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“We’re only human.”

Have you ever heard this?  If so, what does it mean? People generally say this when they want to excuse a mistake or minor failure of some sort.  It is to make ourselves and others feel better after a blunder.

Even so, many people struggle with the drive to perfection. These people will say they hate making mistakes.  If we pin them down, and they think logically, nearly everyone will agree that all people make mistakes. Knowing that, many are still harsh with themselves – and sometimes others – when they don’t live up to their own (often unreasonable) standards.

What is this all about?  Why such a struggle with being human? Several possibilities may underlie this tendency, namely:

  • You’ve grown up in a critical environment
  • You’ve been exposed to strong, external social messages that mandate perfection
  • Fear based on past consequences

There are other reasons for the pursuit of perfection, but these are rather common.  Pay close attention to the last example above. There is a key hidden there. Unrealistic expectations are often the adult, non-conscious response to other contributors to perfectionism. What does that mean? People who grow up in a critical environment or with strong social directives often develop unrealistic expectations. In other words, the first two reasons can cause the last one.  When this happens, it is usually outside our awareness.

Unrealistic expectations cannot be met and therefore generally lead to guilt. Repeated, consistent, or intense behaviors cause our brains to develop something called schemas.  A schema is a “way of seeing or doing something”.  Categories develop and overgeneralizations can occur – a “once that way, always that way” mindset is formed.

In the most basic sense, schemas are lists of accumulated rules that organize, motivate, and validate our thoughts and actions.  This can be helpful so that we don’t have to think everything through. However, not all schemas are accurate. For example, if someone moves the coffee pot and you try to go on automatic to where it used to be, you won’t find it.

Therefore, one key purpose of a schema is to make us efficient. Schemas power our routines, automatic actions, and core beliefs. Changing a schema can change our thoughts and behaviors all at once.  Imagine that you have a schema in your mind that says, “I am worthless”. If that is the case, then if your boss does not give you a promotion, you will likely say, “See? I knew it! I’m not good enough.” You might withdraw, avoid the boss, and eventually leave the company.  However, if your schema says, “I am worthy”, then when you do not receive the promotion, you may say to yourself “I am capable of this work. Perhaps there is something more I need to learn for this company.” Or “I know I can do this. Perhaps the boss missed something. I will check with him.” Words, thoughts, and behaviors follow our schemas and it usually takes conscious awareness to change this.

Think about this the next time you want a cup of coffee.  Once you decide you want it, you just go for it. At no time do you think consciously, “left foot move, right foot move, left foot move, grab coffee cup, press button on machine” – right!? This is because the schema in your brain for “go to coffee pot” is established, non-conscious, and automatic. Therefore, a healthy level of performance requires a conscious watching.  In the beginning, you may need to pay particular and consistent attention to multiple areas of your life. Over time, however, as your schemas change for the better, your skills will likely become more automatic and easier to use.

At The Center, you’ll find people who understand that perfectionism is a myth. They do not feel guilty for their humanity and they find joy in helping others reach that place. Pursuing excellence is healthy. Expecting perfection from yourself (or others) can be debilitating and steals joy and our unique contributions. We at The Center know this and will provide guidance on how to form more realistic expectations of yourself and others.

Written by Hannah Smith, MA LMHC CGP, Group Therapy Program Coordinator, she is a Neuroscience-informed, Licensed Therapist and International Board Certified Group Psychotherapist at The Center • A Place of HOPE. The Center, located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington, creates individualized programs to treat behavioral and mental health issues, including eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety, co-occurring disorders and more.