Perfectionism: The Sneaky (and Detrimental) Craving of High Achievers

By Seda Follis, BS, MA, MSW (in progress)

Pleasing others and performing for approval can be a sneaky craving, especially for those who are high achievers. While gaining approval from others may feel good in the moment, it’s a vicious cycle through which most never feel completely fulfilled. As Dr. Brené Brown says, perfectionism is the birthplace of shame. It can lead to anxiety, depression, and different types of addictions aimed at silencing the feelings of shame. Sadly, perfectionism can also get in the way of being our best selves. The fear of making mistakes, disappointing others, and not achieving what we wanted can become a default state when we operate with perfectionism. In this space, it is impossible to take chances and develop the sense of self needed to feel sustaining contentment. When we are hooked on pleasing everyone else, it is almost impossible to truly please ourselves.

The need to control the thoughts and reactions of others arises in order to combat the fear of failure and avoid uncomfortable emotions. In this way, we may have an internal voice whispering kind and loving words to ourselves and showing us the ways to fulfill our dreams, but perfectionism distorts and buries these whispers, replacing them with unattainable expectations for ourselves and others. 

This may be hard for a perfectionist to admit or understand, but there is another way to be. While perfectionism hampers the growth of our true potential, humility can help to develop a growth mindset while opening us to our fullest potential. According to Dr. Brené Brown, when we operate from a humility mindset, we can balance and accurately assess our contributions, including our strengths, imperfections, and opportunities for growth. This is a much more empowering state from which we can achieve our goals and dreams. This is the exact place where a high achiever needs to be.

Humility and modesty are not the same things. Humility is not downplaying ourselves or our accomplishments. That is modesty. Instead, humility is being confident and courageous. For instance, with intellectual humility, we are open to consider information that does not fit with our current thinking while holding our strong views. Also, humility is not weakness. It is a strength and differentiator in our society, where we have more polarized views and have a hard time understanding each other. Humility allows us to continuously learn because it gives us permission to admit when we are wrong. We realize that getting it right is more important than needing to “prove” that we are right. Where perfectionism demands that we already be perfect to everyone around us, humility allows space for us to be truly who we are, mistakes and all.

If you are interested in getting to a place where you are more grounded and confident, with healthy relationships that limit perfectionist tendencies, there are a variety of journeys that you can choose. While there is no “perfect” solution for dealing with perfectionism, there are proven methods that alleviate it. Mindfulness is one of these methods, where we can incorporate various mindfulness practices into your day-to-day life to tackle perfectionism. You can read more about mindfulness on this page.  Another method that can be used is cognitive behavior therapy. While working with a professional who can offer cognitive behavior therapy, we gain the perspective that what we think, how we feel and how we behave are all closely connected. You can also find more about CBT on this page

If you suspect that perfectionism has been getting in the way of achieving your fullest potential and you would welcome the freedom from fears of failure and painful emotions, there are many therapists at The Center for Mindfulness & CBT who use CBT and/or mindfulness to help clients. Seda Follis is one of the newest therapists on the team and is happy to help you on your journey. You can find more information about Seda by clicking here