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Finding Healing From Toxic Perfectionism

Our culture of criticism is harmful to our mental health and our relationships

I recently saw a quote that really tied something together for me with perfectionism. I've largely understood perfectionism and understood that it's a mental health issue that has been plaguing a lot of people. It's a big issue. It's just another one of those things, honestly, that so many of us have fallen into unwittingly that is a major drag on our mental health. It's become so normal and commonplace that people aren't recognizing it for the issue that it is.

So what is the quote that I'm referring to? Simply put:

"Perfectionism is the fear of criticism." - Carlone Myss.

I don't really know who this person is but she nailed it and I appreciate that she taught me something new and helped me connect the dots on this. I agree with her, 100%. The correlation is now obvious to me, we live in a society that is plagued with destructive perfectionism while also living in a society that is obsessively critical. There's just far too much of it. Much of the internet has deteriorated into emotional wars centered on politics and social issues which is undoubtedly taking its toll on our mental health both individually and collectively. We really do live in a culture of constant and endless criticism. It's harming our mental health and it's harming our relationships. We're leery, cautious and mistrusting of others and their intentions. It's kind of difficult to hold a high regard for people when they're constantly pointing out each others flaws, setbacks and insecurities but this is where we're at. So many of our relationships are in the basement in reagards to the quality or in this case, low quality which, really, has taken a toll on our individual and overall wellbeing.

Living on autopilot

Like many things, most people aren't conscious or aware of this. So many aspects of their life are mostly on autopilot, they're not conscious or aware of what they do or why they do it. They often just function off of habit. I'm highly sympathetic to this, I didn't really understand the importance or value of being much aware of what I do and why I do it until the idea was introduced to me and I started putting it into practice. If you ask me, good mental health requires a person to be a lot more aware and conscious of what they do and why they do it. And so on and on it goes... We criticise endlessly even though there's no apparent benefit to it.

Criticism seems to be the opposite of validation. When we validate someone, we affirm to them that they are good or positive and what they're doing is good or positive in some way. Even if someone makes an attempt and has less than stellar results from that attempt, we should support and validate their efforts and we should support and validate the fact that trying and failing is better than doing nothing. This is especially true with kids. I've worked with teenagers for more than 20 years now and the kids that land in front of me usually don't get much validation but they get more than enough criticism. Got a B on your math test, why wasn't it an A?! Got put into the soccer game to play, why didn't try harder when you were on the field?! Made it all of your classes this week, why didn't you do it with a better attitude?!

Parents often tell me that they lay down constant criticism because that's their way of helping their child be better and do better and it's because they have 'high standards.' Believe me, I hear this from parents like they're reading it from a script. So, I ask them, if this is what helps them be better, why isn't it working? If criticizing them is helping them be better why are they doing so poorly and why are they progressively getting worse with each passing year? Clearly, it's not working and so we must do something different.

Criticism and relationships

Another big thing that is impacting our mental health individually and collectively is our broken relationships. We seriously lack close intimate connections to our friends, family members, children and romantic partners. Having close loving relationships is a big part of what makes life good but it's also one of our most basic and fundamental emotional needs but we can't get those needs met when the people who are supposed to be our biggest fans and greatest advocates are constantly criticizing us. If you've ever been heavily criticized by a so called loved one, you may or may not be family with some intense feelings of resentment toward them.

The mindless habit of constantly criticizing those around us is destructive to relationships. Again, I've noticed that people just fall into this pattern without much thought or effort. Most people aren't conscious of it. Criticism just seems to be in the water as though we're swimming in it. Constant criticism causes relationships to deteriorate. If you're the one doing the criticizing you're going to find yourself feeling angry, frustrated and resentful toward the people on the receiving end. You're going to feel this way toward them because you're always focusing on the negatives instead of any and all positives. You'll probably also find that those closest to you will avoid you, feel anxious when you're around and they will also probably lie to you to avoid being criticized. They don't want to be criticized at length for the thousandth time so they are more likely to just tell you what you want to hear.

