Why do so many women struggle with perfectionism? Are you one of them?
Perfectionism is a problem. And women in particular struggle with it a lot.
But perfectionism must be doing something right, otherwise it wouldn’t be an appealing option to so many of us.
I’m 100% convinced that perfectionism takes away from us and holds us back, but it must give us something too.
Let’s find out what that is.
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Perfectionism as a way of coping with the messages we receive
We, as a society, don’t tell women they’re good enough as they are, but that only how well they perform and how good they look matters.
Women grow up with the message that they’re not good enough, that who they are and what they have to say doesn’t matter. Men have to deal with a lot of pressure too, but at least they have the experience that when they speak people listen and take them seriously.
Women have a different experience. We need to be good and don’t rock the boat. We need to be small and silent. We need to follow the rules and please others.
Women, for the most part, are considered equal, until there’s a hint of us out-debating, out-performing, and out-shining men. Society can’t handle that. Most men can’t handle that.
So, we dull the shine. We start questioning our worth. We stay quiet and start shoving down who we really are. We disassociate from ourselves, our bodies, and our intuition. And we start using our perfectionism as a way of coping with all of this.
Obviously, this is a generalization and it’s impossible to summarize 60 years of gender theory and gender studies in a few paragraphs. And you could have a different story depending on your experiences and on how you were raised.
But still, you’re inundated with the message that women need to get in line and what we have to say doesn’t matter every day. Because it’s our culture. This small-minded view of women is institutionalized in every aspect of our society and culture, in our schools and our workplaces.
Call it institutionalized misogyny, which sounds harsh, but it IS something we have to deal with.
Perfectionism meets a need for us
Blaming misogyny and unfair treatment of women for our perfectionism would be too easy though. Because perfectionism gives us something and it meets a need for us somewhere, otherwise we wouldn't be behaving this way.
So, what could that possibly be?
Perfectionism keeps us from being shamed
Women have been chronically overfunctioning for years, ever since we emerged on the work scene and took on the overwhelming challenge of trying to juggle full-time work with full-time family responsibilities.
We have to have it all and do it effortlessly, because if we don’t, we get shamed for being a bad mom, a bad wife, a bad employee.
Over the years we’ve internalized all of these impossible standards and we’re terrified of not measuring up. Overfunctioning and perfectionism have become our trusted countermeasures.
Because if we don’t do everything, something terrible will occur: we’ll miss out on a critical development, someone else will do it wrong, the children’s welfare will be jeopardized, we’ll be ridiculed or judged harshly, or we’ll be seen as ‘less than’.
And, if we can’t be the best at all that we do, we’ll be an abject failure. Which leads to more shame. It’s a vicious cycle.
Perfectionism keeps us from feeling vulnerable
Most women are serious go-getters. We are extremely good at doing things for everyone else, but we put ourselves last. We do one project and are on to the next. We have enormously high expectations of ourselves which we can rarely reach and if we do reach them, it’s at a huge cost.
Why do we act this way?
We act this way because the other way of being - standing up for ourselves, being imperfect, saying no, letting go of outcomes - all require being vulnerable.
And being vulnerable has an unstable outcome, and possibly a painful one like failure, so we just don’t. We do what we know to stay safe.
Perfection means we aren't vulnerable. If we make no mistakes, there's no outward appearance of our inner weaknesses. For some reason we're totally okay with comforting and cheering on others in their mistakes, but we can't accept the same humanity within ourselves.
Perfectionism gives us a sense of power and control
We think perfectionism makes us feel powerful. We think it is the thing that will make us confident. But it actually lends itself to more insecurity than ever before because we become consumed by people's responses instead of living open, wholehearted, brave lives.
We also think it gives us a measure of control. But that’s a fallacy, because what we’re really trying to control is how people perceive us or the work we do. But we can't make other people like us. We can't control perception.
Perfectionism gives us a sense of validation
Somehow, we have this idea that if we achieve ‘perfection’ in some area or all areas, life will be better. We'll be happier, we'll feel like we've done enough, achieved enough, worked hard enough, and that all of the crap we've dealt with will have been worth it.
It's the ultimate validation of every choice we've ever made.
Perfectionism gives us love and safety
To us, perfection means that we'll receive the love we were missing somewhere along the way, from emotionally unavailable parents, unrequited crushes, crappy relationships, mean girls, and more.
Perfection also means that we'll be safe. That if we play by enough rules and do everything ‘just so’, we'll be safe from people who’ve hurt us or the people who have the potential to hurt us.
And we think we'll be safe from heartbreak. That if we're good enough, we won't be alone or rejected.
How to stop the perfectionism struggle
Okay, so how do you overcome perfectionism? How to get rid of perfectionism and stop the perfectionism struggle? Let’s get to work.
Grab a notebook or a journal to answer these questions.
[But of course, if your preferred method for processing and reflecting is whipping out a paint brush, cooking a three-course meal, going for a run, or talking with a trusted friend, that’s fine too!]
What are the pivotal moments in your backstory when it comes to perfectionism?
When did you first become aware if your perfectionism?
How did it start?
Was there someone in particular telling you you’re not good enough?
Did something happen that convinced you you’re not good enough?
Are there moments in your life when your perfectionism intensified (or became less intense)?
Where does your perfectionism show up most for you: in your work, relationships, motherhood, household chores, etc?
Go as far back as you need to. Use as much detail as you feel is necessary.
What’s the cultural messaging you buy into?
Do you consider perfection to be an ideal, something to strive for?
What causes you to feel the pressure to be perfect? When or in which circumstances does this happen?
When it comes to the media, the online blog-osphere, and popular culture, what triggers you to feel “less than” and “not enough”?
Which impossible standards our culture imposes on you causes you to question your worth? (Finishing this prompt might help: ‘As a woman, I should be/feel/do _______’)
Talk about this with your girlfriends. I promise, it will be so enlightening!
What need of yours is met by your perfectionism?
It might be one of the needs I mentioned earlier or it might be something else entirely.
If so, I’d love for you to share it in the comments (if you’re comfortable doing so, of course!), because I’m sure your insights will help others too.
And finally, start doing the work to let go of your perfectionism
Perfectionism is a coping mechanism that you’ve been carrying around for many years. Changing your habits and learning a new way of coping is going to take some time.
If you’re you stuck in perfectionism and in need of little help letting go of the perfectionist tendencies that are holding you back, then make sure to download (for free!) a copy of my perfectionism-busting workbook.
The workbook comes with a perfectionism journal and 4 steps to help you get started with dismantling your perfectionist coping mechanism.
In wrapping up this blog post, I want to be clear.
I think that these needs and the reasons of why women struggle with perfectionism are illusions, entirely.
Not the needs themselves, because our need for love and safety and validation is real and natural. But the thought that perfectionism can attribute to those needs. It won’t. It never will.
In fact, perfectionism is a barrier between us and our needs, because perfectionism is a prison of Never Good Enough.
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.