Perfectionism Doesn’t Count As a Humblebrag
Have you ever heard someone say that the best way to answer the common job interview question “What’s your biggest flaw?” is a self-deprecating “Well, I can be a bit of a perfectionist.” In theory, it’s a great answer. What employer doesn’t want to hear that you have extremely high standards?
In reality, on a day-to-day basis, perfectionism is harming us.
It holds us back, diminishes our potential, keeps us afraid and insecure and prevents us from standing up for our beliefs and being really open to the people around us.
I know so many people, and I used to be one of them, who leave a warm conversation and immediately start wondering what other people are now thinking about them. They scan the replay, looking for times they were unfunny or unintentionally rude, any reasons why even good friends might now decide to reject them.
Most of us think we need to be witty or beautiful or smart or funny or outstanding in some way in order to be considered worthwhile human beings. One huge downside of that belief is that we live in fear. If our worthwhileness is always on the line, we behave as though we’re one false move away from getting kicked out. No one will want to be friends with us, hire us, or marry us. We’ll be outsiders.
We also have vague beliefs about what it will take to count - if we earn money or get promoted or have tons of sex or raise perfect kids or live in a great house. Mostly these stories live underground, we don’t look at them much, and we consider it a fact of life that some people are just “better” because they have some or all of these things. On top of all that, we might have an intellectual belief that, for example, wealth and fame don’t make people happier or more worthwhile, but that’s not what our gut says. We have quiet, underground stories about feeling happy and at peace when we have enough (friends, money, fame, respect) but “enough” is always just out of reach.
The Torture of the Perfectionist’s Mind
Dave is a client of mine (name changed for confidentiality) who thinks of himself as worth less than most of his friends. They have more money than he does and they seem to really have their lives together. They’re happy and easy-going, on track for careers they’re excited about, they’re in romantic relationships or, in one case, just enjoying hooking up and being single. They go out to hip bars in Little Five Points and East Atlanta and easily strike up conversations with strangers. He fears that his friends pity him and that, as soon as he turns around or leaves the room, they’re rolling their eyes behind his back and talking about how pitiful he is. When he’s around them, he second guesses himself constantly, editing out parts of his personality and his experiences that might make them realize he’s not like them.
Sometimes he wakes up in the middle of the night and starts thinking about conversations he had earlier in the day. Replaying scenes from earlier that day keeps him awake. He can see so many places where he might have screwed up: he was too loud, too serious, he said the wrong thing here and definitely pissed this other person off there. He’s done this before and he’s pretty sure that it’ll all blow over. He’ll probably even feel okay about things in the morning but that only makes the midnight replay more infuriating. Why can’t he just let it go?
If you follow the logical arrows, the fear makes sense:
I need love to be happy and thriving.
For people to love me, I need to be successful or brilliant or funny or smart.
If I am not totally and completely successful and brilliant and funny and smart at every single moment, no one will love me.
Then again, if those are the rules, you’re going to end up losing sleep! So, maybe it makes sense, but it is bad for us, right? Well, maybe not. At least, not entirely.
This fear is helpful in small quantities because it keeps us on our toes. We do hurt people’s feelings sometimes! We do occasionally misread the tone or direction of a conversation and put people off a little bit! It’s helpful to be self-aware and empathetic. Perfectionism stems from the same impulses as “It’d be nice to help that person out.” and “Maybe I won’t dominate this conversation right now because this other person seems to be going through a hard time.” If we totally got rid of those impulses, we wouldn’t be at all considerate of the people around us and we probably wouldn’t feel very connected to them.
The trick is to think of it more as a spectrum than an either-or situation. We need a little bit of the impulse to wonder about other people’s thoughts and feelings - but ideally we’d scale it back a little. Keep some self-awareness, lose the constant guilt and self-criticism.
If we stay in fear, on edge all the time and convinced that one misstep will lead to our ruin, we get stuck.
For one thing, we lose access to rest. We never quite feel refreshed or energetic. Who could with all those 2am worry sessions? The perfectionist brain doesn’t take a break just because you tell it you’re on vacation or playing with your dog.
We get defensive and we lose opportunities to grow. We’ve spent so much time pre-identifying potential flaws that it becomes intensely painful for anyone else to point out to us when we’ve screwed up. If they do, we can’t bear it. Then we respond defensively which creates more distance in the relationship - the exact thing we were trying to avoid.
Again, while infuriating, this is our brains trying to look out for us. The best lies are misleading truths, after all. Perfectionism tells us that we must be 100% at all times or risk banishment. If someone told us we screwed up and we agreed, then we would be admitting to someone outside of ourselves that sometimes we are less than 100% and that would mean:
It’s true that perfectionism makes sense and that it is making your life worse. Acknowledging that it makes a little bit of sense means we can keep the good parts without having to buy its whole story. If we can learn to transform the inner critic from a cruel and derisive monster to a kind and conscientious trail guide, we can keep the helpful parts and prune the hurtful ones. We can start really feeling close to other people, maybe for the first time in our lives. Keep reading for the 3 key steps so you can get a taste of how to get to a place where relationships aren’t based on fear.
