Perfectionism seeps in and attaches itself to every healthy intention. It blinds a soul to what is good, normal, and right, resulting in a forced compulsion only to “perform” to the expectations outside our control. Rather than feeling joy from using talents, gifts, and interests, we feel depleted and empty. We’ve given it all away and look to the wrong places for affirmation and regeneration. Perfectionism takes away choice in our actions and leaves obligation, pain, and shame.
It robs our ability to think realistically about goals and plan accordingly. “Why can’t I?” “How could I?” and “Why didn’t I?” replace the flexible mindset of “I tried my best.” Brené Brown summarized the harm of perfectionism beautifully when she wrote, Healthy striving is self-focused: "How can I improve?" Perfectionism is other-focused: "What will they think?”
Advice for the Perfectionist: Take Comfort In Your Unimportance (Really)
The spotlight effect refers to the tendency for individuals to think that others are observing them more closely than they actually are. Each of us views our individual self as the center of our own universe. And while this may be true for us, we tend to forget that we are not the center of everyone else's universe. Our entire world consists of our own personal experiences and viewpoints that creates narrative out of everything (and everyone) around us. It’s easy to forget that while we’re the protagonist in our own story, to most everyone else, we’re a loved supporting character, a valued, but sporadic comic relief or emotional validation, or even just a passing impression.
Perfectionists have beautiful gifts of compassion, sensitivity, and the desire to please, help, and serve others. We feel awesome when we make others feel awesome. But the reverse can be true, we feel totally unawesome sometimes about another person’s reaction over which we have no control. When our gifts are understood, nurtured, and guided to create intrinsic motivation, balanced with teaching and growth in the setting of boundaries, the gifts grow and bloom—as does our purpose and joy. But if we confuse our purpose with making everyone happy—an impossible goal from the start—we feel lost, depleted, and alone.
Weaving The Web Of Obligation
Imagine that with each person you great with a hello, handshake, wave, hug, or high-five, depending on your familiarity and preference. You give them a string and say, “pull this whenever you need me,” and attach it to yourself—arm, leg, head, foot, etc. You can see where we’re going with this, right? Every person you greet. Regardless of how long you’ve known them, what your relationship is—friend, coworker, cashier, UPS driver, neighbor, dog-walker, doctor, school principal, partner, kids, parents, siblings, plumber, etc. That’s a lot of strings. And when each person pulls, you move to her or his pull. This brings meaning to the phrase pulled in a million different directions, right? How functional can you possibly be? What is walking like? My visualization: you’re suspended, pulled equally in every direction, unable to move towards anyone.
Let’s take it one step further. For the repeating string pullers, your right arm, left pinky, or right knee satisfies for a while, but then they develop a preference. “Can I have your right shoulder please?” And what do you say? “Sure.” You must have an incredible right shoulder because everyone eventually wants their string attached to that part of you. 100 right shoulder pullers pulling repeatedly thinking, “My string is broken, why isn’t this working. What’s wrong with you?” Meanwhile, you’re thinking, Why can’t I do this? I must try harder. I’m not worth anything if I can’t give these 100 people equal 100% attention at pulling my right shoulder.”
It’s impossible to do anything well, to connect deeply with any one person. It’s easy to look at this picture and say it’s ridiculous: Why would anyone in their right mind do such a thing? But we do.
So with people pleasing at the top of the list, why do perfectionists—kind, compassionate, overly eager to please, love, and comfort others—act so mean sometimes? As Brene Brown explains, “When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated.” (Remember the 100 shoulder pullers?) “This is why we sometimes attack who they are, which is far more hurtful than addressing a behavior or a choice.”
The solution to this constant feeling of failure, this torturing yourself with others’ (imagined or real) disappointment is hard but simple. Cut the strings. Lose the spotlight. You can still be loving, kind, and giving within the boundaries of yourself. Love your best, then let it rest. Overachieving and overextending won’t serve you the way you think it will. When you say “no,” take time to call back, respond, have “less time” for meeting requests, or simply don’t dive into every interaction with the goal of making the other person feel like Mr. or Ms. Absolutely Fabulous, some people may get angry or express hurt. But without those strings freezing you in-place, you will walk in the direction you choose. And those who love you will come hold your hand instead of pulling your strings.