How many of these perfectionistic standards do you have?
I never should upset others.
I have to have a perfect body.
I have to be perfectly strong with no emotions.
I have to be good at everything I try.
I can never say “I don’t know.”
My house has to look perfect.
I can never make a mistake.
I can never confess to being scared, sad, or angry.
I can never confess to feeling like a fraud.
I can’t bear being seen as having less than others. I can’t bear being seen as having more than others.
It’s not ok for my children to struggle or fail.
Add another way you need to be perfect here: __________________
We may develop the defense of perfectionism as a way to feel in control in a home, school, or world that feels out-of-control, chaotic, dangerous, hurtful, or unmanageable.
As children, we have big and powerful emotions too overwhelming to deal with alone. Young brains and bodies need adults to calm and soothe them. But when adults won’t, don't or can’t soothe their children, young minds must resort to coping alone by creating defenses that prevent them from becoming emotionally overwhelmed.
Think of Perfectionism as a Defense That Works
Obsessing about being perfect is the action that takes us away from our emotions (and thus the connection to our body) to spare us discomfort and pain. We escape into our obsessive mind.
When people tell me they want to be perfect, I explain the Change Triangle so they can recognize and understand their perfectionistic voice and compulsions as a protective defense. I teach them to listen to the perfectionistic parts of their mind.
For example, I might suggest, "Can you ask your perfectionistic part how it protects you?"
If you suffer perfectionism, maybe you could ask that part of you the same question. You might be surprised that it will answer. When we talk with our perfectionistic part(s), hokey as it may sound, we may discover the specific purpose(s) it serves and the story of how it came to be.
For example, in a recent therapy session, my patient who I'll refer to as Charles, drove himself to be perfect and tortured himself for making any mistakes whatsoever. When he turned inward to ask his perfectionistic part how it was protecting him, it answered, "I protect you from making mistakes and being humiliated."
The next part of the work entailed getting curious about the root of that belief so we could learn what it needed.
"When was the first time you remember being humiliated for making a mistake?"
I invited Charles to gently and curiously tune into that bad feeling of humiliation in his body and bridge back in time to the first memory when he had that same experience. Once we accessed an early memory, we could process the core anger towards his father for shaming him for the innocent mistakes that all children and grownups make - because we are human. Charles said he needed his parents to tell him "It's ok. It's no big deal. You're still a good boy."
After he processed his anger, other emotions like sadness and fear also needed attention and to be released from his body as well. All these emotions had been buried starting in early childhood. Without help from a grownup, these emotions could not be metabolized in a healthy way. Now as an adult, Charles was able to identify and experience his emotions. With practice, tools, and techniques he could ride the full wave of his anger, sadness, and fear, allowing the emotional energy to release. This process ushered in new and deeper states of physical and mental calmness. Charles came to truly believe that when he made mistakes, he wasn't bad, nor worthy of humiliation. As a result, the defense of perfectionism was no longer needed in the same way and it's power melted away.
These principles work for us all. Once core and inhibitory emotions are named, validated, and tended to, the brain rewires for good.
*Remember to strive to be compassionate to yourself and curious when you do these exercises
These are some of the questions I might ask in a therapy session to build greater awareness and self-connection. You can ask yourself these questions too. Then try to answer them:
Think of an example of where you demand perfection or cannot tolerate flaws or mess. Now imagine a scenario where you don’t meet your standard. Who do you imagine criticizing you (besides you)?_________________________
Was there anyone in your childhood that drove you, or for whom you had to be perfect? Or was too imperfect for you?
How old were you when you first remember obsessing about being perfect? Can you see that child self in your mind's eye? What exactly do you see?
What events or relationships might have tilted your innate strivings for excellence into an unhealthy balance?
These kinds of questions are useful because awareness is the precuroser to change. Or in other words, we cannot change what we don't know exists. For example, if you become aware that your parents drove you too hard, you know you have to deal with the core emotions that arose about them. We may not yet realize we are angry about being humiliated, but we are. How could we not be? Or for example, if we remember being stressed or overwhelmed at age 9, we can build a connection between our confident adult self and (the memory) of our 9 year old child part. Then we can use tools and techniques to heal, like learning how to sooth that child part in you when it gets triggered and upset. It may sound hokey, but it works!
The Change Triangle and Perfectionism
Let's look at the Change Triangle for guidance on how to understand, loosen up the grip of perfectionism, and set the stage for healing.
This diagram shows perfectionism as a defense on the Change Triangle. A defense, by definition, is anything we do to avoid experiencing uncomfortable emotions. The purpose of all defenses is honorable. They try to protect us.
Recovering from perfectionism begins with understanding it as a defense. Then the work is about validating and releasing the underlying emotions as they come up and out in the body.
Transforming perfectionism involves:
Recognizing it as a defense against feeling our emotions;
Practicing techniques like grounding, breathing to calm anxiety;
Naming, validating, and moving through the underlying core emotions by re-learning how to experience them fully;
Learning to relate to others from our authentic Self. This requires the courage and trust to own our short-comings, talents, and virtues while being aware of our emotions in real time.
Change such as this takes practice and time as we are literally re-wiring our neural networks. But it really works!
Working the Change Triangle each time we notice our perfectionism slowly turns down the volume of its loudness and intensity. We might continue to notice perfectionistic parts of ourselves for a long time, but perfectionism will no longer rule us. It doesn't need to because we can now tolerate our underlying emotions and deal directly with them. Best of all, we derive the benefits of spending more and more time in our authentic Self. We learn to truly accept and even come to love our perfectly imperfect Self.