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Ring the Bells that Still Can Ring: Letting Go of Perfectionism

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

Leonard Cohen, Anthem

Of all of the concerns people bring to therapy, perfectionism can be one of the most persistent. It shows up under any number of guises, from the more mundane, to more serious versions:

“I can’t finish this project because it won’t be perfect.”

“Anything less than an A is not a good grade.”

“I need to punish myself for not being good enough.”

Perfectionists engage in multiple problematic thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. They tend to fear failure, disapproval, and making mistakes. They overemphasize “shoulds” and engage in all-or-nothing thinking. They constantly pressure themselves to succeed.

At the core of perfectionism is a shameful belief about inner “badness.” Individuals strive to push past or compensate for the feeling that no matter what they do, no matter how much they achieve, they will never be good enough.

Perfectionists look outside themselves for appraisal and approval. As children, they have often become accustomed to having love equated with achievement. The belief that I need to do more, I need to do better begins to grow. Until it spirals into I need to be perfect. For the perfectionist, the concept of self-esteem rises and falls on the tide of external feedback. When he hears positive words, he feels good. When she receives criticism or even constructive feedback, she is devastated. The only defense against feeling wounded in this way is to strive harder to be perfect.

So how does one begin to let go of perfectionism?

Leonard Cohen offers some good insight into this. If the core of perfectionism is a belief in inner badness, then its opposite must contain some form of belief in inner goodness. There is, after all, a crack in everything, as Cohen sings. Rather than fixating on “cracks” as imperfections or blights, it is possible to view them as windows through which one’s “good enough” sense of self is fed and expressed.

There is a difference between healthy striving and reaching for perfection. Letting go of perfectionism is not equivalent to curling up in a ball and admitting defeat (all-or-nothing thinking). It is about setting goals based on your own needs and desires, not those of others. It is about stretching just a little beyond what you have previously achieved. It is about engaging in and enjoying the process, not just the end result.

Perfectionism is born in a relational context. Without others’ expectations and feedback to plant the seeds of perfectionism, it simply would not grow. But once it has sprouted, internal beliefs (“I’m not good enough”) continue the cultivation process. To let go of perfectionism, it is best to go back to its birthplace – relationship – to seek support and accurate feedback. But this time, you get to pick the relationships that will remind you that there is indeed a crack in everything. The cracks allow light and love to get in. Stop trying to seal them off.

(4) Comments

  1. es
    esFeb 07, 2011

    Hi, Sandra.
    I would invite my PERFECTIONISM for a cup of tea and ask it “What do you want from me and why?”
    Maybe, it wants me to show that I can never never reach the level. Maybe, it wants to be there because it occupies the whole empty time and is related to the fear of loneliness.
    Parents and childhood can cause it (a perfect Freudian explanation). I would try to negotiate and compromise while talking to my perfectionism. I do not want to simply kill it.

  2. drssanger
    drssangerFeb 07, 2011

    “What do you want from me and why?” is a good question, not only for perfectionism, but also for other kinds of beliefs and behaviors. I like it.

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  4. D
    DAug 26, 2012

    I really relate to the the point about perfectionism being instilled by indoctrination into an achievement for love exchange that starts in early childhood. I believe that’s how it began for me. But now I’m “grown up” and don’t know how to live for myself and its killing me slowly. I think its related to this”letting go” thing I hear so much about. This is an as yet to be discovered skill set for me. I hardly know what people are talking about frankly when they reference this. It is illusive. That’s a little disingenuous actually. I have some idea of what it is, I don’t know the steps to get there. To the letting go place. But it sounds nice, and critical place to arrive at.

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