The mind and perfectionism
Each of us is born with the desire to grow and progress. There’s something within each of us that wants to be a bit better. I’m not referring to material things per se, although there’s nothing wrong with wanting to secure a sense of financial stability. What I’m referring to however, is the desire to become something greater than we currently are. That desire drives us to develop a number of admirable human traits such as intelligence, compassion, kindness, discipline, charity, etc. Developing these traits and growing as a person brings a level of satisfaction and happiness. It creates a sense that we’re achieving something greater than ourselves; that we’re achieving a purpose in life.
We don’t have to look any further than children to see how this works. The moment a young child learns to speak in full sentences, one of the first concepts they’re able to articulate is how much older they are than babies. They’re so happy and satisfied in showing how much they’ve grown physically, emotionally and intellectually between when they were newborns to where they are currently. Each of us has seen 4 and even 3 year olds proudly state their age and outline things they’re able to do.
The desire to improve and progress is a worthy human trait. Just like everything else in life however, even worthy traits can become vices if not balanced correctly. This seems to be the case with the desire to progress. Somewhere along the way as we grow older many of us have fallen into the deception that striving for progress means that we need to be perfect. Perfectionism ends up being one of our greatest vices and is a weakness that everybody is susceptible to. Being a perfectionist leads to unnecessary levels of stress that can compromise the body’s ability to maintain a healthy state and lead to a number of chronic diseases.
Why is it so easy to get caught up in the web of perfectionism? Certainly there are a lot of variables to consider, but at the root of it are messages and stories we’ve been exposed to; messages and stories we’ve allowed to take root and grow within our minds. As we’ve mentioned on previous posts, the brain is the ultimate hard drive. Our brains have been around long before software, computers or spreadsheets were invented. The brain is engineered in such a way that allows it to process billions of points of data each day. It is the ultimate analytics and data intelligence tool. It sifts, dices, slices and presents answers and solutions to problems based on personal experiences. Our senses provide a wealth of information to our brains every second of everyday through what we hear and see on social media, the news, television, movies, music, etc. Because of the mind’s incredible ability to recollect memories, we can also feel both sympathy and empathy for others. Thus, third party stories that come to us by word of mouth can also have a powerful impact on what our brains process.
Unfortunately we live in a world where there are a lot of false messages that purport perfection as the requirement in order to be accepted. Sometimes these messages come through the media. At other times these messages may come from our own families or friends. They can also come from sources that we trust such as teachers/professors, authors or people that have a strong brand name or are celebrities. I’m not saying that these people are necessarily bad – in fact I would say the vast majority of people want to be good and help others – but it is very possible that their perception of the world is skewed. Wherever the source, the end result is a sense of fear, uncertainty and doubt that’s instilled and reinforced.
These fears instill a level of anxiety and stress based on the perception that we’ll never measure up to some kind of expectation. It’s the same kind of fear that leads people to go without eating because they aren’t thin enough. No matter how much they work out or avoid unhealthy foods, to them their appearance is never good enough. They are constantly comparing themselves to someone else, but no matter what they do they can never measure up. This kind of self inflicted stress changes the biochemical makeup a person has – causing them to make irrational decisions such as skipping meals in order to achieve a goal.
While it may be easy to spot someone suffering from anorexia, if you are the one that is anorexic it can be extremely difficult to see that in yourself. The same is true for everyone that is suffering from perfectionism. To some degree or another, I believe we all suffer from some level of perfectionism. Whether it’s manifested in constantly working late hours or demanding that dishes are placed in the dishwasher a specific way, the key is to become aware of the situation and take steps towards healing ourselves. It’s important to understand that apart from the emotional damage that perfectionism brings, it also brings physical ailments as well. This is primarily because perfectionists can become upset or angered rather easily when things don’t go as they expect them to. This causes the body to generate an excess amount of cortisol in the body. When excess cortisol is created, the immune system is compromised. Over constant and extended periods of time this leaves the body very susceptible to diseases and chronic issues that the immune system can typically handle when healthy.
