Last night, my husband and I had a pseudo-psychotherapy with his struggle about perfectionism. Lately, he’s been working with a web development project, but he can’t seem to get past it. He has this ideal outcome,but since his present skill cannot meet his high standards, his perfectionist inner critic started judging him which pulled his spirit down.
During our 2-hour conversation, and knowing that this has always been his issue in many areas of his life, I asked him, “how long has been this self-critic living inside you?”
“As early as I can remember, ever since I was a child I guess,” he replied.
“Seems like you were afraid of committing mistakes or falling short from your ideals. In your earliest recollection, what happened when you committed mistakes before?” I followed up.
“My parents would broadcast it to others, and it’s shameful, I wanted to hide.”
Summarizing what he shared with me, I said, “so when you were a child, whenever you commit mistakes of some sort, your parents would tell it to other people even when you’re there, and then it felt horrible and shameful. It seems like the self-critic developed…”
“… to protect me.”
For a long time, my husband has thought of his perfectionist self as an antagonist, someone who must be avoided at all cost, to shut out and to be conquered, otherwise he would feel worse about himself, and he wouldn’t be able to live his life to the fullest.
Little did he know, his perfectionist self evolved to protect his vulnerability. It’s continuing its job to push him to be perfect always to avoid the shaming he experienced when he was a child. This then led him to not accept, deny, and repress his imperfect self — a self that we all have.
Like my husband, maybe you’re being burdened by your perfectionist self too. But how should you deal with it? I don’t have clear cut answers to that; my suggestions below are not something carved on a stone, or something you can replace with psychotherapy/counselling, rather they are just a guide to increase your self-awareness, and hopefully to lead you to seek more understanding for yourself.
1. Refer back to your earliest recollection of the event or situation that made you afraid of committing a mistake.
I have encountered a 45-year old woman who has a perfectionist self. She related that when she was a child, with no mother and away from his father and his support, she strived to do what was right all the time, and pushed herself through her limits. There’s nothing wrong with those of course, but she critiques herself oftentimes.
Deep within her, she was afraid that her aunts might discontinue supporting her and her two younger siblings. This was also to prove to them that their efforts of sending them to school and providing for them were not in vain. She learned that anything worth doing, is worth doing perfectly. Clearly, her perfectionist self developed to help her survive, to ensure her guardians’ continuous support.
2. Accept your past
All of us didn’t have a perfect life nor perfect parents; and as children experiencing uncomfortable situations, either we need to adjust and learn to protect ourselves from emotional pains, or we strive to be someone else to gain acceptance from the important people in our lives. No matter what we do, we cannot change the story of our past, but we can write a new story of our future.
3. Accept your perfectionist self, recognize its strengths and limitations.
Your perfectionist self has a purpose why it exist in your life. There are times when it can be helpful to you, yet there are also times which it can make you feel down.
4. Accept your imperfect self and recognize what it can do in your life
We all have an imperfect self within us – someone who isn’t afraid to commit mistakes, someone who is free to experiment, someone who isn’t overly concern of other people’s judgments. We were all born like that, like a toddler who is free to explore his surroundings. Yet to adjust to unpleasant and painful events in our childhood, the perfectionist self-critic emerged, and taper down that imperfect self to protect our vulnerability. But know that our imperfect self can help us be kind and compassionate to ourselves, and to other people’s imperfections as well.
5. Write a letter to your dominant perfectionist self and/or denied imperfect self.
You can compose a letter to your perfectionist/imperfect self from your present adult state. Tell these selves of yours how you feel about what he/she has been through. You can appreciate the role of your perfectionist self, and welcome back your imperfect self. This way, both of your selves will be accepted and integrated as a part of you.
6. Be mindful when your perfectionist self is dominating you.
Yes your perfectionist self is a part of you, in fact an important one, but it’s not the only part of you, and you don’t have to be enslaved by it. Realize its strengths and when it’s helping you, but don’t listen to it when it’s pulling you down on a given situation. When you already have accepted your imperfect self; you can tap its strength, a strength you may have not known before.
A journey to self-acceptance will not be that easy: you’re in a tug-of-war between getting rid of your perfectionist self, and welcoming back your imperfect self; you get hurt by the perfectionist in you, yet you are afraid of what the imperfect self may cause you. The perfectionist who developed to protect you, is now hurting you.
Nobody can teach you about acceptance, it’s all a matter of how determined you are to change your perspective in life.
Your perfectionist inner critic wants you to attain a certain level of standards, it can be beneficial whenever you apply it at work or at a project, yet it can hurt you when you apply it to your relationship with others and with yourself. When you are ready, know when to listen to your perfectionist self, and know when to let your imperfect self take the reign.
Voice Dialogue: Embracing All Ourselves by Dr. Hal Stone and Dr. Sidra Stone
The Emotionally Absent Mother by by Jasmin Lee Cori, MS LPC