"Constant criticism is at the core of our relationships that are suffering and deteriorating"

If you're the one receiving the criticism you're going to feel ashamed and probably a fair amount of self-hatred. Your confidence and self-esteem will suffer. It will be difficult to make your own choices or to allow yourself to make mistakes. You'll also find yourself resenting the one doing the criticizing. You'll probably find yourself wanting to avoid them and hiding things from them. You're also likely to develop un unhealthy level of perfectionism or even a clinical case of obsessive compulsive disorer.

In most circumstances, those who are highly critical of others are usually also high critical of themselves; we can highly critical while also being on the receiving end. It's just a negative cycle in general. The opposite of criticism in a relationship is probably appreciation. If you were to switch to practicing appreciation and you were to do it for a solid month, I guarantee you'd find that your relationships had drastically improved during that time.

"Perfectionism isn't helping you be better or improve; that's a myth"

Perfectionism can never be satisfied

Criticism has little usefulness, it can help us identify a problem and outside of that, it becomes harmful and destructive. This overly critical way of life is a big contributor to our deteriorated mental state. We're afraid to make mistakes, we never feel like we're good enough, we're afraid to try new things and we're disconnected from each other. This overly critical approach to everyone and everything is part of what has destroyed our closest relationships. So many people are just a cog in the machine. They were overly criticized, they become overly critical of themselves and then become overly critical of other people. The cycle continues; round and round we go.

I've often worked to help people recognize that perfectionism itself is the problem in their lives when, to many, it feels like it's the solution. Let me explain. They usually find themselves thinking, "If only I was good enough," when 'good enough' just doesn't exist. It's always a case of the moving goalposts. Their focus rests on an ideal that can't be achieved when that ideal isn't based in reality, it's a work of fiction in their minds but it doesn't stop them from assuming that everything will be fine when things are finally perfect. So instead of recognizing that this idealized fiction in their minds is a problem, they start, instead, assuming that other people are the problem because those other people won't do what they're supposed to uphold this lost and misguided fiction in their heads.

Believe me, I've been caught in this trap. Running all day every day, trying to get somewhere, never ever feeling satisfied for more than a few hours at a time. Being blind to my own fictional story about needing to be good enough and live up to unrealistic expectations. In retrospect, it was a bad time. It really was a wet blanket that smothered the flames of a happier life.

I personally found that I could do everything and more in a day, feel moderately satisfied at the end of it only to find that feeling of satisfaction was nowhere to be found by the time I got out of bed the next morning. It was never good enough and it was never satisfactory. At some point, years ago, I realized that I was chasing this idealized vision and it was wearing me down. My soul was feeling worn thin.

I've come miles from where I've been which is why I've been able to give people some positive insights about and how to let it go and move on but the first step to any positive change is recognition. Insight, awareness and conscientiousness are at the core of my approach and philosophy of change. If you want to be less perfectionistic you first have to recognize the destructive influence it has in your life. I promise that it will be really helpful if you get really honest and really thorough in your examination with perfectionism. I tend to think that perfectionism is the greatest detriment to our closest relationships and to the most important people in our lives. It's honestly kind of staggering to see the amount of catastrophic destruction people bring to their closest relationships because... what... the dishwasher was loaded incorrectly? Because kiddo got a B+ instead of an A?

"Being a perfectionist is going to harm your closest relationships. Period."

The myths of perfectionism

Most of our dysfunctional behaviors are accompanied by some false underlying beliefs and myths and I like to spend a bit of time dispelling those myths so let's take them behind the barn and shoot them.

  1. Perfectionism is having 'high standards' - I've already touched on this a bit, the idea that perfectionism is synonymous with having high standards. I disagree. High standards have an allowance for mistakes and failures because those with high standards know that this is where we get our most important lessons from. Having high standards would also mean that a person would acknowledge that being hard on oneself and others aren't supporting high standards because of how degrading and humiliating it is. The difference that I see between having high standards and toxic perfectionism is how mistakes and failures are treated and approached. Perfectionism has no tolerance for mistakes and failures when this isn't realistic. Having high standards also means being realistic when toxic perfectionism is detached from reality. Having high standards would mean being realistic about mistakes and failures and realizing that they aren't just unavoidable but that they are also important learning opportunities.

