Perfectionism is toxic to your well-being.  Do you recognize these characteristics in yourself?
October 2013  Issue #37

Today's Topic:   Recognizing your Inner Perfectionist

Dear friends,

My newsletters are always a labour of love.  However when it comes to my own creative process, sometimes I am long on labour and short on love!  My inner critic can be very active when I'm trying to write.

Perhaps you too can be very hard on yourself, despite feed-back that you do something well.  If so, then this issue is for you!

Here's to being "good enough",

Something to think about

Perfectionism is not the path that leads us to our gifts and to our sense of purpose; it’s the hazardous detour.
                                                 -- Brene Brown

A rude awakening

Many years ago a family member suggested to me that I was a perfectionist.  I remember the moment well, though I have no recollection what triggered the comment.  My response was to feel criticized, angry, defensive – and embarrassed.  In hindsight, I had been “caught in the act” – though I wasn’t able to admit it.
At the time, I still saw my striving for perfection as a virtue and I felt wounded by the comment -- though I’m sure there was no intent to harm me.  Any hint of criticism is intolerable for someone trying to be perfect! I did take note of my strong reaction however and it caused me to reflect on whether there might be some truth to the suggestion.  For this dawning awareness, I am now very grateful.
I have learned that perfectionism is a very oppressive way of being.   And as I progressively free myself from its’ hold (still a work in progress!) new doors of self-acceptance, creativity and learning have swung open for me.

Perfectionism affects many

I know that I’m not alone in struggling with perfectionism.  Many people, who tend to be too hard on themselves, are recovering perfectionists like myself.  Many others fall along a continuum of mild to more severe tendencies.  Perfectionism can be hiding in  the guise of “high standards”, “the pursuit of self-improvement” or “striving for excellence”.  However it is none of these.
Through my work with clients, I have seen how perfectionist tendencies can fuel procrastination (better to put something off than to do it imperfectly) and kill creativity (it’s hard to let your creative spirit flow when you’re trying to do it “right”).  It is also lethal to feeling good about yourself. So perfectionism isn’t simply an annoying tendency – it is toxic to your well-being.

 It’s a cultural phenomenon

The pursuit of perfection may be endemic to our culture.  Brene Brown, in her book Daring Greatly, describes perfectionism as one of the “never-enough” problems.  Never good enough.  Never perfect enough.  Never thin enough.  Never successful enough.  And so on.  These are all part of cultural pressures rooted in scarcity thinking.
Says Brown, “Scarcity thrives in a culture where everyone is hyperaware of lack.  Everything from safety and love to money and resources feels restricted or lacking.” 
In such a climate, we are constantly assessing and comparing what we have, don’t have, need and want -- to how much everyone else has, doesn’t have, needs or wants.  We fall prey to these pressures of comparison and judgement, unless we consciously put our focus and our values elsewhere.

Does this apply to you?

Some years ago I came across the work of Ann Smith, who wrote a book called Overcoming Perfectionism.  I was facilitating a coaching group of mothers, who wanted to re-invent their careers after being home with children.  As we talked about what stopped them from experimenting with some new career interests, it became clear that for some, their impossibly high standards were discouraging them from trying something new, where they would be an unskilled “beginner”.  This can be another hallmark of perfectionism:  If I can’t do it perfectly from the outset, there is no point in starting. 

Self-test for Perfectionists

Smith developed the following questions to help you determine the degree of perfectionism you may be experiencing.  While most people have a few positive responses, Smith indicates that if you check three or more, you are experiencing greater stress than the average person.

Take note of how many YOU check.

  •  I place excessive demands on myself.
  •  Others would describe me as a perfectionist.                  
  • I often obsess about the details of a task, even though it may not be important.
  • I am annoyed when others don’t act or behave as well as I do (e.g., be on time, keep order and so on). 
  • I am very organized in one or more areas of my life.
  • I get very upset with myself if I make a mistake.
  • I often have a mental list of things I “should be doing”.
  • I never seem to be doing enough.
  • I tend to notice any error in myself or others before I notice the positive.
  • I have an “all or nothing” philosophy:  If I can’t do it all, or do it well, why bother?
  • I am devastated by criticism.
  • I have difficulty making decisions.

So how did you fare?

  • For those with less than three checks, congratulations!  You are experiencing a freedom and self-acceptance that many would envy. 
  • Perhaps you checked more than three, however noticed that you checked less than you might have done in the past. If so, you’ve probably done some work on self-acceptance. Celebrate your progress – and stay true to the course!
  • If you checked far more  than you imagined you might, don’t despair!  Perfectionism, like any other belief system, can be changed. And awareness is the first step.

Stay tuned next issue for more about what perfectionism is and isn’t.  As we explode the myths surrounding it, we will open up new ways of being, that are free from the straight-jacket of perfection.  In so doing, we not only free up ourselves, we also free up our loved ones, who may also be feeling the pressure of our expectations of perfection.

Invitation to action:

Pick one of the characteristics on the above self-test that robs you of joy and ease.  Notice this tendency in yourself over the coming month.  See if you can “lighten up” on yourself in relation to this characteristic.  Notice how you feel when you do.

Shirley’s Update:

I have found that one of the antidotes to perfectionism is more play!  For many, dancing is a wonderful form of play.  Check out this delightful video capturing many different people dancing and sharing about why they love it.  Why I dance  It just might inspire you to put on some music and go for it!

Shirley Vollett BSW PCC is a Life and Relationship Coach, with over 25 years of combined experience in counselling and coaching. She delights in helping pro-active individuals make positive changes in their lives, their work/business and their relationships. Her clients appreciate her ability to listen deeply, her compassionate wisdom and her support in staying focused. Contact Shirley for a complimentary intro phone session. If you are experiencing a challenge or are eager to make some changes, explore how coaching works and how she can help. Click on a link below or visit her website at
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