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
As it always seems to happen, this article is timely and very relevant to me! My CEO recently spoke to me about my “manic pursuit of perfectionism.” This one tiny phrase triggered days of shame, collapse and brain fog for me. (Thank heavens for my focusing partners.)
Probably the most triggering aspect of what he said was the word “manic.” Having grown up with someone with severe and unregulated bipolar disorder, “manic” really means something to me. In essence, I heard him say “You are just like that person. You’re out of touch with reality. You scare people. You make life miserable for everyone.”
I finally decided to get a reality check on this from my immediate supervisor and all is well there.
I also think that perfectionism is in the eye of the beholder. What looks like perfectionism to my CEO is to me a vision for my work that inspires and uplifts me and brings me pleasure and satisfaction AND benefits the organization (or so I have been told :)). I could just as easily say that my CEO has a shoddy attitude and approach to things. But in fact, we probably just have different visions.
This brings me to my observation that people often use the label “perfectionist” in a judgmental and controlling way. In this specific situation with my CEO, I think the problem is that sometimes I need information from him to fulfill my vision. And as a busy executive, he doesn’t have time and isn’t inclined temperamentally to think about things from my point of view. Instead of saying that, he calls me manic and a perfectionist.
Having unpacked all that, I now have some space to pay attention to how I might be making myself miserable in my approach to my work. This article gives me some courage and some ideas to do that.
I am an introverted HSP and yes, have the perfectionism experience. But as noted, as an aware HSP (now), I don’t see my pursuits as a journey to perfectionism, the perfectionism that others think they see is just an accumulation of all my HSP gifts joining together in accomplishing something.
Non HSPs don’t have all these gifts and therefore would naturally see or label our work efforts as perfectionist, where we HSPs see our work efforts as NORMAL. My spouse is NON HSP and has had some very strange comments about my work efforts over the years. I just ignore him now and either leave the room immediately or change the subject.
Reading up on quotes for HSPs is VERY helpful and some can make you laugh. They are along the lines of you stating you could easily say your CEO has a shoddy attitude and approach to things. HSP quotes describe the world and people from OUR point of view. They are very uplifting and can easily be a screen shot photo on your phone or written down and carried in your pocket to read when we feel attacked by the world for our HSP self. They put experiences into words from the HSP point of view.
I understand the shame and collapse experience as well. I live in a highly illiterate town and often get told I am ‘smart’, but in a negative way…as if being intelligent is something to be ashamed of. So when anyone says this to me I pretty much need to get away from them, take some deep breaths, and distract myself with something until the feeling goes away.
And as for your CEO calling you ‘manic’, this is outright impolite and ‘politically incorrect’ so to speak. I naturally have low serotonin levels which requires that I take an antidepressant. I have been exposed to unbelievable ignorance on the part of people who think depression is some sort of contagious disease or limits one’s intelligence. Just yesterday a highly needed and respected SURGEON whom I had a follow up appointment with (he removed my gallbladder 11 years ago and I have been having some gastrointestinal problems lately) called my depression diagnosis a ‘condition’. Really????
So I definately feel your overwhelm when your CEO used the word ‘manic’.
(Aren’t we HSPs just the greatest to support one another….because we understand without needing much explanation) We need to pat ourselves on the back more often (in private or amongst eachother of course….we have too…because the non HSP world thinks we all are weak)
Another point…(hopefully this is encouraging you) ….I felt disheartened when you said you needed to get a reality check from your supervisor. I don’t know what type of employment you are in…but have you ever read the book….Making Work Work for The Highly Sensitive Person? You sound like you might be experiencing a condescending experience at work at the fault of others.
Maybe I am understanding you incorrectly, maybe not. But I only realized I was HSP when I was 50. So, I worked for 25 years not knowing about my unique abilites. I allowed others, in my various work environments, to shame me, make fun of me, criticize me, exclude me…let’s see…anything else…oh…. and harrass me until finally my body and mind said ‘enough!’. I got very very sick and haven’t worked for ‘anyone’ in almost 2 years. I am taking the time to recuperate and heal and strengthen ME…the HSP me. I say all this because I hope you have the flexibility to change employment or go to another department. Be careful, some people in authority can twist words and their tone of voice to MAKE you feel less than the great employee you are. ALL HSPs are GREAT employess. This is just natural for us. Anyways, please read the book Making Work Work For the Highly Sensitive Person if you haven’t already…or re read it to encourage yourself and get your bearings. I am not sure if I will ever work for anyone else again. I am close enough to early retirement age to retire, but I am not sure.
All the best!!! i
Hi S. Thank you for the book recommendation. I have not read this book and I look forward to what I might learn from it.
Thanks too for your supportive comments about my situation and about the challenges of navigating the world as an HSP in general. It feels like a risk to talk about these things and it is nice to hear that someone else understands.
