The Truth About Perfectionism 

Striving to be good at the things you do can be a good strength to have.  When that desire becomes obsessive and turns into perfectionism, however, we are on dangerous ground.  In this article, we will not only look at ways to identify what it means to be a perfectionist, we will also take a look at its causes and what can be done to combat this defect of character so that genuine happiness can be sought and found.

So what defines the difference between striving to be the best you can be and suffering from perfectionism?  The answer is not a simple one; in order to identify perfectionism, you must take an honest look at its symptoms.

One of the most glaring signs you might be a perfectionist has to do with your level of expectation – not only the expectation you have of yourself, but also the expectation you have of others.  Do you expect a certain reaction from those around you once you’ve gone to great lengths to obtain perfection?

The next symptom (which directly relates to expectation) is determining your personal value or self-worth based on what you’re able to accomplish.  Some perfectionists feel that taking a break is a sign of weakness.  Others feel that any mistake means their value as human beings is somehow lessened.

Another symptom (and byproduct) of perfectionism is incessant unhappiness.  No matter what is accomplished, there never seems to be a sense of serenity or peace of mind.  Since perfectionism is about trying to fix the inside with outside things, there can never be anything that quite ‘hits the spot’.

What Causes Perfectionism?

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In today’s world, it’s not uncommon to be a perfectionist.  Like many defects of character, perfectionism is generally caused by a set of core beliefs that were developed during early childhood or at an impressionable adolescent age.  Some perfectionists come from broken families, and they learned very early on that if they behaved a certain way everybody around them would be happy.  While this may seem somewhat illogical to an adult mind, the minds of children perceive this without ever really identifying the thought; and this perception dominates their behavior from early on in life and carries on into adulthood.

Another common cause for becoming a perfectionist is having been brought up in an abusive household.  Children who are subject to abuse are constantly striving to be perfect to prevent getting into trouble – not realizing they are not to blame.  Similarly, children who are raised by alcoholic or addicted parents who are forced to grow up faster than other children are at high risk of becoming a perfectionist.

What it boils down to is that a perfectionist believes he/she can control other people, places, and things if only he/she manages them well.  The general result is that people revolt, things don’t turn out quite as planned, and all other problems come into play.  Why?  Because a perfectionist is constantly trying to control things that are beyond control.  Instead of focusing on footwork and letting the chips fall where they may, a perfectionist is under the impression that he/she can constantly keep the chips in order when it’s actually an impossible task.

How to Heal from Perfectionism

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As with any character defect, recovering from being a perfectionist starts with acceptance.  If you’re unable to regard your perfectionism as a defect of character or realize the negative impact it has on you and those around you, your chances of recovery will be low.

The next step is to identify some of the core beliefs that were created in childhood and replace them with more positive (and realistic) points of view.  For many, this may require therapy.  A trained therapist can take you through the recesses of your mind and help you identify ideas that were created early on in life by which you are still affected.

If therapy – for whatever reason – is not the right choice for you, there are 12-step groups that deal specifically with defects of character. You may have developed another addiction in addition to perfectionism (which is a sort of addiction), or you may be a prime candidate for Al-Anon.  In working the 12-steps, you uncover some difficult facts about your life and share them with a trusted person, who is generally referred to as a sponsor.

If you suffer from perfectionism, the bottom line is that – at some point – you have to identify the difference between the things you can change and the things over which you have no control.  You must strive to accept people, places, and things that are beyond your control and be willing to make positive changes in your own behavior.  Only then will you develop a true sense of what real happiness is.