Of all of the concerns clients bring to therapy, perfectionism can be one of the most relentless and the most difficult to overcome. It shows up under any number of guises, from the more mundane to more serious versions:
“I’m not going to try to learn how to waterski because I know I won’t be any good at it.”
“Anything less than an A is not a good enough grade.”
“I need to punish myself for not being perfect.”
Perfectionists engage in multiple problematic thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. They tend to fear failure, disapproval, and making mistakes. Sometimes they fear success. They overemphasize “shoulds” and engage in all-or-nothing thinking. They constantly pressure themselves to succeed.
A shameful belief about inner “badness” often is at the core of perfectionism. Individuals who struggle with perfectionism strive to push past or compensate for the feeling that no matter what they do, no matter how much they achieve, they will never be good enough.
Instead of looking to the mirror, perfectionists also typically look outside themselves for appraisal and approval. As children, they become accustomed to equating achievement with love. The belief that “I need to do more, I need to do better” begins to grow, until it spirals into “I need to be perfect.”
For the perfectionist, the concept of self-esteem rises and falls on the tide of external feedback. When he hears positive words, he feels good. When she receives criticism or even constructive feedback, she is devastated. The only defense against feeling wounded in this way is to strive harder to be perfect: “I just need to do it ‘right,’ and then I will be loved.” Perfectionists continually ratchet up expectations for themselves. But by setting impossibly high standards, they inevitably set themselves up for future failure. And on and on the cycle goes. Clearly, something has to give.
So how does one begin to let go of perfectionism?
Leonard Cohen, in his iconic song “Anthem,” offers some insight into this question. He sings:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
If the core of perfectionism is a belief in inner badness, then its opposite must contain some form of belief in inner goodness. There is, after all, a crack in everything, as Cohen sings. Rather than fixating on “cracks” as imperfections or blights, it is possible to view them as windows through which one’s “good enough” sense of self is fed and expressed.
There is a difference between healthy striving and grasping for perfection. Letting go of perfectionism is not equivalent to curling up in a ball and admitting defeat (all-or-nothing thinking). It is about setting goals based on your own needs and desires, not those of others. It is about stretching just a little beyond what you have previously achieved. It is about engaging in and enjoying the process, not just the end result.
Perfectionism is born in a relational context. Without others’ expectations and feedback to plant the seeds of perfectionism, it simply would not grow. But once it has sprouted, internal beliefs (“I’m not good enough”) continue the cultivation process. To let go of perfectionism, it is best to go back to its birthplace – relationship – to seek support and accurate feedback. But this time, you get to intentionally pick the relationships that will remind you that there is indeed a crack in everything. The cracks allow light and love to get in. Stop trying to seal them off.