Why Good Therapy is Essential for Perfectionism
Updated: Jul 6, 2021
Tips are great but they don't compare with the relationship and the space you get to explore your particular type of perfectionism and thus, work on it most effectively.
Maybe you’re here because you have already identified that you are or have the tendencies of a relational perfectionist. And you’ve read about the myriad ways that society encourages and sustains this sort of thinking here. You’re ready to respond rather than just reacting.
You have let it marinate and percolate and some other verbs ending in “ate.” You have identified how it’s hindering you.
You know it gets in the way of making decisions (and being okay with the consequences)
… and letting go (of control or the past)
… and having lasting relationships (where you aren’t disappointed or resentful)
… and managing stress and more.
But where do you go from here?
My first answer is going to be obvious and maybe even annoying but it’s worth saying straight to therapy!
Let me explain.
Everyone has a different flavor of perfectionism. You are uniquely you – with all the splendor of your tender parts (psychologically speaking people!)
The road ahead is going to look different depending on whether your perfectionism is linked to your fear of being judged, a deep desire not to disappoint others, a way to keep others away, a sense of not being good enough, modeling and guidance from important caregivers, connection to your cultural identity, underlying anxiety, or some fun mix of all of the above.
The particular ways in which it shows up influence how you might address it. For example, you may be able to talk things through with a partner in a very different way than with a child. Addressing anxiety is very different than working on a people-pleasing habit.
Uncovering the ways in which your perfectionism took shape and has continued to be maintained in your life is going to be important. Insight does not automatically lead to change but insight is the critical first step.
There really is no better place to start than in therapy with someone who can help you do the things I am going to talk more about and to explore the who, what, when, where, how, and why. You can try out “tips” but there is no magic formula.
This is a process (another annoyingly true thing therapists say).
In therapy, with support and professional competence, someone can help you unpack that suitcase and repack it with a new destination in mind and keep you focused when that bathing suit keeps ending up back in the suitcase when you are going to the snow and not to the sand.
The steady work of therapy really pays off and I would be remiss to give you tips without highlighting that these tips alone could never compare to the relationship you build with someone you trust to help you figure this stuff out and experiment with something new.
It’s one thing to read a recipe. It’s a whole other thing to have someone walking you through the recipe and helping you figure out why your homemade gnocchi looks nothing like the picture.
And also, there is no standardized recipe for YOU.
It is also critical to remember that you do not exist in a vacuum. Your perfectionism was created in a relationship, which means that it will best heal in a relationship.
Some of the stuff that comes up with your therapist will illuminate the ways in which it shows up in other relationships.
For example, you might hold yourself and others to a very high standard and this could show up in therapy when you continually apologize for not “doing enough” outside of session or you might find yourself annoyed with your therapist for not doing enough to help. So, you vacillate between being disappointed at yourself and your therapist.
In other relationships, this may lead to a blow-up or an abrupt cut-off but in therapy, hopefully you can discuss your experience with your therapist. Taking this risk hopefully leads to a positive, new experience. Therapists call this a “corrective emotional experience” because it corrects some of what you may not have experienced in the past and encourages this new behavior in the future in other relationships.
Often relational perfectionism is less about just performing well and more about being seen as good. So being vulnerable about things we don’t feel proud of only to have your therapist validate, support, and therapeutically “love” you anyway, is immensely healing – deepest layer of healing really. And this comes with trust.
Trust is an equation that goes like this:
Time (in therapy) +
Safety (feeling heard, understood, and not judged) +
Experience (telling your therapist things and seeing how they respond)
With all that said, I won’t withhold. The tips in my next blog are a good starting place. But I wanted you to know that they don’t compare to the dynamic work you can actually do with a therapist.
And by the way, I am a therapist in case you were wondering. ;)