You tell yourself you have to get it right this time. Your life depends on it. You have the rules and standards to motivate and guide you along the way. They begin with words and phrases like I must never make a mistake…I have to do this perfectly…I should be able to do it. You rehearse them over and again until they are embedded in your brain. They become your mantras.
Enter a new day. You are geared up and ready to step into the arena of life yet another day. You take your place at the starting line and prepare to run your race, to reach your goal. The bell sounds and you are off. Today you are determined to hit the mark of perfection. Mantras buried deep in the recesses of your mind, you start talking to yourself to stay on track. In addition to encouraging yourself, you look to the sidelines for others to provide reassurance, to cheer you on and tell you how well you are doing. To help you stay on track as well. As you near the end of the race and draw closer to the finish line you become anxious about what awaits you, about the outcome. There are three outcomes and like Olympians waiting for the judges to tally up the score you hold your breath waiting to find out how well you did today because your value, your worth, your identity depends on this performance.
Tallying up the Score
Outcome number one is the position where you are successful at meeting the standards you have set. You receive commendation on your performance and become the model (employee, child, or athlete, star, you name it) others should emulate. In the moment, this seems like a good outcome as you get to enjoy your achievement. However, this enjoyment does not last long as you come to realize or better yet rationalize the outcome. You convince yourself that somebody got it wrong and you find yourself having thoughts like: They are just being nice to be nice, or they probably say that to everybody. The moment of euphoria passes and you remember this does not align with the things you constantly tell yourself.
Outcome number two is the position of disappointment, the place where you realize that despite all your efforts, you have fallen short of the standards you have set, again. It is the place you work so hard to avoid but unconsciously believe is the deserved outcome based on how you think about yourself.
Outcome number three is the place where anxiety challenges your effort. You eventually give in and take a detour. Camping out in the place of procrastination you seek to alleviate the anxiety associated with thoughts of not meeting the goal.
Whether you end up at outcome two or outcome three, the prevailing thought is that somehow what you did was not enough. Turning inward, you repeatedly criticize and taunt yourself, telling yourself, “I am a failure,” while doubling your efforts and vowing to do better the next time. Running this race day after day and having reached one of these outcomes each time, you are starting to realize that regardless of the outcome, the result is the same and you wonder why?
Daily we are saturated with messages from the media about what is good and what is not. These messages tempt us to compare ourselves with others – how well we are doing, how we look, what is the level of our success compared to others, among other measurements. Added to these messages, are the ones received in our formative years, directly or through interpretation, which impact our thinking about ourselves, others and the world. Messages that prompt us to operate according to unconscious rules and underlying assumptions.
When internalized, messages received from various contexts can result in us creating and trying to live up to standards that are hard and sometimes impossible to reach. They can lead us to striving after perfection and measuring our very existence based on achievement and success.
So why do you end up with the same results regardless of the outcome? Because when the set standard is perfection and the starting point of the race is, “I am not good enough,” the outcome leads to dissatisfaction and a determination to either run harder or with a loftier goal in mind the next time.
For some striving after perfection is viewed as a healthy goal but for others, striving after perfection can be a paralyzing effort that erodes identity and worth. Are you caught up in the relentless cycle of perfectionism, constantly trying to prove your worth? Let us come alongside you and help you break the cycle.
Written by therapist Roslyn Jordan
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