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The Dangers of Perfectionism: How Striving for the Best Can Backfire

I spent more than ten years of my life, from my teenage years to almost 30, in active addiction. During this time, things were very far from perfect for me. I couldn’t keep a job or maintain a friendship, destroyed my credit, severely damaged my relationships with loved ones, and it seemed as though everything I attempted to do was doomed. When I stopped drinking in 2013, I was elated to discover that these aspects of my life got better almost immediately. I discovered a new kind of high; the kind you feel as a result of finally doing something well.

I had spent years completely unable to keep promises or be relied upon in any way. So in early sobriety, I became obsessed with ‘cleaning up my act’. I figured that since I had spent the last decade making huge mistakes, I should try now, with my new sober mind, to be as perfect as possible. I had a lot of making up to do, and to me, that meant doing everything with the flawlessness that had eluded me for so long. What I didn’t know was that I was developing a tendency toward perfectionism that would cause serious confusion and disappointment for the next few years of my life, and cause me to take a much different path than was intended for me.

As a result of trying to do things perfectly, I became terribly afraid of making a mistake and when it happened, the mental punishment I would put myself through was astonishing. One tiny deviation from my self-imposed standard would cause me to beat myself up for days, weeks, and sometimes painfully longer. Afraid to venture outside of my comfort zone, I found myself settling for circumstances that were not in line with my true path. I created a safe little box in which I hid my true self from the rest of the world, withholding the gifts I was meant to share as part of my purpose in this life. This eventually became too painful and my desire to try new things too strong, and I started to stumble my way out of the grips of perfectionism by practicing yoga and later, working with ayahuasca. 

Perfectionism is the relentless pursuit of flawless performance, and an unattainable standard of excellence. It manifests as an overwhelming desire to avoid making mistakes, coupled with harsh self-criticism when these standards are not met. Perfectionists often set excessively high goals for themselves and are deeply afraid of failure, leading to persistent feelings of dissatisfaction and inadequacy. The perfectionist mindset can pervade all aspects of life, from work and relationships to personal endeavors, creating a constant cycle of stress and anxiety. In this post, we'll discuss the hidden dangers of perfectionism and explore how the relentless pursuit of flawlessness can have detrimental effects on our mental and emotional well-being. 

dangers of perfectionism flower geometric

Why Do We Feel the Need to Be Perfect?

Humans have a tendency to hold themselves to much higher standards than we hold others and, paradoxically, we also tend to criticize and judge ourselves more harshly than we judge those around us. We idealize the achievements of others, perceiving them as having attained a level of perfection that we believe is beyond our reach. However, this perspective is limited and fails to take into account the setbacks and challenges that others have likely encountered along their journeys. What we often fail to recognize is that behind every perceived success are numerous setbacks, struggles, and what we might consider "mistakes" that were essential to the eventual triumph. 

Our perception of perfection is often distorted by societal influences and personal expectations, leading us to pursue an unrealistic and unattainable ideal. Whether it's fueled by social media, cultural standards, family expectations, or our own inner critic, the pressure to achieve perfection can leave us feeling inadequate and constantly striving for an elusive goal. This skewed perception of perfection can lead to a relentless pursuit of flawlessness, causing stress, anxiety, and a diminished sense of self-worth. Perfectionism is often seen as a good thing, linked to ambition and high standards, while ignoring its negative effects on our mental well-being. This puts a lot of pressure on us to live up to impossible standards, chasing an ideal that we can never truly reach.

The Spiritual Impact of Perfectionism

The fear of not being able to accomplish something perfectly can often prevent us from even attempting it in the first place. The daunting prospect of falling short of our perceived standards becomes a barrier to action, holding us back from exploring new opportunities and embracing challenges. As a result, this fear of imperfection renders us even more ineffective than if we had taken a chance and tried despite the potential for mistakes. By allowing the fear of imperfection to dictate our actions, we limit our growth and deny ourselves valuable learning experiences that come from taking risks.

