Today I’m going to tell you about Becky*. Becky is a perfectionist. Here’s the story Becky wants you to believe:
Becky has her shit together. She’s hardworking and productive and quite clearly on the path to success. Becky is a smart problem solver. She’s rational and keeps a cool head in a crisis. She’s able to communicate her needs and doesn’t hesitate to ask for what she wants. She’s kind and helpful but doesn’t let herself be dragged down by anyone else’s inefficiency. She is well liked and has strong relationships. Becky always looks great and is picture perfect example of health and vitality.
Here’s what’s really going on with Becky:
Becky is an emotional mess. She’s highly anxious, seriously overwhelmed and feels like a huge failure. Being around other people stresses her out. She’s terrified of negative judgment and feels a lot of pressure to measure up to other people’s expectations. She tends to isolate herself because being around people is too exhausting. Becky’s to-do list is a mile long but she’s a procrastinator who rarely starts let alone finishes tasks. Her lack of productivity triggers deep self loathing. This decreases her motivation and increases her panic. She turns to unhealthy habits to cope. Becky feels ashamed, exhausted and alone.
Becky puts A LOT of energy into upholding the appearance of the first description. There is a layer of resentment and depression that keeps building as she becomes increasingly aware of her inability to live up to the standard she’s set for herself. She holds a deeply rooted belief that her value as a human being is directly linked to her achievements. Even though her rational mind understands that no one is perfect, she still expects herself to be and believes that others expect it of her too. She doesn’t open up or admit the truth of her experience to anyone.
Becky is trapped in a prison of perfectionism.
As a therapist, I’ve encountered a lot of Beckys. More often than not, they recognize their perfectionistic tendencies but not the connection between those tendencies and their suffering. Our society emphasizes the value of productivity and high achievement. It encourages external rewards and validation through material gain. The Beckys of the world see their perfectionism as a strength, and it may be so at times. They also see their struggle as a flaw and their inability to live up to impossible standards as a failure. They are so damn hard on themselves and usually stubborn as hell. It can be very difficult for a Becky to shift her perspective.
If you see yourself in any of this, here are a few suggestions for you:
- List your strengths. Not just the traits that society values but the ones you truly value for yourself. Heck, if you’re proud of how gently you groom your cat or how well you crack an egg, then write it down. Connect with your own unique skills and qualities.
- Identify the voice of your inner critic. Make a list of the negative statements you tell yourself about yourself. This may sound like, “you’re lazy,” “you’re useless,” “you’re an idiot,” or “you’ll never amount to anything.” Be honest with this list, no one is going to see it but you. Take a look at that list and consider where you may have heard those comments before. Maybe they were actually spoken to you by a parent, a teacher or a boss. Maybe you started telling yourself these things when you were very young because it was the only explanation you had for adverse experiences. Would you say those things to a child in the same situation? Begin to draw connections between the voice of your inner critic and your life experiences.
- School the critic. Your inner critic is trying to protect you but doesn’t know how. As humans we tend toward negativity as a means to prepare for the worst. It’s an innate survival mechanism. But we have evolved and awakened beyond our basic primal instincts. Invite your wise, enlightened self to educate the critic. Write down the compassionate counter arguments to your list of criticism. For example, the response to “you’re lazy” may be, “resting helps you rejuvenate.” Make an effort to repeat compassionate statements to yourself on a regular basis. Say them when you’re driving or brushing your teeth, and especially when you make a mistake.
- Create your own definition of success. Forget about anyone else’s expectations. How will you know when you’re successful? While material wealth, status or praise are common markers of success, contentment, joy or increased awareness are others. What matters most to YOU? Live in accordance with your own values.
- Recognize that you’re a multi-faceted, multi-dimensional being. You have good qualities and not so good qualities. There are things you do well and things you’re not very good at. Admitting that doesn’t make you weak, it means you’re self aware. Acknowledge and appreciate all parts of you. See your flaws as agents of growth or guides to support. It’s never necessary to berate yourself. Ever. Accept yourself exactly as you are, learn from your mistakes, and move on.
- Check your ego. What makes you think you should be held to such a high standard? Would you expect the same level of perfection from someone else? The ego loves to play the victim. Be as kind to yourself as you would to others. Conversely, are you highly critical of others? Do you think you should perform better than everyone else? The ego loves to feel important and to act superior. This is a projection of deep insecurity. Humbling your ego and forgiving the shortcomings of others releases yourself from the burden of unrealistic expectations.
- Step out of your comfort zone. Do something that intimidates you while giving yourself permission to mess it up. Expect mistakes and know that making them is how you learn and grow. The more you do this, the less scary it will be and the more confidence you’ll have.
- Open up! Be honest with yourself. Talk to someone you trust about your fears and insecurities. The more you hide things away, the more power they have over you. If you release toxic, negative beliefs you will feel free.
If you take anything away from this article, let it be compassion. If you’re a Becky, practice that compassion by being gentle with and forgiving of yourself and others. If you love a Becky, know that her irritability, isolation, or obsessive tendencies are symptoms of a deeper struggle. Be patient, be kind, be reassuring.
All of that said, perfectionism is sometimes a good thing. But there’s a difference between being meticulous in how you approach a task and living a life of impossible standards. The advice presented here is intended to address the suffering created when unbound perfectionism reaches an unhealthy extreme. Like in Becky’s case.
Perfectionism can be a curse that leaves you feeling trapped and miserable. Always remember, you’re perfect and beautiful exactly as you are.
*Becky isn’t a real person. She’s a symbolic conglomeration of qualities, an archetype.