Pointing Toward Progress: Overcoming Perfectionism to Protect Mental and Physical Health

For people like me, nothing ever seems good enough. 

Many of us grew up hearing or believing that we were too much or not enough–sometimes both at the same time.

As a child or teen, the things that didn’t meet my caliber of perfectionism might be a school book report or research paper, the simple task the boss assigned in my first job that should have taken 15 minutes, but instead took hours or days as I over-thought it, rewrote it, and over-tweaked it until it no longer resembled the assignment I was given. If it didn’t meet my exacting standards, it was trash. 

Perfectionism can manifest as an acquired habit, such as watching and learning from a parent or caregiver, or as a byproduct of a stressful and demanding environment. Filled with fear, judgment, and unrealistically high expectations, many children and adults who are diagnosed with perfectionism are also suffering from anxiety and OCD behaviors.

For me, this need for perfection began in childhood with an overbearing parent. No matter how I would try to please them, it was never good enough. No chore was done “right”. No amount of effort I put into a task was enough. The unfortunate consequence with this type of parenting resulted in the procrastination of simple tasks, as the anxiety of simply beginning something I knew I could do, but had convinced myself I would screw up, left me bawled up in a fetal-position, dreading the final outcome. If I couldn’t get it right, if I couldn’t start and finish it on time, I just wouldn’t bother with it. Not doing it all seemed better than trying and disappointing them…or myself.

Fast forward twenty plus years and not much has changed. I’m aware of my trauma. I work on it daily, but the anxiety of perfectionism lingers. It affects my everyday life with my family and my work. I won’t accept a new work project that I know I can do, because who am I kidding? I’ll take too long to complete it, or it won’t have the right vocabulary, or I’ll make a wrong edit, or….

There’s that voice from my past, weighing in and making sure she’s heard.

The voice of perfectionism can be deafening, rattling around inside my head, affecting not only myself but my coworkers, family, and friends.

What if my children follow my behaviors? What if I don’t hide these tendencies well enough and they also think that perfection is the only way or nothing at all? Sadly, this has been the case for one of my children. Watching him struggle with the big emotions of a child on the spectrum, but also with multiple other diagnoses, including OCD and anxiety and perfectionism, is not just difficult for me, but a reminder of my past. I just want to fix it for him. I want to work on myself for me, but also for him. I want him to know that these behaviors don’t have to control us. 

Recognizing my need to have everything “just so” and the way I project that onto my husband and kids is crucial. They should not have to absorb or endure my anxiety around performance. They do not need to live in an anxiety-filled home with a parent who believes they aren’t good enough, or can’t do anything right, as I did. I do not need to repeat that trauma.

As a perfectionist, I know I may never get to a place where I feel things are completely resolved. My mindset needs to shift from perfection to progress so that my internal voice doesn’t begin to affect my mental and physical health, my relationships, and my work performance. 

I’m learning how to do this, slowly. There is nothing wrong with wanting to show the world my best self, my best work; but pushing myself to the point of anxiety and the inability to function normally isn’t worth it. I deserve better. I am worth more. 

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