What is perfectionism and why is perfectionism a coping mechanism?

Do you believe our culture’s version of what being a perfectionist looks like?

Here’s why I ask:

Perfectionism is nothing like how it’s portrayed in our culture and on tv. I mean, NOTHING.

The Monica Geller’s (remember Friends?) and April Kepner’s (Grey’s Anatomy, anyone?) of the television world are somewhat annoying and anal-retentive, but they get the job done and so perfectionism must be a good thing, right?

Well, no… that’s what they want you to believe, but it isn't rooted in reality. In fact, being a perfectionist is a bad thing.

There’s a very persistent and dangerous misunderstanding about what perfectionism is and this misunderstanding is perpetuated in the media and in popular culture.

I bought into this myth for a long time. Until I started to do the research, read #allthebooks, and dig deep into my own story of how my perfectionism started and how it shows up in my life.

Here’s what I’ve come up with about what perfectionism REALLY is and why I believe that perfectionism is a coping mechanism.

 After lots of research and soul searching, here's what I’ve come up with about what perfectionism REALLY is and why I believe that perfectionism is a coping mechanism. Click through to watch the video, read the post, and get your free workbook! Overcoming perfectionism / recovering perfectionist / perfectionism inspiration / progress not perfection / perfectionist / perfectionism definition / let go of perfectionism / stop being a perfectionist
 

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Transcript

What is perfectionism and why is perfectionism a coping mechanism?

 

Hey you, welcome to #perfectionistproblems the show. I’m so excited you’re here!

It’s so awesome to me that you want to spend your time with me this week and hopefully in the upcoming weeks too.

In this week’s workshop, we’re going to take a deep dive into the topic of perfectionism and - specifically - why perfectionism is a coping mechanism.

My name is Wendy and I run a website called The Gratefulist where I help stressed-out perfectionist turn into recovering perfectionists. I’ve made it my mission to encourage women to overcome their perfectionism and embrace their perfectly imperfect selves, so that they can finally go all in on their dreams.

I started years ago with a $10 gratitude journal, writing down 3 things I’m grateful for everyday. That journal later turned into a perfectionism journal, when I was tired of my perfectionism holding me back and I had finally mustered up the courage to try and figure out how to slay the perfectionism dragon. It’s crazy to me how a simple, $10 notebook turned into this passion project where I’m giving these workshops to help you (and others like you) let go of your perfectionism.

I’m also an avid beach lover, as you can see. Beaches and bright colors are my jam. I’m a gratitude geek, obsessed with the tv show Scandal, and driving around in my bright red convertible is my guilty pleasure.

Let me know in the comments, what are you currently obsessed with? A song, a tv show, a movie?
 

 

How I got started with overcoming my perfectionism


So, last week I shared my journey from being the capital P Perfectionist to being the capital G Gratefulist and the story of what lead to my decision of starting to let go of perfectionism.

This week, I want to focus on the insights I gained when a dove deep into the topic of perfectionism, how I define perfectionism, and why I wholeheartedly believe it is a coping mechanism.

To pick up where I left off last week, 5 years ago I decided to take a long hard look at my perfectionism as I felt it was standing in my way and actually holding me back from going after the goals and dreams I wanted to pursue.

I felt like my perfectionism wasn’t good for me and that it kept me small and stagnant, but I was terrified to give it up and I didn’t know how to move forward.

I fell into the trap of buying into our culture’s idea of what perfectionism is for a while, but I soon learned that this is a lie. More on that later.

So, how I got started is this: I did a lot of research and read all there is to know about perfectionism. I dove into the scientific research about perfectionism and turned to science for answers. Now, there hasn’t been a lot of research done into the topic of perfectionism, even though some of the research dates back to the 70’s. The scientific research is still in the stage of trying to define what perfectionism is. They’re debating over whether there’s such a thing as good and bad perfectionism and which traits are associated with perfectionism. So, science wasn’t that much of a help.

I tried finding blogs about perfectionism, but I couldn’t really find any (which is one of the main reasons of why I started The Gratefulist).

Brené Brown’s books - The Gifts of Imperfection & Daring Greatly - were monumental for me in understanding what perfectionism really is. I also loved Shauna Niequist’s book Present over Perfect.
 

 

What is perfectionism?


I’ve been studying perfectionism ever since, trying to come up with my definition of what perfectionism is. And I’ve really been doing the work on myself.

So, what is perfectionism?

I’m a firm believer in this notion of: if you want to change a habit, you first need to understand it, both the habit itself and why you turn to that habit.

I believe that, if you want to be able to let go of your perfectionism, you first need to understand it. You can’t change what you don’t understand.

Let’s start with what perfectionism is NOT.

There’s a very persistent and dangerous misunderstanding about what perfectionism is and this misunderstanding is perpetuated in the media and in popular culture.

Most of us think that perfectionism is a collection of personality traits, like type A, attention to detail, and being very organized.

