The Perfectionism Paradox

A perfect score on the exam.

The perfect law school.

A perfect brief that yields a favorable ruling.

The perfect spouse to live with in the perfect home with the perfect kids and the perfect car parked out front.

All thanks to the perfect job with the perfect ratio of hefty salary to time spent at the office.

If I could just have all that, then life would be perfect.



Honestly, I don’t think I noticed my fixation with “perfect” until I had been striving for perfection for years only to find that no matter how “perfect” my life was, it didn’t improve my feelings of happiness or satisfaction.

Turns out, my idea of finding fulfillment through perfectionism was completely ass-backwards.

Now let’s be clear. It’s not like I would wake up every morning and say, “If my boss gushes over the perfect lease I drafted, I’ll be the happiest attorney on earth.”

But in the back of my mind, I’m pretty sure I was thinking that my boss’s approval was necessary for my happiness.

What I found was that this so-called striving for excellence was actually a defense mechanism I used to brace myself from the pain of failure.

I’d rather spend extra time in the office obsessing about how to draft the perfect termination option than ask my boss for help. Asking for help would show him I wasn’t as smart as I should be. (Obviously.) How would I ever win his approval and make my case for advancement in the firm if I couldn’t even draft this stupid provision on my own?

Seems a bit dramatic in hindsight, I admit.

Yet, if I had a friend come to me and tell me the same story, I’d probably say, “You’d seriously rather flounder over language that you know your boss could help you draft in two minutes than go home to eat dinner at a reasonable time with that saucy minx you call a spouse? Asking for help shows initiative and desire to get the job done for the client as efficiently as possible. Your boss will appreciate you wanting to get the best answer sooner rather than later. And if not, f*ck ‘em.”

I’m not making that up. I would (and probably did) truthfully say that to a friend or colleague without so much as a stutter.

So why couldn’t I tell myself the same thing?

Research has shown that perfectionism is not only useless in garnering success, but it actually hampers achievement.

Wait, it gets better. Perfectionism also leads to high rates of depression, anxiety and addiction.  Sounds monumentally un-perfect, no?

The definition of perfectionism that came out of Dr. Brene Brown’s research characterizes it as,

a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought:  If I look perfect and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment and blame.

The self-destructive aspect comes from the fact that perfection simply does not exist. Kinda like, just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so also is perfection.

If we’re trying to create perfection in the eyes of others, it’s a hopeless exercise in controlling their perceptions.

Perfectionism is also defined as an addictive belief system because when we invariably do experience shame, judgment or blame, we generally believe it’s because we weren’t perfect enough.  So we end up in this cycle of perfectionistic sabotage.  Which as you’ve probably deduced, just leads us to feel more shame, judgment and self-blame.


So how do we break out of this destructive cycle?

Brown calls the solution “self-compassion”.

It’s as simple as doing for ourselves what we would do for a good friend: show compassion and kindness.

Rather than beat myself up about being too “stupid” to draft a lease provision, I could tell myself something like, “You’ve been working on this lease for hours, and you’ve got most of it done. Why not shoot your boss the first draft of the lease in an e-mail and ask him for some guidance on the sections you’re not sure about? That way you can head home to that sushi take-out your hubby picked up and watch Downton Abbey while snuggling with your doggies.”

I mean, cripes. If one of my friends told me that, I’d totally agree and be out the door in about two minutes.

Another element is remembering that everyone goes through stages of feeling inadequate or less than.

As unique and lovely as you are, you’re not the only one who feels or has felt this way. It's tough to remember this because we perfectionists often feel that no one understands our need to be perfect.

Ultimately, being mindful of your perfectionistic tendencies is necessary to break the destructive cycle.

Make a conscious effort to recognize negative emotions as they arise and then address them rather than suppress or exaggerate them.

Break out your journal and write about how you’re feeling.

Call a trusted confidant.

Resist the urge to turn your valid feelings inward and self-destruct with more criticism and perfection-seeking.

I know it sounds ridiculously simple, but I assure you the research is sound.

Although it’s taken me years to really (dare I say) perfect the implementation of self-compassion in my daily life, it’s been truly life-changing. I feel better about myself, and I’ve eliminated much heartache and many late-night hours of fretting and ruminating in the office.

Most importantly, self-compassion has given me the space to take care of myself in other aspects of my life, like my relationships, recreation and health.

Think of one area of your life in which your self-criticism has become destructive and post it in the comments below (to share with others that we’re not alone) or send me an e-mail sharing your discovery (putting it out there is the first step toward mindfulness of our perfectionism).