, only to regain it. And now, her husband has threatened to leave her if she doesn’t keep it off.
You don’t know the back story.
But if you’re a perfectionist, you’re far more likely to not remember that, and only see what’s on the surface. You’ll feel shame. So you’ll put more pressure on yourself. You’ll plan a vacation you can’t afford. Push your child hard to do better in school. You’ll sign up for Weight Watchers or go on the cayenne tea cleanse.
Six ideas to try if you’re caught up in a perfectionist spiral…
1. Become conscious or aware that your perfectionism is a problem. You likely created this perfect-looking persona to emotionally survive and even thrive as a child. No matter what the reason, it became the way you shielded and protected you. Giving it up or tweaking it a bit can lead to even greater fear. But staying the way you are can feel intensely lonely.
Here’s an example. I’m holding a pen in my hand, gently but firmly. There’s little chance that it will fall. But what if I grasp it as hard as I can? I’m still holding the pencil but the way I’m doing is will only lead to exhaustion.
2. Commit to change. Your fear of change can become so significant that you’ll put up barriers, justifying your frenzied life by saying, “It won’t get done if I don’t do it.” Or, “I’m the breadwinner in the family. We can’t get along on less money.” Or you’ll set perfectionistic standards for change, and sabotage yourself before you even get started. “I’ll lose ten pounds in two weeks.” Or, “I’ll give up all my responsibilities.”
Way too much, way too soon. Change needs to be gradual and gentle.
3. Confront the rigid rules that you are still following — that no longer truly help. We all learned rules to follow when we were young. You could probably sit down and write them out. “Don’t chew with your mouth full.” Or, “Always be kind.” But are there rules that are keeping your more authentic self from being revealed? “I can never show anger.” Or, “I can’t quit until the job’s done.” Look for rules that are the shoulds and oughts in your life.
4. Connect with emotions long suppressed. Perfectionists don’t like to think about messy things, and especially avoid feeling messy emotions. You can have trauma and loss in your life that you’ve never connected with. It’s hard to do, and you may need a therapist’s help to do so.
But as Terrance Real once wrote, “If you don’t feel it, you live it.”
5. Then risk change. The process is all about learning from mistakes and being motivated by successes. I’ve laughed reading some of my first blog posts; I went through a period when I thought sentence fragments were very cool. One commenter on the Huffington Post called me out on it: “This woman can’t even make a full sentence.” She was right. But I was learning and I’ll probably look back five years from now and laugh at what I’m doing today. But the learning is worth the risk.
And remember, learning and healing isn’t a destination, it’s a journey.
6. Consume social media with a skeptical eye. I notice that the people whom I know are miserable in their marriages frequently post smiling couple photos of date nights, while others brag about their professional accomplishments and don’t clue you in on the family sacrifice that was required, as they put their career first.
Keep in mind that people usually carefully curate what they post online. It usually isn’t an accurate reflection of what their lives actually look like.
You can hear more about depression and many other topics by listening to my podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to my website and receive one weekly newsletter including my weekly blog post and podcast! If you’d like to join my FaceBook closed group, then click here and answer the membership questions! Welcome!
My new book entitled Perfectly Hidden Depression will be arriving November 1, 2019 and you can pre-order here! Its message is specifically for those with a struggle with strong perfectionism which acts to mask underlying emotional pain. But the many self-help techniques described can be used by everyone who chooses to begin to address emotions long hidden away that are clouding and sabotaging your current life.
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