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What if I’m Not Perfect? What Will They Think?

Why do perfectionists feel the need to be perfect? Why is nothing less than flawless acceptable for them? What does it mean to them to be less than perfect, to have flaws, to make mistakes?

Essentially, for many perfectionists, being less than perfect means being inadequate, unacceptable, and having low worth and value as a person. They believe that to be seen as adequate and to be truly accepted by others they must put in a flawless performance. Anything less than flawless equals failure, and failure equals rejection. Not surprisingly, this mindset is typically nurtured during childhood. Children growing up in an environment where they only receive positive feedback when they achieve standards acceptable to their parents (and teachers) learn to believe that the way to be valued and accepted by others is to do well, to be perfect, to not fail. Throw into the mix the experience of receiving negative feedback and/or seeing your parents disappointed when you don’t meet their expectations, and the message in the child’s mind is clear:

“We prefer you when you do well, when you don’t fail, when you don’t let us down. You are less valuable, acceptable and loveable when you don’t meet our expectations”.

Carl Rogers, renowned psychologist, suggests that children growing up in such environments of conditional positive regard learn that it is not enough to simply be oneself to be loved. Rejection as a child is painful. When children learn that being perfect is a way of gaining love and avoiding rejection from those important to them it is a strategy that becomes reinforced and follows them into adulthood. They learn to avoid the painful emotions associated with rejection in personal and work life by working really hard at being perfect, all the time. So much pressure! And how ironic that aiming to be perfect is a strategy for avoiding emotional discomfort, when the pressure to be perfect comes hand in hand with many uncomfortable emotions; fear, anxiety, worry, dread, shame, guilt, etc.

Fear is a common overarching emotion for perfectionists. The immediate fear typically relates to making mistakes, with the deeper fear relating to the risk of negative appraisal from others and feelings of embarrassment, inadequacy, and low self-esteem. When engaging in activities where there is a possibility of being judged by others perfectionists can be riddled with a pervasive sense of anxiety. They worry so much about what others think of their performance that they inadvertently hinder their own performance. Their worry is counterproductive and self-fulfilling.

"She cared so much about what other people thought if she wasn’t perfect that she overloaded herself with demands to be flawless and consequently delivered a much less than perfect performance."

I worked with a client who experienced deep anxiety before, during and after presentations. It was important to her to be seen as impressive, and in her quest to be an impressive presenter she believed that she must not stumble or mumble, must not forget what to say, must not speak too quickly or slowly, must capture the complete attention of everybody in the room, and must be able to answer any question thrown her way. So that would be impressive right? But it’s a big ask, and doesn’t allow much space for being human! It was in fact completely counterproductive. She cared so much about what other people thought if she wasn’t perfect that she overloaded herself with demands to be flawless and consequently delivered a much less than perfect performance. She focused on getting through presentations so quickly that she spoke at great speed, had a shaky voice, stumbled over her words, forgot what to say, appeared very unconfident, and didn’t engage the audience effectively with the message. Oops, there goes being impressive. After the event she experienced feelings of embarrassment, humiliation, shame, inadequacy, disappointment, anger, and guilt (in letting others down).

"Rumination is linked with heart disease, depression and eating disorders"

She would ruminate about her failings for days and weeks after the event. Rumination is bad for your health; it has been linked to serious health conditions such as heart disease, depression and eating disorders. To avoid these unpleasant feelings she encouraged her team members to deliver many of the presentations she ought to have been delivering herself. Our work together in coaching involved exploring her performance interfering thoughts (PITs) before and during certain events, highlighting the links to her performance hindering behaviours, considering more helpful and rational thoughts and beliefs (performance enhancing thoughts; PETs), and putting new thoughts and behaviours into practice. It was a long process as her perfectionistic thinking and beliefs were deeply embedded, as is often the case, requiring persistence and commitment to change.

In my next article I will share how to help clients work with PITs and PETs to help relax their standards and reduce anxiety and other negative emotions related to perfectionism.

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