They told it to us all the time when we were kids; there is no such thing as perfect. But it didn’t stop you from trying, did it? Even though you know how unattainable it is, you just can’t stop yourself from striving for it in all aspects of your life.
But not only are you finding that perfection doesn’t exist, but you’re starting to notice that while you’re out chasing it, life is going by and you’re missing it.
The whole point of you trying to do everything so well is to live your best life but in your search for perfection, you’re missing out.
You find that when you are so honed in on the details of things going the way you feel they need to, big things are slipping through your fingers, and you just can’t seem to figure out the balance.
You actually start to find that you are so focused on being perfect that you end up feeling paralyzed by the thought of making decisions, even small ones. Suddenly you find that instead of helping propel you forward into the life that you want, your perfectionism is keeping you trapped and isolating you from the people you love.
That’s when you start to feel discouraged. Because you can’t move forward without agonizing over every detail of every decision and it’s too much. You want to stop and smell the roses, but instead you’re too focused on thinking about a small mistake you might have made the other day, or an interaction you wished you’d handled differently.
A lot of my clients experience this and I’ve seen it play out many times with slight variations, but some of the themes are typically the same. Often clients are saying that they want what is best for their family, and they want to make sure that they live up to their own potential. If this requires long nights, or extra thought put into projects and financial decisions, then so be it.
At the time they feel like the constant stress and anxiety is worth it because it keeps them “in line”. There’s a belief that the agonizing and the constant self criticism is somehow increasing productivity. They believe that life can only be managed by overseeing every minute detail, and that without their oversight and input, things would come crashing down.
But by the time the client is seeking help from me, they are becoming increasingly aware that they can’t sustain this pace and this level of oversight long term.
The idea that if we can just be good enough so that nothing will go wrong, or make such good decisions that things will just smoothly transition to our next goal is a lie. Because things will always go wrong. What you can control is how much time and energy you are going to waste before you deal with the inevitable obstacles in front of you as they present themselves.
Eventually my clients find themselves in a place where they feel like things are falling through the cracks no matter how tightly they try to hold on. They start to believe at once that they do have the power to make things “good enough” if they were just competent enough or took care of things “correctly” and also that they are failing and doomed to continue to fail because they don’t seem to be able to realize the potential everyone around them sees but they themselves cannot see in themselves.
Here’s the thing, if you hold yourself to the standard of perfection, you are doomed to fail.
Because you’re never going to be able to prevent obstacles always make the “right decision” (I’m not convinced there is such a thing as a “right” decision, but that is a debate for another time). The things you are worried about are real. They really do matter. You aren’t crazy, and you aren’t blowing things out of proportion. It’s just that the way you are interacting with yourself around it is not helping.
It’s good to have goals. It’s necessary to have standards. And the wisdom and resourcefulness that my clients show in the face of adversity is at times astonishing. I just don’t think the many sleepless nights and the time spent away from family supported them in getting there.
Perfectionism can be isolating and deeply discouraging. It can make you feel stuck because every decision feels monumental and the weight and responsibility is too much. When we see others overcome something similar, it can inspire us to make the changes we need to be kinder to ourselves and embrace life’s chaos from an empowered place. When we take similar steps it is entirely possible to overcome perfectionism.
Keep reading to see how many of my perfectionist clients start to be able to engage in more self compassion today.
Trapped in Your Own Mind
Before scheduling a session, oftentimes my clients are struggling with feeling like there is just not enough time to do everything, and certainly not to do it properly. There are so many things that need to be done, and my clients rarely feel that they can lean on the people in their lives to get it done for one reason or another. Small things have started to fall through the cracks and meanwhile the client’s self care is at an all time low.
My clients often describe to me long rumination sessions where they beat themselves up for mistakes that the people around them say don’t matter. Often they feel like everything is riding on their shoulders, and if even one thing were to slip through the cracks the whole farce is likely to go up in flames.
My clients often feel like impostors in their own lives.
That even though the people around them see them as nothing but capable and competent, they can’t seem to feel this way about themselves, and instead spend all of their time trying not to get found out.
Living this way makes it hard to connect to their friends and family, and often my clients will describe feeling lonely, even when we are able to identify lots of friends and family members waiting in the wings to step in and help.
Before scheduling a session, many of my clients describe that their romantic relationships just never seem to last. They find someone and in the beginning everything is great, but over time they find that their partners stop being responsive.
When it comes to friendships, although my client often has many friends, some of these friendships are exhausting. My clients often hold themselves responsible for taking care of their friends, and feel intense guilt when they are not able to be there in the way that their friends are asking for. But when my client needs something, they don’t feel comfortable asking, lest they be a burden. In this way, many of my clients notice that their friendships are not totally reciprocal.
My clients often have difficulty leaning on others, because it is very scary for them to depend on others. They learned when they were very young that if you are not in control, or if you are at the mercy of another person, you will not get your needs met. This belief permeates their social interactions.
Right before my clients often schedule, there is usually some life event that throws into perspective that the work and effort they have been putting forth has not been building into what they want for themselves. Sometimes it is a breakup, other times it is just a realization that they have lost an opportunity because they were so bogged down in details.
The realization that another opportunity was missed because they were busy being paralyzed by the decisions they face day to day was a game changer.
My clients describe that this makes them feel impotent, and incompetent.
Basically, it feeds their belief that they are an impostor or a fraud in their own lives.
My clients make the decision to schedule a session because they are tired of beating themselves up and not getting anything for it. They are tired of rehashing conversations from days ago and then not being able to focus on what is real now. More than anything, my clients just want to be able to live, unencumbered by these unrealistic expectations.
On the first session, it is really common for my clients to express some variation of, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I shouldn’t feel this way, my childhood was great.” They express a deep set experience of feeling not good enough, and terrified of making a bad decision or showing to the world how deeply flawed they are.
Together, in the first session, we will often explore important relationships from childhood and how these might have set the stage for relationships now. We explore unconscious beliefs and needs that might not have been met, even with parents who were caring and thoughtful, and sometimes with parents who were not.
By the time they leave the session they often feel as though they finally have a framework with which to understand the feelings they have been struggling with (but not able to articulate) for most of their lives.
They feel like there is a plan to move forward, because finally they are starting to understand that these behaviors and experiences they have been dealing with make sense given the environment they grew up in and their past experiences.
As we continue to work together, my clients often start to organize the challenges they want help with. Yes, they want to be able to move through their days more confidently and with less second guessing, but also they want to feel more capable at work, and not hold themselves so responsible when things go wrong. Instead, they want to be able to trust that they will be able to handle challenges increasingly more gracefully.
We identify and sort through all of the issues the client is experiencing and we identify actionable steps that we will follow with reasonable and manageable goals. This way the goals will start to become more accessible.
By the time my clients leave a session where we do planning, they start to feel like their next step forward is accessible, attainable, and real. We do a lot of work to make sure that whatever it is that we are trying to do that week, it feels tangible and close.