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The Relationship Between Fear and Perfectionism

The Relationship Between Fear and Perfectionism

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By: Mary Hoofnagle

Curious about the relationship between fear and perfectionism? Read below to find out more.

Everyone loves bowling!  Right?

Not.  Me.  I hate it.  Because I’m terrible at it.

In general I avoid any activities in which my skills are lacking.  Bowling and pool are two exceptions however.  Although I still don’t like it, I jump into these activities despite my lack of skill for the sake of fun times with friends.  During my most recent bowling outing, I spent the first game focused on doing everything correctly—no, perfectly.  As a result I ended the game with the lowest score and the highest level of frustration.  But something magical happened in the second game.  True, the magic may have been related to the 1.5 beers I drank during the first round, but more likely it was because I felt so frustrated that I stopped trying so hard.  I quit thinking about what I should be doing and the snickers of others as they watched my endless stream of gutter balls.  All of a sudden, I was bowling well.  I even won!  The point is, I tend stop myself before I start because I am afraid of failing.  I am striving for perfection.

But honestly, perfection is a fantasy.

Alfred Adler knew that everyone struggles with inferiority to some degree because we will always experience a discrepancy between the ideal self and the real self.  We spend a lot of time and energy trying to bridge that gap, but it will never be fully closed.  We begin striving for perfection in an effort to protect ourselves from the embarrassment of others judging us for failure to meet this self-imposed ideal.  But from the very moment we begin striving for perfection, anxiety, fear, disappointment, and discouragement plague us.  Suddenly, we are paralyzed.  We stop taking risks because we fear failing to meet our own expectations and the perceived expectations of others.  Brene Brown has said, “Perfection is a 20 pound shield we lug around thinking it will protect us, when in fact, it is the thing that’s really preventing us from being seen and taking flight.”  When we are striving for perfection, our expectations become unrealistic and we become our own worst enemy.

What exactly is perfectionism and how does it affect you?  Psychology Today explains it perfectly:

For perfectionists, life is an endless report card on accomplishments or looks. A one-way ticket to unhappiness, perfectionism is typically accompanied by depression and eating disorders. What makes perfectionism so toxic is that while those in its grip desire success, they are most focused on avoiding failure, so theirs is a negative orientation. And love isn’t a refuge; in fact, it feels way too conditional on performance.

Perfectionism is toxic.  And it has a close relationship with shame and fear.  According to Brene Brown, “When perfectionism is driving us, shame is riding shotgun and fear is that annoying backseat driver.”   We must first overcome fear to quit sitting paralyzed.  As a driver, we tell backseat drivers “I have a license, skills, and training.  I can handle the car without you.  Thank you very much.”  We assert our independence because we are confident in our driver’s training and we know we have the skills.  Once we show our pride, there’s no room for shame in the car either.  We can do the same thing with fear.  We can begin to claim independence from fear and recognize our skill set and value.  And once fear is gone, we are freer to take risks. And we must take risks.

Risk-taking is a critical skill.  Risks grow you.  Risks teach you new things.  Risks broaden your horizons and open up a world of possibility.  But how do you overcome this fear and start to break free from a perfection prison?  You begin to develop the courage to be imperfect.  One step at a time the courage to be imperfect needs to become an integral part of your life philosophy.

In part two, I’ll explore some of the steps you can take to get there.  But for now, start small.  Consider these seven crucial things you can’t be afraid to do and choose one that you’re going to start doing—even though it scares the hell out of you.  After all, as Philosoraptor says, “We avoid risks in life…so we can make it safely to death?” (Read the second part in this series with our blog post on overcoming fear).

Do you or a loved one need assistance overcoming perfectionism so that you can live a more courageous life? You can contact us to make a counseling appointment or read about adult counseling on our page. You can also check out our blog post: Perfect is the Enemy of Better.

Brought to you by Just Mind, counselors in Austin who are working to provide their clients with the best care possible.

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