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Perfectionism as a Defence Mechanism

Posted by Alexandra Van Rijn on

Written by Paul Barber 

I’ve struggled a lot with perfectionism.

I used to see anything but excellence as failure, and spent excessive amounts of time on very minor details because I feared how an imperfect assignment, gift or initiative would be perceived. More recently, my perfectionism manifests itself as a fear of unfulfilled potential; I perceive that I must constantly make the most of all my time or that I’m wasting my potential and I write my perfectionism off as simply being ambitious.

I’ve been realizing recently the difference between ambition and perfectionism. Psychologist Brene Brown discusses in her book Daring Greatly how perfectionism stems from a fear of shame rather than a desire to accomplish. According to her, it’s the manifestation of a defence mechanism that derives from the thought “If I look perfect in what I do and the work that I put out, then I can minimize judgement, shame and pain”.

To me, the difference is linked to a growth mindset: failure is associated with substantial shame and quickly linked to the self-worth of the individual. Conversely for ambition or self-improvement, the growth mindset allows the individual to see the failure as an opportunity to learn rather than a reason they are not enough. This means that for perfectionists, people often attach their measurement of self-worth to external outcomes (job promotions, grades, feedback), which can manifest itself in several unhealthy ways.


Firstly, perfectionism often relates to workaholism

This is something we see rampant in youth and young adults. The competition to always be working more and doing more often relates to a fear of not making perfect use of the time given, and can often lead to burn out and frustrating battles with an inner voice telling you you’re still not doing enough. This can also affect the balance with their personal life and lead to less fulfilling connections with others.


In the day and age of social media, perfectionism often strongly relates to how people express themselves online.

While this point alone could be a whole slew of articles, to touch on it briefly, perfectionist thinking often leads to the thought that you can only show one side of yourself on social media. For people who relate perfectionism to their portrayal of body image, pictures must be perfect and it can be difficult to ever feel fully confident with a posted picture. For others, they feel the need to talk about their success incessantly, using it as a way to feel they’re doing well. Both of these relate to the same core issue: people feel like they have to curate who they are and can only show one sides of themselves. People are prevented from being their best self and entirely themselves when they feel like they have this limitation, and it can make their interaction with social media unhealthy.


Furthermore, perfectionists often expect an unrealistically high quality from those around them in their lives

I definitely used to struggle with that for extracurriculars where I became subconsciously hypercritical of others work more so because I was used to doing that for myself. It made me forget that people had different levels of experience and prevented me from being able to help them grow in those areas, as I focused more on the output than the experience. Realizing this has been a huge step for me in becoming a better leader.


So with all the different ways that perfectionism manifests itself, how can we combat it?

I want to start by noting that different mental health struggles interact with perfectionism uniquely and that while these techniques are meant more as general tips, I do hope they still help.


Start having conversations about failures or tough times. You don’t have to open up to the world, but when you start learning to talk about the times you weren’t perfect, you adjust your self-worth away from other people’s perception of your perfection and more towards your authenticity towards yourself.


Strive to take a step back and be in the moment. If you find yourself obsessing over a small detail or being hypercritical, ask yourself if that’s realistic. And then flip it to question what would happen if this wasn’t perfect? Is there a major consequence to imperfection in what you’re doing, or is it more just a personal worry?


When you’re struggling with perfectionism regarding yourself, ask yourself 'would I expect the same of a close friend?' If it’s not a standard that you’d realistically expect from other people, than it wouldn’t be one that other people expect from you either. This relates to how we’re often our own worse critics, so instead, as my friend Mike Young from Growth Myndset says, be your own best friend. Be the person that encourages you to be okay with imperfection and pushes you to be more vulnerable with what you do, and let that voice combat the perfectionist thought within you.


Next time you find yourself overwhelmed or being over-critical of yourself, explore whether you think its perfectionism or if it’s helpful criticism that you can get something out of. It’s often a lengthy battle for many of us perfectionists to learn to adjust away from those deeply engrained thinking patterns, but a shift that can be incredibly healthy and motivating. For those of you embarking on that quest now, thank you for choosing to be compassionate towards yourself.


And hey, if you need some extra motivation, listen to a fun Disney song that Hannah Montana sang here 


Photo: Emily Spadaford 


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