April Snow, MA, AMFT

Hi, I’m April, a psychotherapist who wants to help you heal your past wounds, embrace your true self and begin to thrive again.

Is Perfectionism Sabotaging Your Happiness and Success?

Is Perfectionism Sabotaging Your Happiness and Success?

How often do we bypass caring for ourselves or struggle to move forward with a goal because the conditions aren’t perfect?  We wait for everything to be ideal to enjoy our lives - to feel confident enough, to have enough time, to have enough money saved and so on.  However, the conditions rarely align perfectly and as a result, we get stuck and feel discouraged. Instead of appreciating what we have accomplished and taking advantage of the time we do have available, we criticize our imperfections and procrastinate creating the life of our dreams.  We don’t apply for the promotion at work, go on vacation, enjoy our favorite activities or spend more time with our loved ones. Instead of enjoying what we already have and allowing ourselves to be “good enough”, we become captive to a relentless pursuit of perfection.

This constant chase after perfect seems as if it would lead us to happiness and success, but ironically it often acts as a saboteur and keeps us captive in a state of stress, anxiety and fatigue.  We may have great achievements as a result of our endless drive to be perfect, but all too often we are not able to actually enjoy these milestones, instead focusing on what could be better or what to do next.  The pursuit of perfection is an exhausting and unattainable race, but there is hope to slow down and enjoy life more.

How Do I Know if I am a Perfectionist?

You may be a perfectionist if some of the following statements apply to you:

  • You have extremely high standards for yourself (and those around you).
  • You find it difficult to rely on others or ask for help.   
  • You have a difficult time appreciating your successes and are always focused on what can be improved.  
  • You may procrastinate to complete tasks because the pressure to perform perfectly is too high and induces feelings of anxiety.  
  • You feel a great sense of defeat, self-loathing or even depression when you experience a setback or failure of some kind.  
  • You struggle to relax or incorporate downtime into your day.
  • You have a strong inner critic and never feel good enough.

The Benefits of Being a Perfectionist

There are some redeeming qualities to being a perfectionist.  Perfectionists tend to be very detail-oriented, thorough and conscientious.  We have an incredible work ethic and are an asset in many arenas, both personally and professionally.  The problem comes when we allow the strive for perfection to take the wheel and the pursuit becomes the priority above all else.  As Jen Stiff of The Chopra Center says, “A healthy dose of perfectionism can propel you toward achieving your goals. But there’s a giant leap from a healthy pursuit of your dreams to striving to meet hopelessly unrealistic standards. The key is to find balance and to relax into a place where good enough becomes the new perfect.”

What drives perfectionism?  

According to Dr. Ellen Hendriksen, “most perfectionists aren’t driven by the pursuit of perfection, they’re driven by the avoidance of failure.”  This constant fear of failure stems from not having a solid sense of self-worth, instead “believing your self-worth is based on your achievements” says Sharon Martin, LCSW.  Needing external accomplishments to feel good enough about ourselves is an exhausting process which constantly pushes us to do more or risk feeling like a failure.  

Where does this lack of self-worth come from?  As children, we internalize our sense of self-worth by receiving care and praise from our caregivers.  If this praise and acceptance are not forthcoming, we will find other ways to receive attention which may include performing well in school or excelling at sports.  In addition, focusing on external activities such schoolwork can bring a sense of safety and control when growing up in a turbulent household, where everything else feels out of control.  Other times, we learn to have high standards for ourselves because that’s what was expected and/or modeled by our caregivers or influential mentors. Regardless of the source, perfectionist behavior can be managed.    

How to Manage Perfectionism

Due to the deep roots of perfectionistic behavior, give yourself permission to make changes gradually and to make “mistakes” along the way.  Self-compassion and permission to be imperfect will help tremendously in addition to a few of these tips:

  • To tame the inner critic that often drives perfectionism, increase self-acceptance by incorporating a daily self-compassion practice into your routine.  I personally love Dr. Kristin Neff’s 5-minute Self-Compassion Break.    
  • Stop letting your to-do list dictate your daily rhythms and reclaim your downtime.  Identify the most important tasks of the day and stop working once those are complete.  
  • Aim for “good enough”.  Instead of always going above and beyond with everything you do, take a more sustainable approach of looking at what is actually expected.   
  • Begin a self-care practice that you have been putting off such as going to yoga, taking evening walks, buying an adult coloring book or reading more.  
  • Ask for help in a small way from someone you trust and notice that they still appreciate you.
  • Increase your positive thinking with a Gratitude Practice.  My favorite approach is to write down all the qualities you love about yourself (if you get stuck consider asking a loved one).  The key here is to focus on who you are on the inside and not what you do on the outside. Add to the list and reread for a few minutes every day.    

In an attempt to be our best selves, do our best work and avoid feeling like a failure, we strive for an unattainable perfection.  Our inner critic becomes our internal guide, telling us we aren’t good enough and constantly pushing us to do more. As a result, we lose sight of what we have accomplished and what is working in our lives.  Life becomes stressful and exhausting. The anecdote to this endless cycle of perfectionism is increasing self-acceptance by focusing on self-compassion, gratitude, and balance.

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