By Nate Bowman
GCU Office of Student Care
Is there a healthy alternative to perfectionism?
Perfectionism does seem to be on the rise in the United States, and it’s no wonder. The incentives for apparent perfection, such as a more followers and likes, a gold medal for winning the race, or scholarships for achieving a 4.0, appeal to many of us.
Now, perfectionism isn’t necessarily all bad, but there is a fine line between healthy versus unhealthy expressions of perfectionism. Or perhaps a better way to put it is this: There is a difference between striving for excellence and lapsing into maladaptive perfectionism.
Maladaptive perfectionism is characterized by an overabundance of criticism, typically of oneself. We all carry with us an inner critic, but with maladaptive perfectionism, that inner critic is particularly loud and demeaning. It can muddy the waters of self-worth and achievement, leading one to believe their worth is linked to their accomplishments.
Additionally, fear and moral obligation are underlying motivators that feed maladaptive perfectionism with such thoughts as, “If you mess this up, you are a failure as a human being” or “You have to, should or must be perfect in order to be loveable, acceptable, worthy, etc.”
Can you see how maladaptive perfectionism can result in significant amounts of distress and dissatisfaction? The prescribed standard is outside the realm of possibility, but we still criticize and condemn ourselves when we don’t reach it. It’s like a young child who believes there is something inherently wrong with them because they’ve flapped their arms repeatedly and still can’t fly.
So do we just abandon our hopes and dreams in order to escape the vicious cycle of maladaptive perfectionism? Absolutely not. We still can strive for excellence without plunging headlong into maladaptive perfectionism.
Striving for excellence differs from maladaptive perfectionism because it separates self-worth from accomplishments.
When striving for excellence, the followers and likes, the gold medal and the scholarships do not have any sort of bearing on one’s value as a person. Rather, the person striving for excellence is motivated by enthusiasm and enjoys a feeling of satisfaction with who they are and a job well done.
They understand and truly believe they are lovable, acceptable and worthy, even when they fail or make mistakes. In fact, failure and mistakes are seen as opportunities for growth, not experiences to be avoided.
Moving from maladaptive perfectionism to striving for excellence takes time. It’s more than just a matter of purposely making a mistake and forcing yourself to be OK with it. That loud and demeaning inner critic that says, “You have to earn their affection,” lies at the heart of maladaptive perfectionism.
As we learn to be more gracious with ourselves and accepting of our inherent worth and value, we will slowly but surely notice maladaptive perfectionism turn into a healthy and enjoyable striving for excellence.