The need to be perfect in all things, at all times is a tyranny no one can support. Yet many labour under this pressure. A constant focus on grading one’s performance sets a person up for depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and a host of other miseries. What contributes to a person becoming unrelentingly self-critical and unable to accept life’s irregularities? High levels of criticism early in life can set a person up for an unforgiving need for flawlessness as a means of demonstrating value as a human. Circumstances of neglect can have the same effect. Some scholars view perfectionism as a personality style that leads one to set unrealistically high expectations, and engage in punishingly critical self-evaluation. Because the objective of perfection is, by definition, impossible, those dedicated to its pursuit are subject to profound despair and difficulty functioning in the world.
Perfectionists are prone to procrastination, as they know at some level they will never be able to achieve their goal of the perfect product. The fear of failure is so pronounced, one is inclined to avoid it at all costs. Lacking a consistent positive sense of self-esteem, the need to do everything right collides perfectly with the fear of failure, to paralysing effect. One might say, then, that the flawed product is a function of not having had enough time to complete it, rather than having to acknowledge that “good enough” is not a concept they can tolerate. Always eager to please, perfectionists tend to place great stock in the assessment of others, perhaps using external validation as a way of off-setting the punitive nature of their inner dialogue. And the harsh critical judge is also turned on others, creating a person who is highly critical of peers, friends, and family. Black-and-white thinking and a tendency to take things personally make the perfectionist a person who struggles with intimacy. Fear of allowing others to see one’s flaws and vulnerabilities makes it nearly impossible to achieve sustained closeness.
Brene Brown connects perfectionism to guilt and shame. The emphasis on external appearances is a way of exercising control over the unruly inner reality. The way out of the conundrum is to gradually allow yourself to make peace with who you are. To realistically acknowledge your strengths and vulnerabilities, and to value both sides, to be genuine with yourself and then with others, fearlessly owning your flaws and limitations, knowing they are fertile ground for growth and evolution as you move through this, your life. This may sound far-fetched and unrealistic, but we find people who pursue this way of viewing themselves deliberately and persistently, make amazing headway, and are able to shift their behaviours very successfully.