The Root of Perfectionism


“Perfectionism is the fear of being criticized.” Caroline Myss

None of us likes being criticized, but for some of us, being criticized during our childhood was extremely painful. Perhaps we were constantly told we didn’t know how to do anything or that we were just like our other parent. We took the criticism to mean that we were somehow bad, flawed or unlovable. And, because we were so young, we didn’t know how to process the negative information; we internalized it and developed a fear of being criticized. Our ego cleverly decided that it no longer wanted to feel pain associated with criticism so it developed a plan; a plan that hatched our continuing drive for perfectionism. Although many of us may not recognize it, our desire to be perfect truly has its root in fear. We didn’t like the way we felt when we were told we failed or were wrong, so we vowed never to let that happen again. We unconsciously told ourselves that it was better to seek perfection than to be criticized. The problem is that perfectionism has an insatiable appetite.  It can never be fully satisfied and is impossible to reach. Instead of being criticized then by the outside world, we develop an internal dialogue of hatred and self-criticism. It’s as if we no longer need the people around us to tell us how bad we are because we’re so busy doing it ourselves. We’ve swallowed up our critics and adopted their harsh words. And what’s even worse when we master one area – maybe we’re a straight A student or really successful in our careers – if we don’t see ourselves as perfect in all areas of our life, we find ourselves incredibly unhappy. We fall into depression or abusive patterns that don’t serve us and can never get out of the perfectionist hamster wheel we’ve created. It is essential then, that we recognize that perfectionism is a prison. It is only when we let go of our fears of being criticized that the doorway to compassion and relief is opened – giving us room to breathe like we’ve never done before.

Weekly Path to Peace: Free yourself from perfectionism.

  • How are you a perfectionist? What demands do you put on yourself that you would never put on others? Do you have to be good or better at every task than others? Does your body have to be perfect? Or do you have to be the perfect child or spouse – never disrupting others or making waves? Identify all the ways you demand perfection out of fear of being criticized.
  • Begin to adopt the attitude of good enough. This is not about letting go of standards, but recognizing when you have done enough. If you’re too sick to follow through with a commitment, this means canceling plans. It means going to bed instead of making sure the house is perfectly clean. Or perhaps telling your partner, you need alone time. Put a Post-it somewhere you can see it to remind you to adopt the “Good Enough” standard and begin to let go of your perfectionism.

As you begin this week, rate your level of happiness, self-esteem and self-confidence on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being not satisfied and 10 being very satisfied. Notice where you are Sunday evening after you do this week’s peace practice to see if there is a change.