#Perfectionism: Are You Getting In the Way of Your Own Happiness?

Written By: Kacey Wehr, Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist & Mental Health & Wellness Specialist.

Being happy doesn’t mean everything is perfect. It means that you have decided to look beyond the imperfections. - Unknown Author

Recognizing The Different Faces of Perfectionism

There’s nothing wrong with having high standards. In fact, having high standards typically means you get the best out of yourself and others, which lets face it, can be great! People who set the bar high for themselves typically have a good work ethic, are hard workers, and are usually able to achieve their goals, which are all good things. Being perfectionistic, however, can work against you when your high standards are unrealistic, inflexible, unpractical, or unachievable, and let’s face it, we are all guilty of this at least some of the time. Surprisingly, or if not surprising, then at the very least, interestingly, there are two (yes, two!) different forms of perfectionism! Best selling author, Harvord lecturer, and expert in positive psychology, Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, explores these two types of perfectionism and has coined them: (1) Adaptive Perfectionism, and (2) Maladaptive Perfectionism. Most of us tend to have elements of both, but tend to fall more in one category than another. For those that fall into the “Maladaptive Perfectionism” category, this is where things tend to get sticky and problematic, so let’s dive deeper into them both, shall we?

Adaptive Perfectionism:

According to Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, Adaptive Perfectionism is at the healthy end of the perfectionistic spectrum. People that fall within within this category work to develop their skills and themselves. These people approach work/tasks/challenges with optimism, pleasure and a desire to improve themselves. These individuals are confident in themselves and their abilities and are not afraid to take risks because from this place of confidence, and they understand that mistakes and failures are opportunities to learn and grow. They do not derive their sense of value from their accomplishments or achievements, but find value in the process. I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel like I function from this side of the spectrum as often as I would like. Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely areas of my life where I am in my element and function closer to this side of healthy confidence and ‘adaptive perfectionism’, but more often I find myself leaning more towards the middle or the opposite end of the perfectionism scale. So what does the good Dr. T have to say about that?

Maladaptive Perfectionism:

Individuals functioning with this form of perfectionism are often dissatisfied with what they achieve, and seldom feel it (or they) is “good enough”. These people (yes, that includes me) experience fear of failure, self doubt, are often critical of themselves and others, and in extremes can experience symptoms of anxiety and depression. These individuals see mistakes as unacceptable and believe that others will view them as incompetent (seriously, one of my biggest fears). They do not handle criticism or feedback well as this feeds into the belief that they are “not good enough”(ugghh!), and hold themselves and others to extremely high standards which can lead to difficulties maintaining relationships both personally and professionally. Well, if that isn’t a hard pill to swallow, I don’t know what is! Hard as it is to read this while keeping a mental checklist of all the ways you can relate to this description, the reality is that it is exhausting living with this kind of perfectionistic mentality because our motivation is fueled by anxiety and because our outcomes and performance are so closely tied to our feelings of self-worth and sense of self. Most of us fall somewhere in between these two Perfection Types and we’re not stationary on that line- it can move at different points in our life and in different settings/roles from day-to-day and moment-to-moment. Something that also helps to keep in mind is that there are things you can actively do to help push yourself closer to the more adaptive and healthy side of the spectrum, so buck up! All is not lost. There is hope for us yet. When your self-worth is on the line it is hard to put yourself out there and take risks. Two critical steps to overcoming perfectionism are: exploring your fears and challenging your thoughts / changing your self-talk. Let’s break these two components down and get nitty-gritty.

Tips & Strategies to Reduce Maladaptive Perfectionism:

  • Exploring Your Fears: Some liken Perfectionism to having a “phobia” and in a lot of ways it is. People who have Maladaptive Perfectionism are afraid of failure, afraid of making mistakes, and afraid of being ‘imperfect’. So tackling these fears in a similar way as you would tackle a phobia makes a lot of sense. A technique used in working with phobias is called “exposure therapy” where the person is exposed to their feared object or situation repeatedly to desensitize them and reduce the anxiety they experience when thinking about or encountering this fear. If you are afraid of making mistakes, disappointing others, and/or being imperfect it can actually be helpful to intentionally expose yourself to these elements in different scenarios to help you face your fear and reduce your anxiety. Here are some examples to help you get an idea of how you can do this in your own life:

