The Pursuit of Perfectionism: When the People in Your Life Leave No Room for Error

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“Perfectionism is self-abuse of the highest order.”

–Anne Wilson Schaef

Usually a calm and collected woman, Deidra came to therapy agitated and mad. She had gone on a family vacation with her mother and brothers, which she described as a huge mistake on her part. She said, “I have been coming to therapy for a while, and I’ve worked on my constant urge for perfection. I’ve made so much good progress. However, when I’m around my family, I see where my desire to be perfect came from in the first place. It feels horrible to be myself, with some flaws included, around them.”

Deidra’s mother isn’t a very forgiving individual. Growing up, any mistake Deidra made would be blown to maximum proportions, making her feel like she wasn’t lovable unless she was perfect. Her mother had a very selective memory, only bringing up the negative stuff—and most of the time, it was highly exaggerated. Her brothers didn’t want to hear their mother’s constant complaining, so they’d pressure Deidra to be perfect too. When she came to see me to talk about the vacation, Deidra realized she’d had enough. Here she was, finally feeling comfortable in her own life, happy with her decisions, and content with herself. In the past, she would have thought there was something wrong with her and would have worked herself to death to avoid creating issues or making mistakes. Now she was doubting herself once again, but not in the same way as before. She knew she didn’t have to be perfect to be loved by others or to love herself. She knew that her mother’s pressure was based on her own issues with perfection, and it had very little to do with her. However, following the family vacation, she was doubting that she could ever have the relationship she would like with her family and maintain her self-confidence in the process.

After talking to Deidra, what caught my attention was that she seemed most angry with herself. She said, “Why do I let it bother me?” “Why do I care what they think?” She wondered why she could love herself and her life so easily when she was away from them but struggled with it as soon as she got in their presence. Deidra was generally a grateful and happy person, but the trip had her out of sorts. She could admit that she wasn’t perfect, so why did it bother her family so much? She told me that her mother always repeats, “I just want my kids to have the best life,” then goes on to explain how disappointing they are. Does her mother think people need to be perfect to have happy lives? Is her insistent nagging about the past her way of helping? Deidra explained that she’s tried in a million different ways to get her family to understand that her life is great, even though it isn’t perfect. She’s explained to them how their actions affect her, which has resulted in virtually no positive changes from her mother but some from her brothers. She acknowledges that she’s made a couple of bad choices but worked them out on her own, and now she’s ready to move forward. Feeling defeated, she asked me, “What’s the point of beating yourself up over and over again? The less I beat myself, up the more they do it for me. I can never just move on.”

The messages Diedra’s mother feeds her open the wounds of her deepest insecurities, encouraging her to believe that she must be someone other than who she really is to win her mother’s approval. Her family holds her to an impossible standard: perfection. Deidra was addicted to the pursuit of perfection for most of her life, and even though she’s made progress since then, being with her family triggers all of those old perfectionistic behaviors again.

Diedra told me she imagined a world where we all understand and accept ourselves and others just the way we are. Coming to terms with the fact that she can’t change others, she said, “I guess if I want people to accept me for who I am. I should accept them for who they are, too. Instead of tirelessly working towards getting them to understand how hurtful their behaviors are, I should just not take them personally.” Deidra had tried everything—from avoiding mistakes to people-pleasing, getting angry, talking it out, and expressing how others’ actions made her feel. None of it worked to get her family off her back. One thing she realized was that all those behaviors had something important in common: They all involved her acting in ways to change the other person. Even though she no longer expected perfectionism from herself, she still didn’t want to hear from others about all the ways she wasn’t perfect. “It’s like sling-shooting rocks on a sunburned area of my body,” she told me. Of course, it’s hard for anyone to hear criticism; but it was especially hard for someone like Diedra, because she was still working on accepting herself as she is.

Now Deidra was determined to work on not taking anything personally. Maybe she was okay with not being perfect, but she wasn’t okay with other people pointing it out or exaggerating it. I remember her saying, “Who would be okay with that? Most people would tell their family to f*** off.” And I agreed. I don’t think it will ever be easy to be around people like that, and most people would just avoid them at all costs. But Deidra wanted to maintain relationships with her family, no matter how hard it was.

