How to Remind Yourself You Don't Have to be Perfect
Exploring types of perfectionism and environments perfectionist tendencies thrive in.
For most of my life I’ve struggled with perfectionism. After years of therapy and personal healing work, I’ve discovered that one of the things that makes me feel most alive is making glorious mistakes.
Mistakes like losing my temper, mistakes that offend others, mistakes that show that my life isn’t all together like I tend to pretend. As my therapist told me that shaped my perfectionist outlook: you don’t have to try your best at everything. You get to choose what you try your best at. Not everything is worth your best effort.
Making mistakes and not trying my best for everything have given me a taste of life that I’ve never experienced. In my brilliant mess-ups I’m allowed to reflect and make apologies. I’m allowed to use my mistakes as ways of seeing what I need to work on — not to be perfect, but to be human.
Where once I would hold myself like a robot in terms of always polite, never rocking the boat, never allowing my true self coming out, and always appearing like someone who has everything under control, figured out, and perfect, now I have loosened up and allowed myself to come out. I’ve allowed the human parts of myself to flourish and seep out.
In seeking perfection, we compound our trauma and even deceive ourselves about how healthy we are. Even if we recognize that we aren’t the show we put on, I would argue that most of us don’t even know ourselves. We learned to live by betraying ourselves and hiding our true selves for the comfort of others.
That alone makes us strangers unto ourselves. By opening up to life and to ourselves and experiencing making mistakes and not being perfect are essential in knowing who we are and working on who we want to be.
Broadly speaking, perfectionism is a “combination of excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations.” According to the Big Three Perfectionism Scale, there are three main types of perfectionism that include subsets to each main type of perfectionism.
The first type of perfectionism is rigid perfectionism, one’s personal demand that their respective performance must achieve perfection. Its two features are:
- Self-oriented perfectionism — the belief that “striving for perfection [and] being perfect are important.”
- Self-worth contingencies — the tendency “to base self-worth on self-imposed perfectionist standards.”
The second type of perfectionism is self-critical perfectionism, the tendency for one to partake in harsh self-criticism when their performance is not perfect. Self-critical perfectionism has four features:
- Concern over mistakes — excessively negative reactions when you encounters a perceived setback.
- Doubts about actions —unsure about your performance.
- Self-criticism — engagement in detrimental self-criticism when your performance is imperfect.
- Socially prescribed perfectionism — where you perceives others as demanding perfection from yourself.
The third type of perfectionism is narcissistic perfectionism, the belief that one is superior to others or perfect which, in their perception, justifies their upholding of unrealistic expectations particularly of others. Narcissistic perfectionism has four features:
- Other-oriented perfectionism — holding unrealistic expectations for others
- Hypercriticism — severe devaluation of others and their imperfections
- Entitlement — belief that one is entitled to perfect or special treatment
- Grandiosity —continuous view of oneself as perfect or superior to others
Environments That Encourage Perfectionism
Perfectionism in generations in the USA, Canada, and UK since the 1980’s has increased. Factors that contribute to this increase in perfectionism include:
- Neoliberalism and competitive individualism
- The rise of the doctrine of meritocracy
- Increasingly anxious and controlling parenting
The biggest cultural shift has been neoliberalism which directly influences the other listed environments for perfectionism. Neoliberalism is a model of economics that elevates the market. Neoliberalism fosters deregulation and privatization. Government funding that helps citizens is slashed if not entirely abolished.
Generations growing up in a neoliberal society internalize the messages; individualization is prized more than community collectivism. Cultural values have shifted to prize competitiveness, individualism, and individual perfectionism. Since neoliberalism prizes what a person can produce, people use perfectionism in order to cope and in order to feel of worth.
Part of the neoliberal ideal, meritocracy is value based on merit. For instance, those who reach the top schools or get a high paying job receive wealth and social status. To those who do not obtain a top-tier education, a high-paying career, or to those whose education is not valued because it produces little market value, meritocracy considers them less deserving and inadequate. We are constantly learning and internalizing the message that we must over-value our performance and undervalue our own self; through our performance, we gain a self in the neoliberal state.
In such a cutthroat competitive economy, parents are now tasked with ensuring their child succeeds. Parents place exceeding expectation on their child’s achievements which increases anxious and/or controlling parenting styles. A child’s interest that is not worth anything in market value will be devalued in parenting and likely increase the child’s need to perform perfectionism, thus gaining the approval of the parents.
This is not an exhaustive list of environments that help foster or create perfectionist performance in individuals; it is, however, these environments that affect most individuals, even in countries not listed in the study above. Other environments that may cause perfectionism are abusive environments such as the role of the golden child, academia, athletics, social media, etc.
Perfectionism isn’t easily cured; it takes a lot of mindful work to recognize when you’re falling into perfectionist patterns. Figure out what type of perfectionism(s) you’re prone to. Now that you have a starting point, you can begin practicing mindfulness to recognize when you start performing perfection.
Dig a little deeper — why are you performing? Who taught you how to perform? Who demanded you perform? Why do you feel the need to perform? What are your true feelings about yourself?
Breathe through the need to be perfect. Practice self compassion when you find yourself performing perfectionism; find the same self compassion when you realize you aren’t perfect. If your mind goes to the past or future, bring it gently to the present. You are enough.
One of the quickest ways I’ve helped my perfectionism is making mistakes. I’ve forgotten things, let my anger slip, had to apologize to people, had guests show up (pre-pandemic) when my house was a wreck (a sin in my family), I’ve been oblivious when I’ve said something that’s offended someone else. These mistakes reminded me that I’m human and I’m allowed to be human.
After I started feeling comfortable making mistakes, I began to realize that I can’t do it all nor should I have the expectation that I should do it all. I had exhausted myself being the perfect wife, the perfect woman, the perfect student, the perfect daughter, the perfect self-appointed household manager. I could take everything on my own — the chores, the shopping, the holiday and birthday cards. It had been my role in my family to uphold how the family was perceived; I was and had always been in performance mode.
I needed some breathing space. I needed to eat and stay hydrated, I needed to not be on top of everything, I needed help around the house. I deserved to rest, deserved not to get the groceries on time every time, deserved not to cook every night. With a wonderful husband by my side and honest conversations, I relinquished the roles and focused on what I wanted (something that felt so taboo and even still does sometimes).
For once, I relinquished the “shoulds” from my vocabulary. I began challenging my mindset on being perfect. It’s a daily practice but one I cherish. When I feel myself pressuring myself to be perfect, I analyze where that tendency is coming from and it’s typically from my abusive upbringing. I can realize that’s not who I want to be and that I never wanted to play the assigned role I received. Instead, I focus on figuring out who I am and what I like.
There’s a tendency to be a perfectionist in how to quit being a perfectionist. I’ve found that celebrating my mistakes and giving myself permission not to be perfect is a great way to refocus the lens. The more human I’ve allowed myself to be, the more free I’ve felt.
How are you allowing yourself to be human? What mistakes are you celebrating?