It’s how perfectionism is portrayed in popular culture. It’s how we talk to each other. She’s so type A, she’s such a perfectionist! Or Stop fussing over details, you’re such a perfectionist! Right?

Well, nope, that couldn’t be more false.

I started questioning this theory based on my own personal experiences, because I knew I didn’t suddenly turn into a perfectionist once I started focusing on details and being all organized. Those things happened as a response to my perfectionism.

Perfectionism really is a dangerous and harmful way of thinking and behaving.

Perfectionism is a coping mechanism that we use when we feel scared, insecure, uncertain, and/or not good enough.

You know, those moments when you feel insecure or uncertain, like when you meet your in-laws for the first time or when you’re faced with a deadline on an important work project, trigger a fearful thought pattern within you that goes like this:

'If I do this perfectly or have a perfect life or look perfect, I am in control and therefore people can't hurt me or see me for who I really am.'

Here’s where I get really personal and vulnerable.

Because “a fear-based coping mechanism and thought pattern as a response to insecurity, uncertainty, and feelings of unworthiness”, what does that mean, right?

When I dug deep into my own history, I began to see how perfectionism had taken root in me at a young age.

As a kid, my good grades got me love and attention and praise. To me, it felt like love was conditional. Not who I was, but how I performed determined whether I was good enough and deserved love. And that hurts! That hurts to say!

This dangerous thought pattern became the core of my belief system:

‘If my school or work performance determines whether I get love and attention or not, I better perform perfectly so that I can make sure that I never feel the pain of not getting love and attention again.’

Being the smart girl became my identity.

After digging even deeper and getting more vulnerable with myself, I also came to see that what I’d always assumed where my perfectionist super powers (like being diligent, preferring quality over quantity, and holding myself to high standards), were actually MY super powers.

They’re MY strengths and MY talents. And all these years, I’d been abusing them through perfectionism.

Now, this was my story and my circumstances which I used as an example.

The topic and circumstance may change from person to person, but what I’ve found is that the mechanism of perfectionism is the same for everyone.
 

 

The birthplace of perfectionism: two core areas


What that means is this. There are two core areas that are the birthplace of perfectionism: appearance and performance.

Our society and culture only views girls in one of two ways. Girls are either the smart girl or the pretty girl. Nothing more.

Both of these boxes are constructed based on outside judgements. We, as a society, don’t tell girls they’re good enough as they are, but that only how well they perform and how good they look matters. Which is really sad. I wish we could celebrate girls for how fabulous they really are instead of pushing them into a box.

So, there are two boxes, two molds for girls.

I was definitely the smart girl and I bought into that smart girl persona hook, line, and sinker. I believed the messaging:

if you perform perfectly - that means getting good grades, picking the perfect college, graduating with honors, getting a top notch job etc - if you perform perfectly you will be worthy of love.

Now, the mechanism of perfectionism for the pretty girl stereotype is the same.

They feel like, not who they are, but how good they look determines whether they are good enough and deserve love.

And so they believe:

‘If my appearance and how good I look determines whether I get love and attention or not, I better appear perfect so that I can make sure that I never feel the pain of not getting love and attention again.’

And so girls and women who focus on the perfect appearance focus on looking good, having the perfect body, healthy eating, having the perfect exercise routine, but also if they and their spouse are the perfect picture, if they’re children are dressed perfectly, and things like that.

That’s how perfectionism shows up in their lives.
 

Action item


Phew, that was a lot of information! I know this is a lot to take in. It might even bring up some painful memories for you.

That’s why I think it’s important to take action on what you’ve learned. Here’s my challenge for you this week. Take some time to answer these questions:

  • What is the birthplace of YOUR perfectionism?

  • Were you stereotyped as the smart girl or the pretty girl growing up?

 

And then, finish this sentence:

‘If ____ determines whether I get love and attention or not, I better ____ perfectly so that I can make sure that I never feel the pain of not getting love and attention again.’

Use the examples from this lesson, or maybe you can come up with a more detailed and accurate version of the thought pattern at the root of your perfectionism.


 

That’s all I got this week. I loved, loved, loved spending time with you. I’d love for you to join our Facebook group for a little after-hours chatting about today’s topic.

And I’ll be back next week with a new episode of #perfectionistproblems the show, where we’ll be talking about 4 things you can do when you're stuck in perfectionism. It’s going to be a good one!

Hope to see you next time!

 

Are you stuck in perfectionism and need little help letting go of the perfectionist tendencies that are holding you back? Then make sure to download your FREE copy of my perfectionism-busting workbook. Just click that pretty yellow button ;)

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Hi there! I’m Wendy, perfectionism coach and host of the #perfectionistproblems community for recovering perfectionists. I’m insanely passionate about helping you overcome your perfectionism, so that you can stop caring so much about what other people think and finally take on those dream projects that you've been putting off for so long.