How to Recognize and Overcome Perfectionism

Perfectionism will undermine your self-confidence like nothing else. Trying to maintain a facade of perfection all the time and holding yourself to unachievable standards is exhausting; I know, I've tried. But before you can do anything about perfectionism, you need to be able to recognize it.

Here are some clues that you might be suffering from perfectionism:

  • A deep fear of failure, and sense of devastation when it happens

  • Getting upset when you don't win all the time

  • Feeling ashamed of your thoughts and emotions

  • Holding back on expressing how you really feel

  • Fear of what others might think of you

  • A sense of self-consciousness

  • Using sarcasm or passive aggression when relating to others

  • Communicating non-assertively

  • Being driven to high achievement all the time-to-time

  • Difficulty relaxing

Any of this sound familiar?

Ok, so now we can see the problem, here are two different ways of looking at it:

  1. You're not perfect, and never will be. Neither is anyone else. Pretending to be perfect when you're really not is living a lie. It cuts you off from relating deeply to other people, because they can't relate to your facade of invulnerability. As a result, you sometimes come across as distant or aloof. If this approach appeals to you, read Radical Honesty by Brad Blanton.
  2. You are perfect just the way you are, simply because you are exactly how you are. Arguing with yourself internally that you should be something else is futile, because you clearly aren't the something else that you pretend to be. You are perfectly yourself, right now. Everything about the present moment is always perfect because it's always exactly the way that it is. Accept reality, and stop fighting it. If this approach appeals to you, read Loving What Is by Byron Katie.

Whichever approach you choose, there are some common elements. One of the major factors underlying perfectionism is shame: the sense that there is something wrong with us, and that people won't love us if they find out. The difference in these two approaches is that the first attacks the lie that people won't love us if they find out (in fact, they'll usually love us more), and the second attacks the lie that there is something wrong with us in the first place (in fact, being real is just fine).

The key to overcoming shame is to start being more open, honest and real with other people. Find people you can trust who you can share you deepest, darkest thoughts and feelings with. Share your joy and happiness as well. The evil thing about perfectionism is that it makes us self-conscious about who we are and how we feel, and we end up losing our freedom of expression. We lose sight of who we are, and become numb to the pain of being trapped in a fake personality that constricts us all the time.

Perfectionism is also based on another lie that we picked up when we were very young: that other people will love us if we're perfect. It's an insidious lie, because it's the complete opposite of the truth. As a kid we were taught to behave and presenting a facade of niceness to our parents and teachers in order to avoid getting into trouble. We learned rules about how to get on with other people, how to be a good person, and how to succeed in life generally. We were punished if we got things wrong, and rewarded when we got them right.

The people who taught us these rules often had their own agenda, like keeping us quiet in the classroom or maintaining control over us, sometimes for our own good. Often we picked up their baggage in the process, and learned to be good and play to the lowest common denominator in order to stay out of trouble. We learned to hold back and pretend that we were perfect, good little boys.

But as an adult, other people will generally warm to us much more quickly and deeply if we're prepared to expose some of our rough edges, our inner conflicts, and our true thoughts and emotions. In order to do that comfortably, we need to become comfortable with our true selves, and the first step towards doing that is to drop the facade we present to other people.

Let people we trust in past the defenses and learn to be real with them. If you routinely keep your feelings to yourself, it's time to start exposing your emotions to other people. It'll feel awkward at first, but just go with whatever comes up. Express the awkwardness too. It's normal. You may even be so out of touch with how you feel that you don't know how you feel anymore, and just feel numb. Read Section 2 on Emotional Mastery in Confident Man and get the process started.

If you've been using strategies like sarcasm or passive aggression to avoid feeling or expressing your true emotions, it's time to drop them. Perhaps they got you through some sticky situations in the past, but now it's time to start being assertive instead and putting out how you really feel. Learn to stop judging your feelings, and accept them the way they are. When you start accepting your feelings, you'll find that other people start accepting them too. In fact, that's the same with anything about yourself: once you accept it, others will too.

Most of all, stop judging yourself. Other people reflect our own inner world back to us, so if we're highly judgmental of ourselves, we'll find that other people will be judgmental of us too. When you start accepting yourself warts and all, you'll find yourself more relaxed around other people, and you'll end up getting a warmer more accepting response from others.

Of course, there may be the occasional fall-out. Trying to be perfect is really just a way of trying to avoid the pain of rejection, and some people aren't going to like the new you. They might be jealous of your freedom, or just uncomfortable because they haven't overcome their own perfectionism and fear exposure. You may experience the occasional rejection and the associated pain that you've been avoiding; but you will learn to deal with that pain and discover that it's not so bad after all. Maybe you'll lose some friends, but you'll gain a whole heap more, and your relationships with the new ones will be a whole lot deeper and more satisfying.

So drop the facade of perfectionism and start being real today. Not only will you build your confidence, but you'll also set your true self free in the process.

Graham Stoney

About Graham Stoney

I struggled for years with low self-esteem, anxiety and a lack of self-confidence before finding a solution that really worked. I created The Confident Man Program to help other men live the life of their dreams. I also offer 1-on-1 coaching via Skype so if you related to this article contact me about coaching.

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