Perfectionism is a common form of suffering today, and manifests in several ways. According to researchers of perfection, these manifestations include holding very high standards for ourselves, and judging ourselves harshly for perceived failure. They also include holding very high standards for others and judging their failure, or believing that others are judging us for standards we are not living up to. Although some people experience perfectionism differently than others, and in different contexts, the end result of each of these judgements is shame. Shame gives rise to depression, stress, anxiety, and strained relationships.
The antidote to perfectionism entails practicing compassion. We practice compassion when we hold high standards for ourselves and use these high standards as aspirations to reach for, rather than a mark of personal worth. Rather than shaming ourselves when we fail, we accept our best efforts, and try again the next day. We do the same for others when we allow them to have their own standards, and trust that they are trying their best. We also practice compassion when we do not allow ourselves to take on the judgement of others, but rather allow others their own opinions. Judging others harshly hurts everyone involved, and is incredibly difficult to do accurately.
All of this takes practice. Working through perfectionism is not easy, but is possible. It requires self-awareness and honesty. We can ask, “Do I set unrealistic expectations for myself?” If the answer is yes, perhaps trying to set more realistic goals may help. Allow yourself to be a human being with real limitations and weaknesses. Also remember that setbacks are normal. Life consists of lesson after lesson. Learning from our mistakes creates peace, and helps us feel ready to do things differently next time. For those struggling with other people not meeting their personal expectations, try asking yourself, “Are these expectations realistic for this person?” or “Is it my place to have this expectation?” Setting standards for others often leads to frustration for everyone involved. We can only change ourselves, and holding goals and standards for others only leads to resentment when they can’t or won’t measure up.
For those who feel they can never live up to the expectations of family, friends, or even strangers, learning to let go helps. Exercising compassion for who you are while doing your best will bring you peace. Using self-talk that reminds you that you are okay and cannot lose value based on what anyone thinks, may offer some relief. It can be hard to let go of what others think. The truth is, we are all on our own journey, and need to make decisions for ourselves. When personal choices do not win approval, finding common ground and accepting how personal decisions may affect others is helpful.
Try to find a way to feel compassion for the very real, very human people in your life. Everyone, the perfectionist included, is fully worthy of love, acceptance, and happiness. Try to understand, the stress perfectionism causes takes a toll on the perfectionist as well. Practicing self-reflection about the fundamental worth of ourselves and others can bring joy through learning with those we love, becoming better versions of ourselves together. This growth tends to unfold when we accept our weaknesses and take responsibility for how we affect others, even when it is difficult. Health is found in balance, in the ebb and flow of life, not in still waters.
Lacy is a life coach and founder of Women United Recovery Coalition (WURC), a community for women and girls seeking recovery from pornography addiction. James is a psychology student at UVU, looking forward to graduate school next fall. Matthew is a professor at UVU and a psychologist who specializes in spirituality and compassion. All three live in Utah Valley with their amazing, supportive families.