12/18/2013 05:48 pm ET Updated Feb 17, 2014

The Curse of Perfectionism (And What to Do About It)

I was born with the curse of perfectionism.

My mom tells me that when I was only a few months old, I was sitting in my crib, playing with my Disney Busy Box (a toy with various dials to turn and buttons to press).

I had successful maneuvered through all the functions of the Busy Box -- except one. It was like the dial of a rotary phone, and I knew that my task was to stick my finger in there and turn it.

Apparently I sat there, fixated on this task for an exorbitantly long period of time, but could not turn the dial.

My tiny baby fingers did not yet have the needed manual dexterity, nor my developing baby brain the necessary myelination, but I wanted to turn that dial more than anything in the entire world. When I couldn't, I became increasingly frustrated and upset.

My mom tried to distract me by dangling another toy in front of me, but I would have none of it. I angrily waved her away and continued to perseverate on my failure with the Busy Box. She tells me, "That's when I started to worry about you."

Perfectionism has been that "frenemy" who's tagged along with me my entire life. On the surface she's helped me get stuff done right. But underneath she was always there at the worst moments to whisper cruel criticisms in my ear no matter how hard I'd worked or how well I'd done.

Perfectionism helped me get straight A's all through school, helped me get into Harvard, helped me graduate from medical school with highest honors. She helped me go from a skinny 13-year-old with no athletic ability to a Division I college water polo player. She's helped me excel at pretty much anything I put my mind to.

But she was also there to tell me that each of these accomplishments was not sufficient, that I should try harder, do more, be better. When I had achieved something difficult and was enjoying my success, she was there to whisper in my ear, "Not good enough... set your sights higher."

Perfectionism never let me enjoy any of my successes. I always had to buckle down and move on to the next thing.

Perhaps the biggest problem with perfectionism, though, is that no one will ever tell you that you have a problem.

No one is going to say, "Hey buddy, can you stop being so organized, so conscientious, so disciplined? Can you stop making my life easier by taking the weight of the world and putting it on your own shoulders?"

Sure, people gave lip service to me needing to chill out. They'd say, "Hey Elana, you need to relax. Take the night off and have some fun."

Relax? Fun? I didn't know what they were talking about. As soon as I learned what alcohol was I knew I could have a drink or two to help shut off my ruminating mind, or maybe three to help me lose my inhibitions, but I didn't know how to have fun.

And what did they mean, anyway? They liked me just the way I was. Their lips said one thing, but I could see the truth in their eyes. I could see it on their faces when they smiled at my accomplishments. I could hear it in their voices when they bragged about me to other people.

My parents, teachers, bosses -- I validated them. My success helped them feel they were good at what they did. My peers admired or even envied me.

They didn't want to see the other side of me -- the part of me that felt insecure and weak, the part of me that was exhausted from working so hard, the part of me that was struggling desperately to keep it together.

Perfectionism stems from a dissatisfaction with where you are and who you are, and because of that, nothing is ever good enough. But perfectionism will try to fool you. It will tell you stories like:

  • "When I have ______, then I'll be happy." (But when you get it, you just want something else.)
  • "Everyone needs to hold themselves to the same standards I do." (But they don't, and you get frustrated.)
  • "I can do whatever I set my mind to." (You can, but at what cost?)
  • "I need to be perfect to be loved." (Good luck with being perfect.)

So if you are perfectionistic, the question needs to be -- how long do you want to be dissatisfied for? How long do you want to listen to these stories?

I've found that there is no one solution for perfectionism, but there is a process. It is a process of starting to untangle from your high standards, your rigid expectations, and your stories about what you need to accomplish to be a good, worthwhile human being. It is a process of letting go.

1. Take failures as learning opportunities.
I never purposely set out to fail, obviously, but I am extremely appreciative for the times I did. Failure humbles you, grounds you and forces you to re-evaluate the narratives you tell yourself about what makes you a valuable person. (Hint: making mistakes is okay.)

When you put all your effort into achieving a goal but come up short, it can rock you to your core. At the same time, these failures force you to reconsider why your sense of self is so tied up in external circumstances that you might have no control over.

Cut yourself a break. Lower your standards once in a while. If if you fail 100 times you are still a worthwhile human being.

2. Learn to tolerate discomfort without acting on it.
If you are a perfectionistic person, you are always on guard for any feelings of anxiety that could indicate a problem you need to address. When discomfort starts to rise, you may react by trying to understand what's causing it, so you can come up with a fix.

This quality can help you notice and react to problems quickly, but it is also a cage that traps you. There is always a problem, always something you could be doing. You tell yourself that you will reach a point where you have fixed all your problems and can relax, but that time never comes.

Instead of reflexively reacting to discomfort, practice tolerating it, without acting. Discomfort is a part of life, and it's often unavoidable. Sit with the discomfort. Examine how it feels in your body, what thought patterns it brings.

Practice sitting with smaller problems, and then move up to bigger ones.

3. Let people see your other side.
We perfectionists tend to spend an exorbitant amount of energy trying to seem "put together" all the time. We only show the world one part of ourselves.

Don't miss out on the opportunity to be vulnerable, to be honest about your fears and flaws, to connect with other people on that deeper level that comes when you look another person in the face and say, "Hey, I'm human, and you're human, and that's okay."

You may fear people will feel uncomfortable with your honesty, or will make you feel stupid for admitting you need help, but most people are not like that. When most people see the veneer of a perfectionist crack, they are relieved to see you're just like them. They will feel happiness at being able to reach out and help you.

Don't take my word for it, though -- try it for yourself. I'll do my part and hit "publish" on this article, even though it's not quite as good as I want it to be.

Elana Miller, MD writes at Zen Psychiatry. She is a psychiatrist who is passionate about integrating Western medicine with Eastern philosophy to help people live fuller and happier lives. To get new articles on improving your health and happiness, join her weekly newsletter.