She had just finished reading, Don Miguel Ruiz’s classic, The Four Agreements, when we met for one of our sessions. The second agreement, don’t take anything personally, really resonated with Deidra and what she was experiencing. She thought it would be best to respond to critical people in that manner. Deidra understood that she wasn’t a robot, and that it would be hurtful for people to criticize her life; however, she wanted to work on not taking other people’s words to heart. Instead, she would try to manage her anger and change her reactions to people when they were being offensive. She was determined to work on not taking things personally. Below are her favorite excerpts from the book, The Four Agreements, which she keeps on her nightstand as a reminder.

Don’t Take Anything Personally

Whatever happens around you, don’t take it personally…Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of themselves. All people live in their own dream, in their own mind; they are in a completely different world from the one we live in. When we take something personally, we make the assumption that they know what is in our world, and we try to impose our world on their world.

Even when a situation seems so personal, even if others insult you directly, it has nothing to do with you. What they say, what they do, and the opinions they give are according to the agreements they have in their own minds…Taking things personally makes you easy prey for these predators, the black magicians. They can hook you easily with one little opinion and feed you whatever poison they want, and because you take it personally, you eat it up….

But if you do not take it personally, you are immune in the middle of hell. Immunity in the middle of hell is the gift of this agreement. When we really see other people as they are without taking it personally, we can never be hurt by what they say or do. Even if others lie to you, it is okay. They are lying to you because they are afraid.

There is a huge amount of freedom that comes to you when you take nothing personally. You become immune to black magicians, and no spell can affect you regardless of how strong it may be. The whole world can gossip about you, and if you don’t take it personally you are immune. Someone can intentionally send emotional poison, and if you don’t take it personally, you will not eat it. When you don’t take the emotional poison, it becomes even worse in the sender, but not in you.

As you make a habit of not taking anything personally, you won’t need to place your trust in what others do or say. You will only need to trust yourself to make responsible choices. You are never responsible for the actions of others; you are only responsible for you. When you truly understand this, and refuse to take things personally, you can hardly be hurt by the careless comments or actions of others.

If you keep this agreement, you can travel around the world with your heart completely open and no one can hurt you. You can say, “I love you,” without fear of being ridiculed or rejected. You can ask for what you need.

Talk soon,

Dr. Ilene

Article edited by Dr. Denise Fournier

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Showing 2 comments
  • Joanna

    That’s all well and good but how do you not take things personally? How do you engage with people who dish out negative responses/messages, directly to you or indirectly? How do you not get upset by the things, and the ways in which ,your loved ones say to you?
    I have always been affected by most of my family’s ways and often feel the best way is not to engage with them, at least only if I feel strong enough. But sometimes it’s unavoidable.
    How do deal with simple, everyday conversations with them, that could turn sour at any given moment??
    Do you have any advice on how not to take things personally?

    • Doctor Ilene

      Hi Joanna, I am with you on that. It all sounds great to not take things personally. Things are always easier in theory but when it comes to applying those ideas it can be difficult. There isn’t any one size fits all advice I can dish out. For everyone has their own unique situation. I can give you an example for what has worked for one of my client’s, then you can always see if it would work for you. With the client I wrote about in my article, she found it helpful to first work on herself and her triggers. What I mean by triggers is anything that she may be sensitive to based on her past. She did this by first becoming more self-aware and paying attention to her feelings and thoughts when an unpleasant encounter with her family took place. She realized that their criticism triggered her so much because she wasn’t okay with her imperfections and she wasn’t totally comfortable with all of her decisions. So in therapy and through reading, she started to try and be okay with herself and accept her decisions. She started to realize she would become less sensitive to people but her family still had a way of upsetting her. So in those moments, she started to manage her emotions, not to ignore them, but to realize they were there and then she would try and choose an emotionally neutral response. That client had done a lot of work through reading and trying to understand her family as a whole. When she looked back she saw that her parents’ parents were also very critical. So she was able to sympathize more with her parents seeing that they learned that way of communicating with their parents. I would be lying if I said this process is an easy process. We all have family we prefer to avoid then to deal with. But if we could learn to better manage ourselves in those situations we will feel freer when we do have to engage with them. There is a great book called, “Man’s search for meaning” the author says something very profound, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.”