Panic, Exhilaration, and Fatigue
The perfectionist cycle is absolutely exhausting. You want to feel connected to others but spending time with them is a crapshoot. You might feel energized and connected or you might end up beating yourself up for days because of that one thing you said that definitely alienated everyone. For some of my clients, maddeningly enough, it’s both. They feel anxious leading up to time with others, then enjoy themselves while they’re there, criticize themselves for getting anxious in the first place, then find every flaw in their interactions that someone might hold against them.
Dave is among them. He is stuck in a no-win cycle and certain that he’s alone in it. In his version of the world, there is no room for flaws and no recovery possible from missteps. On top of that, there is the unending task of hiding what he really feels because it could lead to conflict or reveal that he really doesn’t belong. And finally, he’s even more stuck because he believes that his fear is his fault and that all he needs to do is “snap out of it.”
A Taste of Freedom
One of the hardest parts of having feelings that are holding us back is that we are told that they are totally within our control. “Just buckle down, get through it, toughen up, think positive! You can do it!” But thoughts about whether or not other people like or approve of us came from somewhere and they’re actually fighting their hearts out to help us --that’s why someone handed them to us in the first place!--, even if they often end up screwing us over. You can change your thoughts and feelings, but it’s harder than people make it sound. Essentially, “Think positive!” is the same as saying “Just use calculus to solve your problem!” to someone who’s never taken a math class.
It’s possible to get the skills, but, that’s what they are: skills, not automatic features of being human. Contrary to popular opinion, it’s not just a matter of willing yourself to feel differently.
So, assuming this all is actually possible and not just some kind of snake oil, what would tackling perfectionism do for you? What would you give for the ability to feel calm and at ease around other people? To be able to tell them true things about yourself and express your honest opinions and actual emotions?
On the other side of perfectionism lie:
The ability to feel at peace in moments of rest and quiet
The belief that you are worthy regardless of public opinion and that you have boundless potential
Joy and comfort with other people
The ability to navigate conflict without simply staying silent and out of the way
How to Love Enough
One of the first and most important steps is to learn to see how exactly how the fears and self-criticisms are useful. The critical voice is gunning for our survival and it’s important to take a minute to look at how to do that.
Step 1: Write down two things perfectionism says about you
What does perfectionism show about you that’s really amazing? It can hurt and it can be exhausting and lonely and scary but it also shows some fantastic things about you. Maybe it shows that you care deeply about your relationships, maybe it shows that you have high standards and you’re not afraid to push yourself. You don’t want those things to vanish completely, you just want to dial them back so they don’t get in your way.
Step 2: Write down the pros and cons of perfectionism
We’ve already talked about a lot of the downsides to perfectionism but what are some of the advantages? You can feel superior to other people (that’s a good feeling, right? Maybe not one we’re always proud of, but let’s be honest here - it feels good to imagine you’re superior). Maybe it motivates you to help out, return calls, go to events when you’d prefer to stay home. Some of these traits make you a great friend, family member, or employee, maybe some of the disadvantages are that you do too much of all of that stuff. It varies from person to person - figure out what you would lose if you gave up “perfect.” Some of it is genuinely worthwhile.
Step 3: Build a habit
Once you make those lists, start to carry them around with you and pay attention to when your critical voice starts piping up. When you hear it, try to think about it with curiosity instead of judgment. A lot of us believe, either consciously or unconsciously, that we need to be harsh to ourselves or we’ll let ourselves off the hook. The problem with that approach is that beating ourselves up only gets us deeper into the muck.
This shift into appreciating the upsides of frustrating characteristics is subtle but it can be huge. Most of us don’t see a connection between the anxiety that gets us to set an alarm in the morning to wake up for work and the anxiety that keeps us from signing up for exciting plans with friends but they stem from the same core values and impulses. Start appreciating what your fear is doing for your ambition and your high standards and eventually you’ll be able to turn your inner drill sergeant into a motivator instead of a bully.
Need a Little More?
When clients work with me, we work together on the idiosyncratic fears and distortions they experience. Dave was not particularly worried what people would think about his apartment, but the idea of public speaking made him want to puke. Whatever you’re dealing with, you can get some general ideas here and in other places on the internet, but with one-on-one support, we can address whatever weirdsies you deal with in your unique head.
Even more importantly, we also do a fair amount of role playing. Sometimes people start out feeling a little goofy about this - it does involve some willingness to let your guard down - but it is so powerful to hear new ways of thinking, generated in your own brain, coming out of your own mouth.
I know it can be hard to believe that trading one or two thoughts for others can produce a revolution in your social interactions and your sense of peace and self-worth. When you’re in the panic-exhilaration-fatigue cycle, it can feel insurmountable. Indeed, lots of people embrace that cycle as an inevitable feature of the human condition and can’t even picture life without it.
But I’ve seen this kind of change. I feel it myself and am grateful for it every single day. If you’re interested in working with me, call to schedule an appointment. It might be the best call you ever make.