Perfectionism and codependency
Striving for excellence is a good thing. Perfectionism, however, is an unrealistic and unrelenting expectation that you’ll excel at everything, always do and say the “right” thing, and be everything to everyone. People who struggle with codependency, tend to struggle with perfectionism as well. Perfectionism is one of the ways we try to feel in control and worthy. The problem is that when we expect the impossible from ourselves and others, we’re bound to be disappointed and frustrated. Our unmet expectations and drive for perfection can cause us a host of problems – a harsh inner-critic, nagging and criticizing others, rigid all-or-nothing thinking, overworking and difficulty relaxing, reluctance to try new things, fear of failure, ruminating, anxiety, and depression.
We try to earn our worthiness by being perfect
Most people who struggle with codependency grew up in chaotic families where there wasn’t a lot of safety and predictability. As a result, we tried to tame our anxiety by trying to control the world around us (people and situations). As children, we believed that we’d feel secure, loved, and accepted if we could prevent bad things from happening (like our parents from getting drunk or losing their jobs). So, we became overly responsible, controlling, and parentified children who took on adult responsibilities at an early age. Being perfect was an attempt to avoid criticism, rejection, and anger. We thought that if we could be perfect, we would be loved (or at least we’d avoid being belittled, hit, or rejected). For most of us, perfectionism began in childhood when being a perfect, compliant or helpful child was how we tried to earn our worthiness.
Shame is the root of codependency and perfectionism
Shame is feeling that there’s something wrong with you; that you’re not as good as everyone else and it underlies both codependency and perfectionism. It develops out of family secrets and being told or treated like we’re worthless or inferior. So, we try to offset our shame with people-pleasing, pushing ourselves harder, and striving to be perfect. But, because we can’t be perfect or have a perfect life, we add to our feelings of shame and isolation when we’re intolerant of imperfections and failings in ourselves and others. Unlike most people, we think our mistakes and problems are evidence of our inferiority, so they only serve to reinforce the sense that we’re different and “less than”. In contrast, other people see mistakes and struggles as normal and they also connect and form deeper bonds when they talk about them with trusted friends and loved ones.
Perfectionism doesn’t build high self-esteem
It might seem like people who are goal-driven, work hard, and achieve a lot have high self-esteem, but in reality, perfectionists and codependents are constantly trying to prove and perfect themselves because they don’t feel good about ourselves. We mistakenly believe that being perfect is the pathway to happiness. Perhaps you’ve found yourself thinking: “I’ll be happy when I lose 20 pounds” or “I’ll be happy when I get a better job”. Having realistic goals and pursuing them with both discipline and self-compassion is a healthy pursuit, but we should be careful that we aren’t tying our happiness and self-worth up in whether we attain our goals. We need to strive for a balance between self-improvement and self-acceptance and recognize that self-worth doesn’t have to be earned.
Tips for letting go of perfectionism and accepting yourself:
- Lower your expectations. Unrealistic expectations are the heart of perfectionism and the biggest source of our disappointment and frustration. When we expect perfection from ourselves and others, we’re always going to be disappointed because no one can live up to our standards. I know that the idea of lowering expectations is especially challenging for perfectionists. Often, we get rigid in our expectations, not wanting to change even though we’re constantly frustrated. But for our own wellbeing, we ultimately have to realize that we’re expecting the impossible from ourselves and we can’t control and force others to meet our expectations. The only path to contentment is to align our expectations with reality.
- Watch for perfectionist thinking. As perfectionists, we often get stuck in all or nothing thinking, such as “I’m a success or a failure” or “I’m attractive or I’m ugly” when in reality there’s lots of space in between these extremes. Other examples of perfectionist thinking (a form of cognitive distortions) are overgeneralizing, catastrophizing, and magical thinking. You can learn more about cognitive distortions and how to change them on my blog.
- Adopt a growth attitude. A growth attitude focuses on learning from your mistakes. The only way to improve at something is to try, fail, and try some more. Failure is a normal and essential part of success. Instead of seeing it as something to avoid, embrace it as part of your journey.
- Forgive yourself. Perfectionists are notoriously hard on themselves. One way to show yourself compassion and self-acceptance is to forgive yourself for your imperfections and mistakes. I find it helpful to think about forgiveness as a process rather than an event. It takes time and practice to change your thinking from criticism to acceptance. Remind yourself that everyone is imperfect and screws up sometimes. Show yourself the same kindness that you would show to someone else. Kindness motivates us to do better; criticizing and shaming yourself tends to be demotivating.
- Focus on the process, not just the outcome. Perfectionists measure success and self-worth by their achievements. Instead, try doing things for the experience, for fun, or because you’ve always wanted to try them. Focusing on the process takes the pressure away from the results. It’s not just about whether you win, or get a promotion, or are praised. Some things are worth doing, even if you don’t get any accolades.
- Share your struggles. One of the ways that we can break free of the shame that underlies perfectionism, is to share more of our authentic (aka flawed) selves with people we trust. As with all change, start slowly and begin talking about your missteps with an attitude of acceptance and growth. You’re likely to find that many are supportive and in return share similar experiences of their own. This helps us remember that mistakes are normal and we’re all in this together.
- Love yourself flaws and all. When you set realistic expectations, you can love yourself just as you are today. Loving yourself unconditionally means you don’t have to be perfect or earn love and acceptance. For some practical ideas on how to love yourself, read my 22 ways to love yourself in this article.
Perfectionism doesn’t accomplish any of the things that we hope it will. It doesn’t decrease our shame or make us feel accepted. It doesn’t build our self-esteem or make us feel worthy. Perfectionism inevitably leaves us feeling worse because it’s impossible to achieve. But our failure to achieve perfection isn’t proof that we’re bad, stupid, ugly, unsuccessful, unwanted or any other negative thing. It just means we set unrealistic expectations. And expectations can be changed!
You can learn how to change your unhelpful, self-critical, and perfectionist thinking patterns and set realistic expectations, in my book The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism. Learn more here.