In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, we examined ways to help you embrace your values and your own choices through a process of self-awareness and reflection. This post will help you understand the underlying fear that perpetuates the vicious cycle of perfectionism and mediocrity. As part of this journey, we will also focus on the role of vulnerability.
Sharon Martin, LCSW, is a Perfectionism expert. In her “Psych Central” Blog “Happily Imperfect” , she explains that many of us grow up believing perfectionism is equal to excellence. The act of striving to achieve standards that are impossible to attain breeds anxiety, feelings of low-self worth and results in procrastination. These byproducts interfere with our goals and our ability to lead happy and fulfilled lives. A life of perfectionistic striving is a total killjoy. You are likely caught in a pattern of misery, and are probably making other people around you miserable in the process.
Let’s look at this more closely and come up with some ways to counter the fear of mediocrity, the fundamental breeder of perfectionism.
Fear of Mediocrity and the “Basic”
As if we needed another one, there’s a relatively new female derogatory term that’s surfaced on the internet: “Basic Bitches”. The urban dictionary defines a “Basic Bitch” like this:
"someone who is unflinchingly upholding of the status quo and stereotypes of their gender without even realizing it. She engages in typical, unoriginal behaviors, modes of dress, speech, and likes.”
Because pop culture and the media have cleverly coined a new term, all women who enjoy pumpkin spice lattes, pinning Lobs to Pinterest, and yoga must be ashamed of these small pleasures?
The fear of being basic leads to the striving of unattainable or unsustainable ideals that can make you miserable. When you read on a fashion blog that Adidas Superstar sneakers are “basic”, will you decide you must wear the special edition Stella McCartney for Adidas, even if that means they’re triple the price (and your credit card is maxed too!)? Do you have to really stand out from the “basics” in the crowd by shrinking your 5’6 frame to a size zero? This behavior in particular can lead to eating and body image disorders. It can spiral beyond emotional and mental hardship and even become lethal.
The truth is that enjoying things that universally enjoyable, and living a life of certain “basic” standards, helps you connect more, and makes you relatable and human. Most of us are searching for belonging and human connection. If you are regularly tweeting about Zumba, for example, you connect to a community of people who share an interest in Zumba. This is affirming to who we are and what we like. You can embrace these “basic” interests and qualities and also focus on other dynamic parts of yourself.
Take a self-inventory. Just because you might identify with things on the “basic” checklists, it doesn’t mean that YOU are basic! Ironically, there are also way too many "Basic" checklists, featuring the same Pumpkin Spice Lattes! Let me make this point clear with my own “are you basic?” checklist:
- Do you breathe?
- Do you wear socks?
- Do you like puppies?
- Do you enjoy a good back scratch?
If you answer yes to any of these then you are basic. Remember your values and what makes you unique. Yes, you enjoy Greek yogurt, but you also are fluent in French. You Instagram your lunch on occasion but you also have a ridiculous laugh that by nature sparks others around you into laughter.
Given perfectionists often are as critical of others, you may also judge others for what you see as their basicness. The same rules apply here. Instead of searching for what you see as sameness, take the time to pay attention to what makes that person unique. Instead of writing someone off, look for a point of connection and shared belief or value. You can learn something from anyone and everyone.
Learning From Your Vulnerability
The beaches may be white and sandy and the water crystal clear blue, but who is there to enjoy that island with you? When you are a perfectionist, you are often feeling isolated and alone because you are afraid to be honest with yourself and with others for fear of appearing not good enough.
The path to belonging, love, human connection, these things that are universally desired by most people, including perfectionists, includes learning how to be your authentic self. This means embracing your flaws and mistakes as well as your strengths and achievements.
It may help to stop and think for a minute; has being better than someone in some area or another has helped you form a deeper connection with him or her? What does it mean for you to be the best? Who does that serve? You? Others? It could garner admiration, but it is probably not the best method to connect with people, because we connect when we take the risk to be vulnerable.
There is value in this precisely because if you are holding it all together out of fear of “what will they think”, you may not learn that you are not the only one struggling with an inferiority complex, or secret shame. In reality, if you share it, you will learn you are far from alone. You are not the only one who grew up with an alcoholic mother. You are not the only one whose brother died by suicide. You are not the only one who scored a 1500 when you first took the SATs.
The fear of “what will they think” also plays out in avoiding certain risks that could help you go further in you life and career. If the most important thing for you is to achieve a high GPA or receive recognition at work, perhaps you will shy away from a more prestigious school or a more competitive company.
Brene Brown, author, speaker and researcher on human connections, is an advocate for the courage to be imperfect. In her famous Ted Talk, she describes vulnerability being at the “core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness”, but she also found it to be “the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging and of love.”
Recognizing your vulnerabilities and understanding how to make them work for you instead of against you, facilitates your feeling of connection and also helps you recognize others’ humanness. You are abusing the power of your own vulnerabilities when they serve to fuel your low self-worth instead of as a way to connect with the world around you. This feeling of connection also can improve your when you relinquish the desire for you and those around you to be perfect.
Perfectionistic Thinking Patterns
There are two types of thinking patterns that I see as particularly problematic for perfectionists.
Seeing things in “All or Nothing” terms
Just like a BuzzFeed checklist cannot categorically define you as "basic bitch", you are not likely to be the best or the worst at any one thing, let alone generally perfect and amazing. It is more helpful to challenge this absolutist thinking by exploring the shades of gray instead of seeing the black and white.
A good example that many can relate to is not getting the job. Let’s say it was down to you and one other candidate and they were offered the position. A perfectionist may think- I really bombed it. When in reality, you obviously made a good impression to get that far in the process. Or it is “I either get the job at Google, or I’m a loser”. What are the other possibilities for you? What is a more balanced and fair way to look at this scenario? And how will this perspective help you achieve your goals?
Discounting the Positives
This is a common trap for perfectionists. You may not automatically see the positives when the particular result you identified is not achieved. You automatically cancel out the good and focus on the bad.
Here are some examples. Your boss entrusts you to send out a company wide email on a product launch, which elicits positive and encouraging responses from your coworkers. You, however, deem this as a failure in handling the important task of a company-wide communication because you notice a typo. In this example- there was some good here and part of it worked out. Again, challenging your critical self-talk, you can focus on the positive takeaways to motivate yourself the next time you need some courage. You should also ask yourself- what could I learn from this? Seeing pathways for improvement can serve as powerful motivation.
Stay tuned for the fourth and final post on this series on perfectionism, countering the fear of failure.
Kerrie Thompson, LCSW is a psychotherapist in private practice in NYC. To work with her, contact her here.