    • Show up for an appointment or something late (the movies, a get-together, to pick-up someone, etc)- the person expecting you may be disappointed but they will survive and, more importantly, so will you! (I know this one will be challenging as long as the stay-at-home order is in place but perhaps you can get creative with it in the meantime and pick it back up later as it was intended).
    • If you are a bit of a neat freak (and I say this with the utmost love, because I used to be a neat freak- everything in its place, a place for everything) leave a visible area in the house a little messy for at least 48 hours. You can do it!
    • Tell people “no” when you are invited to do something (even if it’s just an online Watch Party or Zoom Happy Hour) but you are too tired or don’t really feel like participating. This may seem more like a self-care or boundary setting issue but it is tied into perfectionism because there is the element of needing to keep up appearances, having a fear of being left out, of disappointing people, and of not wanting to be judged. Saying “no” for some people can be extremely anxiety provoking and kick off all sorts of negative self-talk. The goal here is to practice saying “no” and fighting those feelings and thoughts. You can do it!
    • Try an activity you have never done before or you have written off because you didn’t think you would be “good at it”. Some ideas are: painting, driving stick shift, playing a challenging game, singing karaoke- even if it’s just in your living room with family, learning a new language, learning to knit, take an online dance class, etc.
    • Tell someone how you are actually feeling when you are asked, “How are you today?” For example, “I’m actually feeling pretty tired lately because I have been having pandemic related dreams and waking up a lot- This one is especially important for those who view certain feelings/emotions as weak.
    • Let someone else take charge of a project/task that you normally do because you feel you are the “only one who knows how to do it the right way” (okay, so the dishes may get loaded differently) the point here is to allow others to help you and to recognize that there is more than one ‘right’ way to do the same task. Let go and trust that it will be okay.
    • Go out in public a little disheveled; wear an article of clothing with a visible stain; or don’t wash/shower first, don’t do your hair nicely; and/or don’t put on make-up...the point here for those of us that struggle to keep up appearances at all times, is to survive possible scrutiny and judgement and come through the experience knowing we are still okay. You don’t have to enjoy the exercise, but trying it just to work through the anxiety and negative thoughts is what this one is all about.
  • Challenge Your Thoughts/Changing Your Self-Talk: When you find yourself thinking in black and white terms, also called ‘all or nothing thinking’, and/or having negative thoughts (for example: “I’m never going to be able to drive this big truck! I’m terrible at this and I’m just going to cause an accident!”- yes, this was something I struggled with recently.), replace it with a more realistic/accurate statement. (for example: “I may be struggling with this but I am trying something new, so it is normal to struggle. All I can do is my best, and that is okay. Better than not doing it at all, and if I have an accident, that is why we have insurance.”). It can also be helpful to put things in perspective and try to see the situation from an ‘outside’ view. For example, it can be helpful to ask yourself the following questions when you find yourself stuck:

    • Does this really matter?
    • What is the worst that can happen if it is not ‘perfect’? And can I survive it?
    • Will this matter tomorrow? Next week? Next year?
    • How might someone else view this situation (like a close friend or family member)? What would I tell them if they were struggling with the same thoughts or situation?

None of this will feel good initially, but stick it out! The key to this is to repeat this and continue to add to it- bonus points if you can come up with some of your own exposure exercises based on your particular areas of perfectionism. In time, you should notice that the more you do it, the less anxiety you feel and the more comfortable you become about not being perfect. Brene’ Brown said it best in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, “To overcome perfectionism, we need to be able to acknowledge our vulnerabilities to the universal experiences of shame, judgment, and blame; develop shame resilience; and practice self-compassion. When we become more loving and compassionate with ourselves and we begin to practice shame resilience, we can embrace our imperfections. It is the process of embracing our imperfections that we find our truest gifts: courage, compassion, and connection.”

For more on Adaptive and Maladaptive Perfectionism, check out The Pursuit of Perfect, by Tal Ben-Shahar or to hear more from the amazing Brene’ Brown check out her book, The Gifts of Imperfection. And don’t forget to enter for your chance to win a brand new Minuet Breastpump here (if not for you then perhaps for a mom-to-be you might know)! And if you want to get access to even more premium content you can become a M.O.M. Member and start reaping the rewards!

So until next time, enjoy your beautiful, wonderful, tiny bit sloppy, sometimes late, hardly ever wrong, infrequently not very good at, gonna try to be less of a work-a-holic, completely badass, imperfect self.


Kacey Wehr

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Kacey Wehr is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist with degrees in Child Development, Psychology, and Marriage & Family Therapy. She has six years experience providing therapy, psychoeducation, developing trainings and workshops, leading support groups, and has over seven years experience in Education having taught Early Education for preschoolers, High School, and Undergraduate Psychology. She has extensive training and experience in Trauma Informed Care, Crisis Intervention, Grief & Bereavement, Complex Trauma, Child Development, and is a Certified Crisis Counselor for victims of relationship abuse/violence and sexual exploitation. She has devoted the majority of her therapeutic experience to working with and empowering young adults, new parents, couples, and families with complex trauma history. She believes in integrating holistic health approaches in her work and attained a Certification as a Wellness Clinician which enables her to utilize aromatherapy in her mental health support. She also is trained in acupressure for labor and has assisted in the labors and births of several of her closest friends as they brought their littles ones into the world. In her free time she enjoys singing, all things crafty, watching movies with her daughter, nesting and home decorating, cooking and eating yummy foods, and traveling the world with her husband (so far they have been to 27 countries and over 40 cities around the globe!). She is here to help other mothers navigate the crazy journey that is parenthood, relationships, challenges with mental health, sex and intimacy, and walk this journey with you, sharing her experience and expertise.