The Trap of Perfectionism


by Monica Ross

What did a recently published September 2017 article in the Journal of Personality reveal?  Perfectionism leads to suicide.  Yet why are we so perfectionistic? 

We’re perfectionistic because we think that by telling ourselves constantly to work harder, to strive to be and do better, to excel as a mother, as a spouse, as a manager—that all of this will serve as MOTIVATION.  But the cold, hard truth of the matter is that it does not.

Dr. Kristin Neff at The University of Texas at Austin has done a lot of research on this topic, as well, and that is what her research concludes.  The self-criticism that we inflict on ourselves only serves to make us feel worse, it does not motivate us to change our behaviors.

The inner dialogue of someone with perfectionistic tendencies might look something like this: 

“I should have called my mother back this weekend, this is the second time she has tried to reach out to me to hear about the new position. I'm the worst daughter ever.”


“I never got time to go to the grocery store this weekend with the baby shower and all the catching up I had to do with work, so great that means another week of eating out.  I have to do better that.  It’s just not acceptable.”


”With all the meetings I have scheduled this week and the trainings I have to do there is just no way that I’ll be able to break for the gym at lunch and I’ll never lose that extra 20 pounds. I hate myself.  How did I let myself gain so much weight?”

The above inner dialogue is hard to read and absorb because it sounds so harsh and yet these are the types of things that we tell ourselves sometimes on a minute by minute basis.  We are often more harsh and cruel to ourselves than we would be to someone we dislike. 

Perhaps we feel that we hold ourselves to a higher standard.  And because of that, it’s okay to be harder on ourselves.

After all, wasn’t it I who got first place on the debate team?  Didn’t I graduate top 5% of my class? Wasn’t I selected to be chair or co chair of this or that committee in college?  Didn’t I accept the leadership role at work?

Here are three things that Dr. Neff points out that are essential elements to break through some of this thinking.

1.    Accept that we are human. 

And that being human is a shared common experience.  In other words, the person next to me in line at the checkout counter knows all too well what it means to be human and living in today’s world just as much I do.  We collectively as humans know what it means to experience joy and suffering, happiness and disappointment.  In that way, we are no different from each other.

We have a lot in common and therefore we have the ability to relate to one another.  If we can hold onto that concept then we can shift from a place of “look how much I’m suffering” to “look how much we all at times suffer in life.”

So it’s less about me not measuring up and therefore hating myself for it, but look at how we all set these unreasonable expectations and then beat ourselves and each other up for not meeting them.  It’s about moving from a place of shared judgement to a place of shared understanding about the human condition.  This makes it easier to connect instead of isolate.

2.    Strive to stay present and aware.

Another way to say this is to be mindful.  Part of being mindful is staying focused on the present moment and accepting whatever feelings, thoughts, or bodily sensations and physical reactions come up in the moment with acceptance. 

At the same time we are not our thoughts as Eckhart Tolle points out.  How can we be?  There is some part of us, call it the spiritual part if you want or the soul part of us that is an essence. It is untouched by what we might be feeling or thinking in the moment.  It is a strong, stable, solid, force.  It’s the place we tap into in order to feel a sense of groundedness.

3.    Be kind to yourself.

So, if we know all of this to be true, that we share a common humanity and as such are imperfect fallible human beings and that every moment brings new thoughts, feelings, and sensations that are at times difficult or even unpleasant to experience, then at the very least let’s be kind to ourselves and by extension kind to other people.

Click this link to set up an appointment to discuss how to decrease the perfectionistic tendencies in you life.