As a way to help bring awareness, I wanted to outline a few characteristics I’ve commonly seen among perfectionists. This list isn’t comprehensive, nor is it meant to say that perfectionists suffer from all of the following traits, but the list can help provide insight on ways to help us all recognize unhealthy habits so that we can modify our lifestyles accordingly.
Difficulty delegating – life is busy. Everybody has a lot going on. If you’re married and have kids, schedules can become complicated as you juggle a number of competing priorities. One of the greatest blessings we have in life is family and friends. Perfectionists have a hard time delegating responsibility in the home, work place or any other situation. In their minds things will fall apart if it’s not done a certain way. That way is almost always their way. They have a hard time trusting others however to execute whatever plan needs to take place. Because of this, they delegate menial tasks to others, while taking on the hard and burdensome ones themselves. This leads to trust issues between perfectionists and anybody that has to work or live with them. It also leaves them with a tremendous burden with constant stress on their minds.
Always right – this one ties into why they’re unwilling to delegate. They are always the ones that are right. They always have to lead and show everybody that they are wrong. This can even be manifested in something as simple as washing the dishes or making the bed. If a task isn’t done a certain way, the perfectionist will always instruct on the “right way” to do things. They have a hard time keeping an open mind to new methods of doing things for a couple of reasons. One is because it shows that they’re wrong. The other reason is because it may require them to learn something new and that scares them – because it puts them in a position where they have to learn something new and because it is new they won’t know very much about it.
Difficult to forgive – this not only deals with their ability to forgive others. It also has to do with a perfectionist’s ability to forgive them self. Perfectionists in fact are extremely hard on themselves whenever they make a mistake. They can dwell on things for days, weeks and in some cases even years. They don’t like to be exposed as vulnerable or incorrect so when mistakes happen they often beat themselves up quite a bit mentally to the point where they can even question other skill sets they possess. They find it difficult to forgive others because they have a hard time understanding that imperfection is a part of living. They assume that people who are good, successful, etc rarely (if ever) make mistakes. This leads them to believe that those that make mistakes are buffoons or idiots.
Overcritical of others – our ability to judge another’s performance is natural and part of who we are. We certainly wouldn’t want to put our lives at risk by hopping on a plane with a pilot that isn’t competent. There’s a big difference however with judging somebody’s ability to perform and always finding something to be critical of. This can also be true of being overcritical of organizations. Often times this criticism comes because they feel that if they were in charge of a particular project or if it was up to them to perform some task, that the outcome would be better.
I mentioned earlier that there are a number of voices and messages that we receive on a daily basis. Unfortunately many voices steer us away from what we truly desire – personal growth and development. Perfectionism is one of the most pervasive voices that can hinder our ability to grow. I’ve found that as a rule of thumb, one of the best ways to sift through truth and lies is whether or not what I hear gives me the desire to improve in my dealings with others – whether that be in my association with colleagues at work or with the relationship I have with my spouse and children. The impressions I receive to improve are always accompanied by a sense of edification – not the desperation and anxiety that accompany perfectionism.
Earlier I mentioned how perfectionists don’t want to appear vulnerable among others. There’s certainly nothing wrong with keeping vulnerabilities private. At the same time there’s nothing wrong with admitting to ourselves or others that we’re vulnerable to begin with. Some of the most genuine moments come when people have placed themselves in a position of vulnerability. Just think of whenever you’ve seen someone interviewed on television or radio. One of the first things we judge people by is how sincere or genuine they are. Whenever a person opens up and shows their real self – strengths and weaknesses – connections are made. There’s great power in making genuine connections. It allows us the ability to make greater impacts in every aspect of our life and with all those we come in contact with. One of the first steps to eliminating a perfectionist attitude is recognizing that mistakes and errors are how we grow, and that there’s nothing wrong with making, admitting and acknowledging our shortcomings and faults.