I wish you all the best too in nurturing and strengthening your HSP self.
Thank you Kim for your kind response. I am just reading this now. Sharing your HSP struggles on HSP blogs isn’t ever a risk….it’s a lifesaver! I have benefited so much from being able to share on this site. I wish more HSP sites had this opportunity. (Now sharing with non HSP people about our traits and struggles…that is a big emotional risk)
During my health crisis 2 years ago I had no option but to reach out to various female extended family members and married into the family people to see if I could find a hereditary reason for what I was going through. Now THAT was a risk.
One married into the family aunt refused to provide any insight but said she would pass on my email request to her children…my cousins. I didn’t get a response from any of them.
Second person is an older cousin. Her response was WORSE, commenting very ignorantly about people being diagnosed with depression.
HOWEVER, my persistence paid off so to speak and in contacting an older cousin in law …I found a fellow HSP!!! How exciting. She is an extroverted HSP and I am an introvert, but the HSP traits we share we don’t have to explain to eachother. We TOTALLY understand eachother’s ways and thoughts.
And just recently, after a year of therapy via the phone with licensed psychotherapists…I was linked with an HSP, Empath Therapist! What a surprise. I did not mention I was HSP to the intake receptionist, but she was a keen listener and connected me with an HSP therapist. I shared with the therapist my reality of being HSP and she shared at the end of our first session that she is HSP as well and Empath. I have 7 more sessions with her and I am very excited about hearing all h er HSP wisdom.
I recall a parable about ‘throwing our pearls to the swine’. I forget the actual meaning of this, but it sounds much like the risk that an HSP might take in sharing vulnerable realities of our traits to people who wouldn’t understand. If your self confidence is strong and you know who you are as an HSP, any negative response probably won’t phase you. But if you aren’t emotionally strong then rude comments will hurt.
I think alot of HSP so called perfectionism comes down to our intense conscientiousness. I have started to recognize more closely those areas in my life where I am very conscientious about what I am doing or saying and deciding to NOT act in a conscientious way because I have learned from previous experience that I end up being easily emotionally hurt.
For example…..very simple situation , but still causes human pain. I love to snowshoe and walk in the winter forest. On the snowshoe trail everyone is friendly. For some reason on the walking trail people are not friendly. I find it conscientiously polite to say ‘hello’ to people I pass on the trails. WELL….I discovered NOT everyone wants to say hello. In my HSP ‘perfectionism’ for a while I could not walk by someone without saying hello despite their refusal to say hello in return. SO I have STOPPED saying hello on the walking trails UNLESS someone says hello to me. This has saved me alot of heartache. I just stare at the ground as I pass by the people who do not say hello and don’t judge myself for not saying hello and within 5 minutes I forget that I ever passed by them.
One final comment about sharing who we are as HSPs in potentially vulnerable situations. I have found that more often than not, because as an HSP I have this behind the scenes intuition thing going on within me that I usually am not aware of in the moment, that when I share something or try to communicate something (and I KNOW I am correct in my assessment) with someone who disregards, or worse insults, what I am saying from my HSP sensitivity traits strengths…that eventually most situations come full circle and the accuracy and truth of my initial assessment and comments is confirmed. The other person may not remember what took place 2 weeks, 4 months, a year ago….but I usually do. The completion of the experience often ends up in favour of my HSP instincts and I and validated WITHIN myself . I wish this for you as well. It is a rewarding experience. I don’t ever wish harm on anyone (typical HSP trait shining through here), but I suspect that other HSPs share the ‘if you press too many of my buttons for too long you will eventually hit the attack button…and while MY HSP form of attack may not be a bite (as in one of Emily’s blogs ) I will hiss…even if it is a gentle hiss.
Not sure if these non HSP people EVEN pick up on their assumptions or wrongdoings, but I usually remember and am again validated for the accuracy of my intuition and the way I handled it.
I better stop now. I could go on and on.
Again much happy HSP living to you Kim.
Thank you for the good wishes, S. I extend the same to you. You are well on your way!
Kim, thank you for this gift of your thoughtful unpacking of the meaning of “perfectionism” and how it can be used judgmentally. That is a whole aspect both Dr. Aron and I completely missed…I can see it would have been helpful to define the term as I meant it in this context, because you are absolutely right that it can be used by others to mean all kinds of things. If you have noticed and/or care about “details” that someone else doesn’t think are important, they may call you a perfectionist. But that doesn’t make you one, as you point out! I’m realizing that for this article, I’d have defined “perfectionism” as “the pursuit of my best guess of the ideal outcome in a situation, with the urgent goal of trying to control my own and others’ view of me and my worth.” That last part is the key part (“based on…etc.”)
Thank you, Emily. That definition of “perfectionism” is really helpful.
You are welcome Kim!