  2. Perfectionism helps you improve and be better - I've already touched on this as well, the idea that being hard on oneself and others is what helps us be better. Years ago I had a cousin tell me that she was hard on herself because it 'kept her humble' as though being humble should be acquired even if it meant harming ourselves. Her response to my question speaks to this myth that doing something harmful to ourselves and others is somehow helping us to be better. It's like eating rotten food because there's some nutrition still in it. People who want to improve and want to be better should do good for themselves. We are immersed in a culture of constant criticism so why aren't we doing amazingly well? We're obviously not.

  3. Perfectionism has an endgame or a point of completion - Perfectionism is usually accompanied by the myth that things can line up just right. If we accomplish enough, put everything in its proper place and if everyone else will "just do what do what they're freaking supposed to!' then you can and will feel satisfied, content or otherwise happy. The truth is that perfectionism has no end. It's never ever enough. Ever. The goalposts are always moving away from us and you're not going to catch them, no matter how much you run yourself into the ground or scream at your family members. People run themselves into the ground chasing this ideal and they never gain any ground. The opposite is true. The more that they strive for perfection, the harder it becomes to be perfect. I don't even know what perfect is or what it means anyway and I've yet to have anyone provide me with a good working definition. I find that the more people strive for perfection, the more they find things that are 'wrong.' And by what standards are things right or wrong? The standards are often random and arbitrary. As it stands, perfectionism isn't just a zero-sum game, it's a negative-sum game. The more you feed into it, the more ground you lose.

  4. Other people are required to meet our expectations - This is much more deep-rooted. Expectations burrow deep into our psyche and we are often unaware of them. Expectations are tricky. They can cause many things in our lives to break down when we're not even aware that we're holding them in the first place. Perfectionism causes us to place expectations onto others and we might not even be aware that we're doing it. We might be expecting others to maintain a certain level of cleanliness or organization or we might be expecting a teenager to care about their homework and grades as much as we do. The result is that we're getting angry at people because they're not living up to our expectations when they were never ever required to in the first place and that's a radical truth that most people struggle to accept. People aren't required to do what we want them to do. It's also important to mention that perfectionism has a tendency to crank out some pretty quirky expectations. It makes little to no difference how the dishwasher gets loaded and it makes almost no difference if you have to drink 1% milk instead of 2%. Perfectionism pulls us into intense emotional outbursts over nothing at all and it tricks us into thinking that small things are big things. Perfectionism has a tendency to warp our expectations. It's healthy and positive to get honest and realistic about our individual expectations and how we levy them onto other people and the world around us. It causes so many problems. Expectations are especially tricky because so many of us just aren't aware of them or how they're playing out in our own heads. One way to think about it is to ask yourself how you pictured things would be, how you hoped they be or what you wanted it to go. While there's nothing wrong with wanting or hoping for things to be a certain way or go a certain way, we should also remember that there aren't any guarantees in life and it's healthy to accept that things often don't go how we want them to and it's important for us to be realistic about that.

The real truth behind perfectionism

So what really is behind perfectionism if it's not the desire for improvement? The answer is anxiety. Fear is a real threat while anxiety is an imagined one. Perfectionism is driven by anxiety. Usually the fear of being judged or criticized. It's usually driven from a place of caring or worrying too much about what other people think. Most people respond to anxiety by asserting their attempts at control. Controlling things and other people is accompanied by a mild and temporary sense of emotional soothing.

Perfection is about imagined and irrational threats to our emotions and our personal egos and it's about trying to find some kind of relief through control when control is an illusion. We have little to no control of what exists outside of ourselves. When we lack control of our minds and our emotions, we have a natural tendency to try and control external things but again, we don't realize that we're doing it. When we act and function from an anxious state, we are irrational and we struggle to see things for how they really are.

But humans struggle with that anyway. Our modern way of living is a bizarre dystopian distortion of reality where people just pack themselves tight into their imagined realities. They burrow in like a tick and they live in a tight cocoon of self-deception. We're all vulnerable to the trap of our own self-deception and we have to be careful that our ego doesn't trick us into many of these forms of deception. Perfectionism is all a part of these elaborate deceptions that we fall into.

