Toxic Perfectionism

toxic perfectionism

If you consider yourself a perfectionist, there might even be a hint of pride in the label. We associate perfectionism with high flyers and super successful people, but this is only partly true.

The flip side of perfectionism is, well, toxic perfectionism; the constant sense of never having done enough. Nothing is ever good enough and, as a result, a deep lack of satisfaction will pervade your mind. The solution to this is a healthy dose of mindfulness.

Please Sir, Can I Have Some More?

Imagine walking on a treadmill. You can walk or you can run, but you will never make any progress at all because it isn’t actually going anywhere. Unless you have a stopping point, you will just keep going until you are exhausted

. Perfectionism is the same… No stopping point. The result is that you keep going, keep trying to make it better and better, and you finally grind to a halt because your energy has been completely burned out.

self compassion mindfulness
With no end in sight, where do you think you are going?

What’s Wrong with Wanting to Do Things Right?

Toxic perfectionism isn’t the desire to improve or make things right; it is the inability to be satisfied with the present moment – a major theme of mindfulness. Think about it: If you cannot accept the present moment, nothing you do will ever be good enough. You will live in a constant state of craving.

Ask any Buddhist and they will tell you that craving is the main cause of suffering. There you are on your treadmill, and you are running faster and faster, but maybe there’s a way to jump off. Maybe, you can escape. Maybe there is a way to apply self-compassion and use our mindfulness to switch off the treadmill.

We Gotta Get Out of This Place

Really, you have to find a way to balance your desires and yet NOT fall into the not-so-loving embrace of toxic perfectionism. But maybe we need to rethink what perfection really means.  Here’s a great story from a coaching client I had a few years back. This imposing-looking chap was a model of self-compassion too and just seemed to radiate mindfulness. I’m talking about a really happy guy.

I call this one “The Smiling Master and the Frowning Apprentice”

He was a gardener and an expensive one. People with VERY healthy spending power contracted him to turn their gardens into works of art. This guy could take the most raggedy of gardens and transform them into the kind of place you could really spend time in. He was good.

Enter The Apprentice

So one day he decided to take on an apprentice. This young gardening aspirant was enthusiastic and completely full of energy. Well, the time came for him to work alone for a few days before his “master” (my client) turned up to peruse his work. The youthful apprentice made a huge effort to make his first solo job absolutely perfect. The master arrived and started to take in the scene.

Master “Wow, you’ve done a great job”

Apprentice “Thanks”

Master “But… not perfect”

Apprentice (suddenly stressed out) “What?”

His “What” had come out in a shrill, breathless voice. He turned to the garden to see what could possibly be at fault and found nothing at all that. There was not so much as a stray leaf.

Apprentice “Well, what can I do to make it perfect?”

The master rubbed his chin for a second and then, upon eying a neatly collected pile of autumn leaves, ran straight into it and kicked the orange leaves in all directions. The apprentice was horrified. When the master had finished his antics, he took a breath and looked at the garden that now had leaves scattered all over the place. He smiled.

Master “Now, it’s perfect”

Perfect isn’t what you think.

I’m happy to say that, for at least at one expert gardener, toxic perfectionism is no problem at all. So, true perfection might not be what we think it is. Maybe a few leaves are strewn about help to make us unique, special, and beautiful in our own little way.

Toxic perfectionism doesn't affect the leaves
How imperfect is this?

Toxic Perfectionism is Self-Judgement

The mantra of the perfectionist is “Not Good Enough”. It is a mantra that bubbles beneath the surface of conscious awareness, but it is there. It is a life sentence in the treadmill of pointless striving and non-acceptance.

Just take a look at those beautiful Persian rugs.

Those things cost a fortune, but they are most certainly NOT perfect. In fact, I had one in my room when I was a kid. It had an almost symmetrical design but one of the top corners had an obvious mistake. I pointed this out to my dad who informed me that the artists who make these wonderful things are not even trying for perfection. They know that perfection cannot be accomplished by anyone because only God is perfect.

The question they ask themselves regarding their work is not “Is it perfect?” but “Is it beautiful?”.

No toxic perfectionism here, I think.

Beautiful but Not Perfect

Nothing is ever completed and everything is impermanent, yet beauty occurs in nature. Is the Grand Canyon Perfect? Is Niagra Falls Perfect? What about Mount Everest? You won’t find a straight line in any of these places. Perfection is absent and even so, Mother Nature keeps on creating things of great beauty. Toxic perfectionism isn’t really a problem for Mother Nature.

Everest is a thing of beauty, but is it perfect?

Toxic Perfectionism and Golden Self Compassion

YOU are not perfect, and neither is anyone else. You have a few leaves and twigs strewn about, but it’s fine. It is fine, and so are you.

So the next time you sit in meditation, grant yourself compassion and understand that not every twig needs picking up and not every leaf swept away. The influence of toxic perfectionism in your life, calls for a little mindfulness.

So, learn to relax into each session of meditation and when the desire comes up to go and do something else, well that is EXACTLY the spirit of “this moment… the only moment that actually exists, is NOT good enough, and I don’t accept it”. Observe the thought, but stay where you are. Just like any plans we might have in life, there has to be an end point in sight. Good enough is a noble goal.

The Toxic Perfectionism Writing Exercise

Applying Mindfulness To Toxic Perfectionism

This present moment is always good enough. Good enough is a noble goal. Let’s explore a little. Sit down with a pad in front of you and a pen in your hand. Here are your mindfulness questions.

  • What are the ways in which toxic perfectionism pervades my life?
  • What is the effect of toxic perfectionism on my relationships?
  • Are my expectations reasonable or am I striving for an impossible target?
  • What can I do to become free of the need to be perfect?

And that’s it. You have enough writing material there to give you quite the session. Remember to be grateful and to develop the greatest self-compassion for yourself. Maybe those leaves and twigs in your garden are not so bad after all.