Letting go: fighting the perfectionist urge

According to Merriam-Webster, perfectionism is:

1. a : the doctrine that the perfection of moral character constitutes a person’s highest     good
b : the theological doctrine that a state of freedom from sin is attainable on earth

2: a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable

This likely sounds familiar…at least if you’re anything like me! In the past few years, I have started calling myself a “recovering perfectionist,” often in jest, but it is true. Perfectionism is an ugly, unrealistic standard and is impossible to achieve. Realistically, I know I will never be the best, smartest, nicest, or prettiest person, and that is MORE than okay.


Dr. Kristin Neff, a psychologist famous for her research on self-compassion, discusses this at length in her book on self-compassion, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. She discusses how our movement to focus on self-esteem has supported the notion that we are all special and unique; while this sounds good in theory, it also means that we are unique and special compared to others. Everyone is told that they can be the “best,” when obviously that is statistically impossible.

So what does this mean? It means we are told we can, and should, be perfect. This is often not direct or meant to have negative effect. In fact, most parents, teachers, and peers believe that this will give a child a self-esteem boost and improve their academic performance and increase confidence. Unfortunately, this oftentimes sets an individual up to experience high pressure, even if they put that pressure upon themselves.


There are many realms of my life where I am working to let go of my perfectionist tendencies, and instead adopt a mindset that promotes striving for excellence. One of my favorite takeaways from Dr. Neff’s research is the idea of treating yourself like you would treat a good friend. Would you ever tell your friend they were stupid for not making an A on the test? Would you tell your friend he or she looks ugly? Definitely not! So why would you ever treat yourself that way?

Recently, I did not get accepted for a program I really wanted. Was I mad at myself? Did I punish myself for not being “good enough”? No, I treated myself with compassion; I felt sad for a while, made time to see friends, ate some Halo Top ice-cream, and assured myself there are plenty of opportunities out there that would be an even better fit for me. Looking back, I am so proud of how far I have come and am proud to know and love myself, no matter how imperfect I might be. What are your thoughts on self-compassion? Are you a perfectionist?


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