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Perfectionism and Self-Esteem

Perfectionism and Self-Esteem

Perfectionists walk an incredibly narrow road. There can be no deviation from the prescribed path, no sidetracks, and certainly no missteps. There can be no slowing or stopping for others, who are expected to keep up and keep straight, regardless. Perfectionists understand the road is going to be difficult and take great pride in navigating it successfully. They must be constantly on guard for any obstacle in the path, any breath of wind that might knock them off their course. Vigilance and an ongoing state of alertness are key.

With perfectionism, there is no standing down, no acceptable periods of relaxation. Perfectionism is, therefore, both exhausting and unattainable. Addiction can creep in and promise a form of momentary relief from the unrelenting anxiety of trying to be perfect. Addiction can also promise to numb those times when the reality of the unattainable becomes overwhelmingly hard to bear. Addiction promises you can spend a few hours looking away from the shame, blame, and guilt nipping at your heels unless you are perfect. Addiction promises to shield you temporarily from the fear that you are, sadly and tragically, like everyone else—flawed, imperfect, unworthy.

Self-Esteem

Angela felt she didn’t deserve to be happy. After more probing, I discovered she never had. Any success she’d experienced had been a sort of “cheat,” she said. If people really knew who she was or how much work she’d put into it or any number of factors, they would know she didn’t deserve success and it would be taken away. How could anything she did be worthy when she wasn’t worthy herself?

Angela grew up in a household where nothing she did was right. When she brought home good grades, it was assumed the teacher hadn’t applied the proper standards or she’d gotten away with something. Good things were suspect, but bad things were expected because of who she was. She knew who she was—the one who would “never amount to anything.” She was the one who would “never be like [her] sister.” The one who couldn’t “do anything right to save [her] life,” even though she always tried.

Angela was deeply ashamed of her addiction; part of her was also incredibly angry. She was angry because being trapped in the addiction proved she was weak and everything that had been said about her was true. All her life, Angela kept trying to “make up” for the mistakes she’d made, and the addiction kept putting her further and further behind. She’d never catch up, and with the weight of the addiction added in, catching up seemed to take more energy than she had. She’d been foolish to think she could ever do or be anything other than a failure. “What good is today,” she’d asked, “if I can’t have tomorrow?”

Angela’s addiction subverted the positive roles of shame, blame, and guilt and used them to convince her she wasn’t worth a positive tomorrow. She was especially susceptible to this tactic, since shame, blame, and guilt had always been used as weapons against her while she was growing up. Addiction strips away self-esteem. This can be particularly damaging when you started out with little or none in the first place, as Angela did.

For years, I’ve been speaking out against the tremendous damage done, especially to children, through the tactics of emotional abuse. My book Healing the Scars of Emotional Abuse has been a pivotal resource in this effort for more than twenty years.

Authored by Dr. Gregory Jantz, founder of The Center • A Place of HOPE and author of 37 books. Pioneering whole-person care nearly 30 years ago, Dr. Jantz has dedicated his life’s work to creating possibilities for others, and helping people change their lives for good. The Center • A Place of HOPE, located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington, creates individualized programs to treat behavioral and mental health issues, including eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety and others.

Mr. and Mrs. Perfect

Mr. and Mrs. Perfect

“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.