I also think that it's important to note some more issues having to do with anxiety and control. Control is not strength and it's not power. Attempts to control most often result in less control over time. Again, control or attempts to control things externally is an indicator of the lack of mental and emotional control. Specifically, the inability to manage one's own anxiety. So if we get really honest with ourselves, I think it becomes obvious that perfectionism has nothing to do with being better and has everything to do with trying to manage irrational levels of anxiety.

What to do about perfectionism

Know your enemy: I can't emphasize enough how important it is to first recognize that perfectionism is the problem. Treat it like like a mean person that follows you around, polluting your thoughts and pressuring you to be crazy and irrational at every possible turn. It will help, first to recognize that perfectionism is harmful and destructive. All people are subjected to what I call adversarial thoughts or thoughts that seem more as though they come from some kind of opponent or adversary. There a therapy approach called Action and Commitment Therapy (ACT) that recognizes these types of thoughts and categorizes them as thoughts that are seperate from ourselves, as though they come from someone or something else. Critical thoughts and thoughts about being perfect are an example of these adversarial thoughts.

After you gain some understanding and insight on these types of thoughts, you want to get busy building your awareness around its negative and destructive effects in your life, particularly on your own wellbeing and particularly in regards to your closest relationships. Keep in mind that being perfectionistic is going to harm your closest relationships. And it will be helpful to get honest with yourself about whether or not that's something that you're willing to live with.

Personally and professionally, I believe that our mental health is always better when our relationships are in good health and we can do ourselves a lot of good by striving to do what it takes to ensure that happens. Get to know your enemy, get to know your perfectionism. I talk about insight, awareness and conscientiousness together as my foolproof way of getting ahead of mental illness and as a foundational way of getting better. Too many people are afraid of their own psyche and I've come to find it a bit puzzling. It's your mind, it's your thoughts and it's your emotions. Get to know it inside and out and it will work to your benefit. But this is just another example of the aforementioned anxieties that is based on an imagined threat instead of a real one. People feel like there is a real threat in regards to getting to know their own mind and their own emotions when, in reality, the threat is extremely low. People should be far more concerned about how keeping their mental blinders on which usually causes a myriad of issues and dysfunction.

The goal behind all of this is to help you shift your perspective. I've learned after many years of doing therapy that if a person can acquire a drastic shift in their perspective, they become extremely motivated to change and to do something different. The real trick is acquiring that drastic shift. It can take some work, especially if you've been really committed to this for a long time.

Inevitably, you want to notice when you have some compulsive urges to push for perfection and you want to work on not acting on them and that's going to require some discomfort. It's okay to just sit with it with the purpose of just sitting with it rather than letting it control you. The discomfort will be quite temporary, I promise. To some degree, you're going to have to just be able to sit with it and let it eat at you. Discomfort, as I like to say, is a wise teacher. It can be helpful to gather some evidence that allowing things to be "imperfect" isn't going to kill you. It's just going to cause you to be emotionally uncomfortable.

Beyond that, you want to start changing the way that you think and believe about things needing to be perfect. Notice the perfectionistic thoughts and remind yourself, over and over again, that perfectionism is the problem and that nothing positive happens when you listen to the perfectionistic thoughts. It's also helpful to put your finger on how and when this started happening in the first place. It's more than likely that it has something to do with your parents and it's more than likely that you had at least one parent that was heavy on the criticism. It may even be likely that you had a parent who had, at the very least, some narcissistic traits. Your perfectionism likely developed because you wanted to avoid criticism from an overly critical parent. It might have made sense as a child to want to avoid that criticism but as an adult, it's important to get more honest with ourselves about these kinds of things. If you're an adult and you're still afraid of your parent's criticism then it might be time to make some changes in that regard as well.

Ultimately, you have to know that this is something that you can change. As a therapist, I'm concerned at how much information there is out there supporting the idea that mental health issues are just part of who we are and there's little to nothing that we can do about it. That's nonsense and you should ditch any therapist that tells you that mental illness is just something you have to live with. People can get better. You can get better. I've seen it happen many times over the years. I hope that you will feel free to reach out to me if you'd like some additional help with this or many other issues.

Be well, my friends.


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