Although perfectionism if often socially perceived as positive and glorified as ‘striving for high standards’, from the definition of perfectionism itself we can conclude that this ‘personality disposition’ is rooted in low self worth (‘accompanied by tendencies for overly critical evaluations of one’s behaviour’).
Perfectionism can be rooted in fear of being critiqued, if others perceive or notice any flows in our work, or in low self worth (if we feel that no matter how much effort we put, we are never good enough, or our work or creation is not ‘perfect’ and good enough). “High standards”, in this case, serve as a shield from being criticised for not being good enough, and accompanying feelings of inadequacy.
The root cause of perfectionism often stems from early childhood. Most of my clients who were struggling with perfectionism had very critical parents, who were punishing them harshly for every single mistake, poor grades at school, or who were deeply disappointed in them if they would not win at competitions. This, on a subconscious level can lead to forming limiting beliefs, such as:
What we crave the most as children is love, validation, and affection from our parents or caretakers. Therefor, the behaviour that they praised and approved we unconsciously perceive as life-preserving and the most rewarding to us, while behaviour they criticised and condemned we perceive as a threat of potential abandonment and punishment. If we were often criticised as children, or not praised enough by our parents (or caretakers) that can very negatively affect our self worth later on in life
Subconscious self punishment ‘mechanism’ gets triggered when person gets angry at self for not being ‘perfect’ (making a mistake, missing the session to the gym, gaining more weight, experiencing failure…). Self judgement and self criticism that follows makes the person feel utterly unworthy and ‘guilty’.
Guilt triggers the unconscious self punishment mechanism – indulging in toxic substances, self-inducing physical pain, indulging in food that causes physical pain or allergies, self-sabotage…). This is especially the case if a person was being punished often in the early childhood for making a mistake, or for not being ‘best and ‘perfect’ (later in life, he or she can inflict the punishment on themselves for making any mistake or not being ‘perfect’).
This is one of the most dangerous consequences of perfectionism, as it can lead to food disorders, self inflicting injuries, indulging in toxic substances, severely low self worth accompanied with feelings of guilt and shame, and subconscious self-sabotage.
How many books have been written, which were never published? How many art pieces were destroyed, and burned in the fire, or kept in attics and basements, collecting dust, which were never published and displayed? How many songs were written that have never been played and sung? How many creative projects were never finished and published?
Famous painter Monet, after three years of work for his planned exhibition in Paris, in 1908., in agony of self criticism, destroyed 15 of his paintings with the painting brush and knife, because, as per his opinion, they were not ‘perfect’. Besides those 15 paintings that he destroyed (on which he worked for three years!) and afterwards postponed exhibition in Paris, during the time of his greatest fame, Monet was further sabotaged in his creativity and productivity – some sources state that he could not paint unless the Sun rays weren’t ‘perfectly’ reflecting the light in the room.
Increasing our self worth, self acceptance (accepting ourselves as ‘imperfect’ human beings, that make mistakes), and self forgiveness (being able to forgive ourselves for making mistakes and not being ‘perfect’ all the time) are the key to overcoming perfectionism. This can be challenging and difficult thing to learn and do, if everything we did throughout our life was to criticise and judge ourselves.
Perfectionism often leads to ‘analysis paralysis’, as the fear of being criticised, not being perfect, or experiencing rejection and failure can hold us back from acting on our creative idea, trying new things, starting a new business, making positive life changes, or making transition in our career.
We have to have in mind that any learning process is a progression. When kids learn how to walk, they often fall, but that is part of the process of mastering a new physical skill – walking! Same way, whenever we try or want to learn something new, we may need to learn, evolve, and practice (and fall or fail few times while doing so). There is a saying “Every professional once started as an amateur” (source unknown).
We can miss the deadline, endlessly procrastinate, hold ourselves back, and never actually finish what we started. We may even be tempted to destroy our work (like Monet of Michelangelo), or fear sharing our work with the world and decide to hide it, destroy it, or burn it.
As someone who is a writer and an online entrepreneur (with high ethical and work standards), I am very familiar with the feeling that something could be done better, or something could be ‘perfected’ more, but what has helped me a lot over the years was the rule:
If I had not (many times) completed and sent (or published) the article, blog post, video, online course, or even my first book, I wouldn’t have been able to achieve half of what I had achieved as a writer and Life Coach, over the years (including having apr. 500 of my articles and posts published, in various magazines such as COSMOPOLITAN, TIMES, and SENSA, creating a blog with over 1 million views, starting an online magazine, and writing a self-help book in two languages)
It is not realistic, as they were not at that level either when they just started out, and it can be be disempowering and devastating for our self worth. What is more realistic and empowering is to compare ourselves with a woman we were yesterday, last month, or last year.
We also need to keep in mind that masters we are comparing ourselves to often have years (or even decades) of experience, team of people who support them, and a lot more money and resources at their disposal, and that they were once at the starting point – just like us.