I am a recovering perfectionist. If I'm honest, “recovering” is a bit of an optimistic term. In reality, perfectionism is an ongoing struggle. Every time I put out a new blog post or article, I spend way too much time reading and re-reading every line to make sure I don’t have any errors. (News flash: there are always a few that slip through the cracks.) I obsess over word choice and the nuance of certain phrases. (News flash: I’m not a trained journalist or anywhere near writing the next great American novel.)
Sadly, these same perfectionistic tendencies apply to my work as a counselor. A few months ago I wrote a blog post about the importance of being instead of doing, largely because it is a message that I need to remind myself of often. The self-imposed pressure to be perfect started in my academic years and has extended into my personal and professional life.
Perfectionism builds its foundation on the fear that who I am is not enough and never will be. I feel terrified that what I do will fall short, someone will always be better than me, and I will fail.
Perfectionism builds its foundation on the fear that who I am is not enough and never will be.
In general, perfectionism is characterized by impossibly high standards. It can lead to procrastination, either because of the length of time it takes a perfectionist to feel like a project is complete, or due to the desire to avoid feelings of anxiety and fear of failure. Beliefs of inferiority (“I’m not good enough”) and hopelessness (“why even try”) can be familiar friends to the perfectionist.
Also , the recent popularization of the term “impostor syndrome” adds another layer to perfectionism. A recent article in Psychology Today about impostor syndrome describes it as the irrational fear of being found out as a “fake,” with a tendency to believe any achievement is due to luck or good fortune, even when the individual’s skill and talents say something to the contrary.
The article also talks about how those with impostor syndrome can fall into two different camps: overworking or procrastinating, both of which sound a lot like perfectionism. All the hard work put in to try to prove oneself can lead to becoming drained emotionally and physically, and eventually to burnout.
The truth is this: there is nothing wrong with doing something well and to the best of our abilities. What makes perfectionism a problem is when it is driven by anxiety and stress that are birthed out of our core shame that tells us our worth is tied to our achievements. Both perfectionism and impostor syndrome are linked to an underlying sense of shame. This might be brought about by a culture of high expectations of achievement and criticism in your family or school environment, or it could relate to societal pressures and comparison facilitated by the internet and social media.
What makes perfectionism a problem is when it is driven by anxiety and stress that are birthed out of our core shame that tells us our worth is tied to our achievements.
I can see this reality play out in my life in the beliefs like, “I don’t belong because I am not good enough. I am tricking people into believing that I know what I’m doing when I really have no idea.” When I’m living in impostor syndrome, I believe that my master’s degree, my years of specialized training, my experience with clients, and my enthusiasm for pursuing the best treatment for my clients is not enough.
How can we cope with this toxic mix of perfectionism and feeling like a fake?
Talk to someone – If you struggle with perfectionism and impostor syndrome, my guess is that you are not the only one in your circle of connections that has these feelings. Talk about your struggles with others and seek to encourage one another.
Practice mindfulness – When you feel a bout of perfectionism coming on, slow down and practice some mindfulness breathing. Give yourself credit for the skills and abilities you do have. Remind yourself of successes you’ve experienced, and instead of attributing them to luck, associate them with your hard work and abilities.
Embrace imperfection and failure – If you view failure as the worst thing that can happen, you miss an opportunity to learn and grow. Expect yourself to fail as part of the learning process. Choose to be okay with the “good enough” on a project you’re working on instead of working incessantly to make it perfect.
The strongest way that I am able to cope with these struggles is through prayer and re-centering on God. It has been crucial for me to remind myself that I am not God. News flash: I’m human. There are times when I feel insecure in sessions with my clients. I compare myself to other therapists who have been practicing therapy longer than I’ve been alive, or that have personality differences from me that make them seem better suited to the work than I do. I worry that I don’t have enough knowledge or understanding of the issues I’m treating, and so I read books and attend trainings and plan for clients until I don’t have any spare moments left in my day to rest.
It has been crucial for me to remind myself that I am not God.
All of this striving and working and trying to be enough puts all the responsibility for my life and the lives of my clients into my hands. News flash: I am not God. I will never be enough for my clients, because I am not made to be enough for them. Only He is. If I try to be God, I truly am being an impostor.
I believe that God is the One who heals. He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds (Psalm 147:3). He is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit (Psalm 34:18). He refreshes our souls and leads us along right paths (Psalm 23:3). He gives us rest when we are weary and burdened (Matthew 11:28). By His wounds, we are healed (Isaiah 53:5).
God has invited me to be a partner in His work of healing, but it is not ultimately my responsibility to heal. That’s His territory. I am called to offer what I have to the best of my ability, knowing that as I trust in Him to do the work of healing, what I offer will be enough.
Are you tired of the burden of perfectionism that is weighing you down and making you feel overwhelmed and depressed? Do you constantly live in fear that others will find out that you’re an impostor, even when you are skilled in what you do? Do you struggle to trust God and allow Him to do the work? Here at Restored Hope, I believe you can experience freedom from perfectionism and impostor syndrome, which are made even worse by anxiety and depression. Contact me at my Ann Arbor counseling office today to hear more about how we can support you. Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or fill out the form here to find out more.