I’ve always been vulnerable to perfectionism, like many highly sensitive people. How can we change this pattern of being hard on ourselves?

When I think of perfectionism, I always think of Superman. The call comes in to save the world, and Clark Kent heads to the nearest phone booth. He doesn’t come out until he has six-pack abs, a flowing cape, and perfect hair (which, you’ll note, never gets messed up, even when he’s flying at jet-engine speeds.)

Who among us can keep up with this? Yet we try. Or I do, anyway. Perfectionism is my phone booth. I go in and vow not to emerge until I’ve got things perfect.

Even thinking of myself with six-pack abs and perfect hair makes me laugh. But I think you’ll agree that for highly sensitive people (HSPs), there is nothing funny about the side effects of perfectionism.

When we go into that phone booth, we become rigid and constricted. We lose the bigger perspective and suffer from tunnel vision. We enter a devastating vicious cycle: because it’s impossible to be perfect, so any attempt is doomed to fail.

Why are HSPs prone to perfectionism?

In a 2004 blog post, Dr. Elaine Aron wrote,

HSPs tend to be perfectionists for two reasons. First, we don’t like unpleasant surprises, such as criticisms, making a mistake, hurting others, or having something go very wrong. To avoid these, we try to plan, arrange, and do things perfectly. Of course it works to some degree, so it is highly rewarding. But since we can’t control all eventualities, we can never do enough, and in time our anxiety can make us seem “obsessive-compulsive.”

So the “worry reason” for perfectionism has to be reined in by remembering that we will never please everyone, we will always make mistakes, and we cannot control fate.
Second, we tend to be perfectionists because we can envision how something could be done perfectly and aim for that. In that sense, it can bring real pleasure to get things right. And, the world often benefits from our drive to make the final work match our original vision.

However, anything that brings a sudden burst of gratification can be addictive, and anything addictive is subject to the “opponent process.” That is, at first we do it for the pleasure, and later we do it for the opposite reason, to avoid the pain of giving up that pleasure…

These are both contributing reasons for our perfectionist tendencies. But I’d like to offer a deeper reason that drives sensitive people to try so relentlessly to be perfect.

Perfectionism is a protection against despair

When a child is under intense stress and doesn’t have the support to process and handle that stress, she is forced to handle it herself. She does the best she can, using the tools at her disposal. A sensitive child will naturally call upon her sensitive strengths.

If you are highly sensitive, you are conscientious. Your sensitivity to subtleties allows you to sense others’ emotions and to “read the room.” You also have exceptional deep-processing ability which you use to consider the implications of your choices.

In a challenging or even traumatic family context, you use all these strengths in the pursuit of perfectionism. To do so is a practical choice for your emotional survival and sanity. Perfectionism is an internal contract to protect yourself from despair.

You “sign on the dotted line” by unconsciously agreeing to adopt these beliefs:

  • This situation is my fault. I caused it by not being good enough.
  • If I find a way to be perfect enough, I can make it better.

Of course, these beliefs are false. The price you pay for believing them is a terrible one. But as a child, you didn’t know that. You were just trying to cope. Your quest for perfectionism gave you a life- and sanity-preserving illusion of self-empowerment in what might otherwise be a hopeless, helpless situation. It also kept you too busy to feel the pain.

Perfectionism is a self-perpetuating cycle

The terrible thing about perfectionism is that it is self-perpetuating. It is impossible to be perfect, so the quest for perfection guarantees we will fail, which adds to our shame.

On top of that, perfectionism cuts us off from seeking the support, information, and experience that would allow us to make progress in a healthy, incremental way. Inside the phone booth, we are isolated.

For example, as an oboe performance major in college, a big part of my task was to become a proficient oboe reed maker. And oboist sounds only as good as their most recent reed. I knew my reeds weren’t great, and I felt acutely ashamed of what felt like inexcusable ignorance.

As a result, I retreated to my phone booth—or in this case, my dorm room—and stayed there. I turned down invitations every week from classmates who were getting together to make reeds and eat pizza. I refused to come out of the phone booth until I was a “good reed maker.”

I feel sad now, knowing how much I could have learned from my fellow oboe majors, and realizing how much suffering that might have saved me. By staying in the phone booth, I robbed myself of iterative, feedback-based learning, settling instead for the black-and-white world of “I’m perfect—or I suck.”

The way out of perfectionism

Paradoxically, the way out of perfectionism requires radical acceptance of yourself, exactly as you are right now. That doesn’t mean you will always stay exactly as you are. There may be ways you wish to change. But until you accept you are at Point A, you can’t map your route to Point B.

This process of acceptance starts by acknowledging the layers of inner pain you have been carrying. The core belief of perfectionism—“all this is my fault, but I can fix it by being good enough/smart enough/thin enough/perfect enough”—is itself incredibly painful.

There’s also the tension, exhaustion, and despair that have built up over the years as you’ve repeatedly attempted an impossible task. There’s that flush of shame you feel when someone says, “You’re such a perfectionist. Relax!” And there’s the feeling about all those feelings: “I can’t stand this whole way of being.”

Accepting each of these layers takes skill and effort. If your perfectionism stems from childhood trauma, including subtle trauma, it’s not enough simply to repeat the kind of new-age-style affirmations Al Franken hilariously caricatured in his Saturday Night Live skits, Daily Life Affirmations with Stuart Smalley—(“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me”. (Though if you need a good laugh, I highly recommend this episode with Michael Jordan.)

The fact is, you need to go deeper and form an inner relationship with the younger you who adopted those perfectionist beliefs. It’s not all of you that believes it is flawed. It is something in you, and that something needs your company, along with all the other somethings in there—the despairing one, the exhausted one, the ashamed one.

You can “be the space” for all this

How do you “be the space where all this can be?” To imagine it, I think of myself as a group photographer. Any parts of me that I’m struggling to accept will be half-outside my viewfinder. Parts I’ve exiled from my consciousness will be out of the picture altogether. But I can make room to include everyone by simply backing up.

I “back up” by saying, “I’m sensing something in my throat that feels tense…can I let that be as it is, for as long as it needs to be? Hmm, no, something in me is saying, ‘No! This has to stop!’ I’m acknowledging that one. Can I let it be as it is?” And so on, until I finally hear, “Yes, I can let this be as it is, for as long as it needs to be.”

In other words, I keep “backing up” until I have everyone in my viewfinder. Then I attend to each part as needed. After all, though their methods may be painful, these parts came into existence in the first place to try to keep me safe and sane. They did that by adopting the belief that I could control or avoid painful situations by being perfect.

As I’ve slowly let go of this phone booth mentality, I’ve shifted to seeing myself as a “human becoming.” I’m a work in progress, intrinsically valuable exactly as I am and constantly growing and changing.

Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good

When I give up my phone booth habit, I free myself. I realize and accept that I’m in a process that has no endpoint. From this place of freedom, I stop letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

In this new, more spacious world, I have powerful options:

  • I can experiment
  • I can allow myself to make mistakes
  • I can put things out there that aren’t yet or finished or polished, just to see what kind of reaction I get…then learn from that reaction

I’ve discovered that the world supports me with unexpected generosity when I’m open to learning from it. Unfortunately, HSPs are vulnerable to perfectionism, for all the reasons I’ve explored here. But we can learn a healthier way of being. What a relief.

Photo by Pawel Czerwinski on Unsplash