The pursuit of flawlessness creates a perpetual state of dissatisfaction, and we become fixated on an idealized future and our perceived shortcomings rather than embracing the beauty of the present. This disconnect hinders our ability to find contentment and gratitude in our current circumstances and keeps us in a state of restlessness and unease. The fear of making mistakes and falling short of perfection stirs an undercurrent of anxiety and self-doubt, and for many of us this translates to severe mental punishment. This persistent inner turmoil can negatively affect our spiritual growth as well as our ability to appreciate and be present in our experiences. 

Embracing Imperfection in Spiritual Growth

In order to break free from the perfectionism mindset, we need to understand that imperfection is a vital part of spiritual growth. Just as a baby learns to walk by constantly falling and running into things, so do we, as adults, learn to become our best selves through trial and error. Embracing the idea that imperfection is an intrinsic part of the human experience allows us to release the unrealistic standards that may be holding us captive. By acknowledging setbacks as opportunities for growth, we can shift our perspective to one of empowerment, recognizing that our inherent worth is not contingent upon flawlessness, but rather on our willingness to embrace imperfections as integral aspects of our evolving selves.

Since we are our own harshest critics, it can be difficult to hold ourselves to less-than-perfect standards, especially in moments of perceived failure or inadequacy. Many of us grew up with well-meaning adults telling us that everyone makes mistakes, but only when perfectionism becomes a problem in our life do we really need to start to understand that concept. By cultivating the same compassion and kindness to ourselves that we would a loved one, we can start to release the grip of unrealistic standards. We can start to embrace imperfection as part of a collective human experience. This vulnerability can help us authentically engage with our spiritual practices develop deeper connections in our relationships.  

The Power of Fresh Starts

We often think of starting over as something we should do when circumstances seem horrible, like a doomed art project we threw angrily in the trash. But fresh starts have an incredible power when it comes to combating a perfectionism mindset, and they can be done at any time, in any aspect of our lives. Starting from scratch allows us to hit the reset button and move forward free from the weight of previous expectations and disappointments. Fresh starts encourage us to let go of the need to always get everything right the first time and open up the possibility for growth, learning, and improvement, emphasizing progress over perfection. 

Starting over, whether it be with a job, relationship, or a project, can provide a sense of liberation, breaking the cycle of self-criticism and negative self-talk that often accompanies perfectionistic tendencies. It can serve as a powerful reminder that it's okay to make mistakes and that failure is an essential part of the learning process. By embracing fresh starts, we can shift our focus from the fear of not meeting impossibly high standards to a mindset centered on resilience, adaptability, and the potential for growth. This shift in perspective can lead to a more positive and balanced approach to the things we do in life, allowing for greater creativity and authenticity. 

Moving Beyond Perfectionism

Ayahuasca has been a powerful tool in resetting my perception of perfection, or rather my belief in it altogether. Ayahuasca has a way of revealing things to you from a big picture perspective, diminishing the idea of flawlessness as well as the desire to attain it. My experiences in ceremony have shown me that a shocking amount of the suffering I’ve experienced has been a result of wanting things to be a certain way and expecting that if I did all the right things, eventually each little bucket in my life would be filled with perfection, and I would be happy. But life is not perfect, and it was never meant to be. Neither am I perfect, nor anyone else. Ayahuasca can lift the veil of idealistic tendencies and open us up to discovering our true selves and the peace and contentment that comes with authenticity. 

As is true for most kinds of suffering, mindfulness serves as the best antidote for perfectionistic tendencies. Ayahuasca has continuously reminded me that to dwell in the past or fret over the future is a waste of valuable, precious time, and that to expect to live our lives with perfect grace and ease from start to finish is wildly unrealistic. She has taught me that perfectionism is a façade, and our desire to live up to unrealistic and unnecessary expectations causes much more harm than good. By recognizing that everyone makes mistakes and faces setbacks, we can use these experiences to deepen connections and relieve ourselves of unrealistic standards. Acknowledging that our spiritual journey is dynamic and ever-evolving, we develop a greater capacity for adaptability and resilience which we can use to navigate the twists and turns in our life more smoothly.

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