Perfectionists suck at self-care.
We’re much more concerned with goals and accomplishments than with our own wellbeing. Sometimes, we’re so busy that we don’t even realize that our drive to please people, avoid criticism, and prove we’re “good enough” is destroying our mental and physical health.
Are You a Perfectionist?
Perfectionists have impossibly high standards for themselves – and sometimes for others, too. We expect ourselves to excel at everything, achieve our goals effortlessly, and always be agreeable. And we derive our self-worth from our accomplishments, which means we’re constantly correcting and perfecting, seeking external validation, and trying to prove our worth. This is a stressful way to live.
How Perfectionism Gets In the Way of Self-Care
Self-care can ameliorate the effects of stress and prevent perfectionism from negatively impacting our physical and mental health, but as perfectionists, we tend to feel guilty about doing things for ourselves—anything that isn’t a direct line to achieving a goal, meeting someone’s expectations, or getting more done. Self-care doesn’t fit our image of perfection; we think perfect people are self-sacrificing, low-maintenance, don’t-need-anything types who can run on fumes and still get the job done. Because we have such unrealistic expectations of ourselves, we tend to underestimate our need for self-care and feel guilty about needing to rest, set boundaries, nurture our relationships, or have fun. But the reality is that we all need self-care. We have to tend to our physical, emotional, and spiritual needs in order to stay healthy and live a life that’s fulfilling.
Another challenge that perfectionists often have with hobbies and recreation is that we turn them into competitions and situations where we feel compelled to excel and prove our worth. So, we might take a casual weekend soccer game and turn it into a competition; we get fixated on winning, playing by the rules, or micromanaging the game. Or we take a painting class with a friend, and instead of going with the flow, we want our painting to be exactly like the example. This can suck the fun right out of activities that are meant to be low-key opportunities to kick back, relax, and bond with our friends and family.
What Is Self-Care?
Self-care is the practice of consistently taking care of our physical, emotional, or spiritual needs. It’s doing something healthy and restorative for ourselves to help bring us back to health, contentment, and alignment with ourselves, others, and the world around us. Let’s begin by taking a closer look at what self-care is and isn’t, which will help you release guilt about doing things for yourself.
Self-Care Is Healthy, But Not Always Fun
Self-care is often confused with leisure, self-indulgence, or anything that’s enjoyable. In fact, self-care isn’t always enjoyable: going to the dentist is a form of self-care, because we’re taking care of our health, but it’s not particularly enjoyable. And conversely, not all enjoyable activities are self-care. Self-care is something that’s good for us, so eating a bag of potato chips at the end of an excruciating day may be a treat, but it’s not really self-care, because it’s not a healthy way to take care of yourself, and it’s not going to truly restore your physical or emotional energy.
This isn’t to say that we need to make healthy choices all the time. We’ve all mindlessly eaten a bag of chips while binge-watching Netflix. It’s fine for most of us to do this occasionally, and we don’t need to criticize ourselves for it. We should just recognize that it’s not quality self-care. Our efforts to practice self-care don’t have to be perfect. Self-care is more about progress than perfection.
Self-Care Meets a Need
Another problem for perfectionists is that we often have unrealistic expectations of ourselves that create barriers to practicing self-care. Our perfectionist thinking convinces us that we shouldn’t need anything, that we should be superhuman—able to work without getting tired, give without receiving, and achieve without effort. However, this isn’t realistic—everyone has needs. And if we don’t tend to our needs, we can’t function optimally. We’re used to pushing through, sucking it up, and doing things at any cost. Because of our perfectionism, most of us will sacrifice ourselves to make someone else happy or finish a project or attain a goal, but this isn’t sustainable. Meeting our needs through self-care is essential to our health and happiness. You may relate to Riya’s story, which illustrates what happens when we consistently prioritize others’ needs over our own.
Riya is someone who will always help you out. If you’re sick, she’ll bring you a meal. If your car breaks down, she’ll give you a ride. If you’re behind at work, she’ll stay late and pitch in. Riya puts everyone else’s needs before her own. At her most recent physical exam, her doctor expressed concern about her high blood pressure and lack of sleep and encouraged her to take better care of herself. But Riya really didn’t see the point. Sure, she’s tired a lot, but her family and friends need her. She would feel guilty leaving her kids in daycare so she could go to the gym. She thinks she doesn’t need a lunch break; she’ll get more done if she works through lunch. She can make do with five hours of sleep. Even if she could find some quiet, taking a nap would seem lazy. She would feel selfish going out with friends after work instead of going straight home.
Self-care is an intentional activity done to meet a specific need, not just an excuse to lie around in our pajamas all day. Riya, like all of us, needs to exercise, eat lunch, get enough sleep, and socialize with friends. Doing these activities would meet her needs; they’re not luxuries.
Our self-care is a way to meet our essential and normal physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. And because self-care is a needs-based practice, it’s not a reward that we have to earn—nor is it selfish. It’s something that we give to ourselves because we need it. Resting when you’re tired is no different than eating when you’re hungry, and yet we tend to judge ourselves negatively for resting and feel guilty about it.
Misconceptions about Self-Care
In addition to the idea that self-care should always be fun, there are many other common misconceptions about self-care that create barriers to practicing it.
Which of these common misconceptions about self-care do you subscribe to?
Self-care is _______________.
- a waste of time
- a sign of failure
- a reward I need to earn
- not important
- just the latest self-improvement fad
Now that you’ve recognized how some of your thinking may be limiting your self-care and contributing to exhaustion or resentment, you can begin to challenge your perfectionist thinking and create more positive thoughts about self-care and a plan for turning them into actions.
Challenging Perfectionist Thinking about Self-Care
Our misconceptions about self-care reflect our unrealistic expectations and rigid perfectionist thinking that labels things as “good or “bad,” “right” or “wrong.” These thoughts create guilt or the feeling that we’re doing something wrong when we practice self-care, so we tend to neglect our needs. To release our guilt, we need to challenge our perfectionist thinking about self-care to see if it’s realistic and supportive of our goals to be happy and healthy.
Using the beliefs and expectations that you just identified, complete the prompts below to challenge and replace perfectionist thoughts that get in the way of self-care. (You can repeat the exercise with each of the beliefs you identified.)
Perfectionist or negative belief about self-care: Self-care is selfish.
Challenge: Self-care meets needs, and everyone has needs.
Realistic belief about self-care: It’s healthy to care for myself.
Perfectionist or negative belief about self-care: ______________________________
Realistic belief about self-care: ___________________________________
Perfectionism is a barrier to self-care; it makes it hard for us to balance work and rest, taking care of ourselves and taking care of others, and recreation and goal-directed activities. But we can learn to let go of our workaholic tendencies, unrealistic expectations, and self-criticism and practice self-care without guilt or feeling inadequate. To learn more about putting self-care into practice, pick up a copy of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism.