The Paradox of Perfectionism: Striving for Perfect in an Imperfect World 

It’s 2011, and I am in the final stage of an interview for a role in an international charity. We were getting to the last few minutes, and my potential manager asked: “What would you say is one of your biggest weaknesses?”. My lips turn into a subtle smile, and I say, “Perfectionism, it’s very hard for me not to deliver things to the highest standard.” To me, it was something I carried like a badge of honor, and while it technically fit in the “weakness” category, who wouldn’t want someone who thrived for excellence? Right? What’s not to like? Well, it turns out I was wrong, more than I could have ever imagined. 

Perfectionism is often portrayed as an unyielding quest for flawlessness where every aspect of our work must impeccably align with high standards. But what if there’s more to perfectionism than meets the eye? 

 What if, beneath the surface, it’s not about achieving perfection in our endeavors but seeking perfection within ourselves?  Let’s discover the paradox of perfectionism.

The Paradox of Perfectionism

The black-and-white thinking that so many of us “perfectionists” or recovering ones can engage in also robs us of the opportunity to enjoy learning or experimenting because so much of our sense of worth becomes inherent in the final result. In my coaching experience, people with perfectionist tendencies tend to have lower levels of growth mindset

But there is also a less-known dimension to perfectionism—one that revolves around our ability to cope with unpredictability. Think about it: There is a certain rigidity that comes with perfectionism. You either feel like you have everything under control, and you feel great, or… things are off-track, your mood plummets, and how you view yourself fluctuates accordingly. 

The Elusivity of Perfection

Emotions, for instance, epitomize this unpredictability. They refuse to be neatly categorized or controlled, often defying our attempts to confine them within the confines of rationality. Perfectionism is a way to keep difficult emotions like rejection, shame, and unworthiness at bay. It is driven by fear, fear of falling short, and all the implications that would entail. 

Emotions, much like the pursuit of perfection, can be elusive. They fluctuate, oscillating between highs and lows, defying our attempts to tame them. Yet, for many perfectionists, there’s an underlying belief that if external circumstances align perfectly—if every detail falls into place—then perhaps, just perhaps, they can experience a semblance of inner perfection. 

But herein lies the paradox: the more we chase after external perfection, the more elusive it becomes. Thus, pursuing perfect feelings can lead us down a never-ending rabbit hole of dissatisfaction. 

The Paradox of Perfectionism and Social Media

In the age of social media we showcase to the world curated perfectionism. Therefore, we might feel he pressure to present an immaculate “self” as overwhelming. We compare ourselves to meticulously curated highlight narratives, perpetuating the illusion that everyone else has it all figured out. This leads us to compare and despair and can contribute to developing impostor syndrome. 

The Purpose of Perfectionism

First of all, it’s important to understand that the point is not to try to get rid of perfectionism. Instead, we can become very good at identifying it and understanding its purpose. This simple step can significantly diminish the intensity of the feelings that accompany perfectionism and weaken its hold on us. Whenever we try to get rid of a part of us, we unconsciously send ourselves the message we cannot love it or accept it.

So, instead, let’s look at ways to ensure that while perfectionism can emerge, we do not have to let it run the show. I love this quote from Elizabeth Gilbert, in which she talks about fear and creativity, but as you will see, it can apply to perfectionism. 

“There’s plenty of room in this vehicle for all of us, so make yourself at home, but understand this: Creativity and I are the only ones who will be making any decisions along the way. I recognize and respect that you are part of this family, and so I will never exclude you from our activities, but still—your suggestions will never be followed. You’re allowed to have a seat, and you’re allowed to have a voice, but you are not allowed to have a vote.” 

Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic.

So, what can we do to overcome the paradox of perfectionism? 

Now that we have established the purpose of perfectionism, here are my top three tips for dealing with it: 

  1. Approach your inner critic with curiosity rather than judgment. Explore its origins and underlying intentions. What fears or beliefs drive its relentless pursuit of perfection? By understanding the motivations behind this part, you can begin to diffuse its power over you. Hint: Your inner critic’s intent is always to keep you safely tucked up in your comfort, as it is the surest way to avoid being rejected, disappointed, or criticized. In your inner critic’s world, safety trumps fulfillment. 
  1. Cultivate a daily practice of self-compassion to counteract the tendencies of perfectionism. Treat yourself with the same kindness and understanding you would offer to a loved one facing similar struggles. Remind yourself that imperfection is part of the human experience, and you are worthy of love and acceptance just as you are. 
  1. Practice vulnerability with someone you trust, someone who can offer you a different perspective on challenges and setbacks. They can help you see the bigger picture and remind you about the paradox of perfectionism. Perfection is unnecessary for success, happiness, and, most importantly, worthiness. Your worth is intrinsic. 

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