These three traits can lead to increased anxiety, feelings of defeat and a fragile sense of self.
No matter your age, ethnicity, job occupation or religious affiliation, if you tend to compare yourself to others, set unattainable goals or demand some unrealistic expectations for yourself, you are putting your mental health at risk. This self-defeating behaviour shackles you to the words, “I am not good enough.”
The trap of comparison is everywhere. No one is safe from the tendency to compare or free from the feeling of being compared. We see it in our schools, our workplaces, our social media…opportunities to compare come from every direction. Here are just a few examples:
New moms observing social media feeds proclaiming the joys of parenthood. Others lives looked easy, predictable and filled with joy. New moms can feel trapped by their reality that seems so less charming and, frankly, exhausting leaving them desperate and stuck in loneliness. The self-critic engages with self-doubt about parenting issues, how much do my kid’s sleep compared to yours, do I breastfeed? Co-Sleep? Or feed on demand? Daycare, or stay at home? Pre-school at 3 or wait until 4yrs? The opportunities to make comparisons are around every parenting corner.
Parents of teenagers compare their relationship with their kids to others, or the challenges they face to the ease other families seem to have through adolescence. When your teenager defies you, skips out of school and fails English 10, do you think: “what am I doing wrong?” Maybe, but does the “what am I doing wrong?” end up taking you down the road towards, “I am a horrible person who doesn’t deserve to parent?”
Then there exist the High school breeding grounds for comparison, self-criticism, and self-doubt. Whose hair is longest, whose eyes are bluer, who has the most friends, the most followers, the better grades? Who drives the nicer car, has the cuter boyfriend, or gets invited to the dance.?Our palms sweat and hearts race just remembering those High School hallways.
The issues available for comparison are endless. Those who are guilty of comparison, find themselves on the rocky ground leading closer to feelings of despair.
The dark side of perfectionism can lead to obsession and be a foundation for building anxiety. Striving for excellence combined with a sturdy dose of self-criticism leads to a perilous journey. Individuals become so fearful of making mistakes and ruminate over decisions resulting in negative expressions of emotion and decreased motivation. Again, a couple of examples highlight the danger of walking out perfectionism:
The neighbor, who is an accountant like you, just bought a new car and a recreational property at the lake. You can’t help but think, “I must be doing something wrong?” “Maybe if I work some overtime next week, I will be able to catch up?” The thinking begins the spiral of unending thoughts of how to do more, with less time to get ahead. The striving towards an unrealistic goal, or having standards that are too high can feel exhausting.
You gained weight through your university degree and can’t seem to get it off. Every summer, you come home and commit to getting healthy again, but after two weeks, you give up because you can’t get to the gym every second day as you had hoped. The giving up because you cannot do it “just right” is a hallmark of perfectionism. But then, with the thoughts of failure, the self-critic enters stage right.
The issues available for comparison and perfectionism are endless. Those who are guilty of falling into these traps, find themselves on the rocky ground leading them closer to feelings of despair and self-doubt.
“You don’t have anyone to blame but yourself.” This double-edged sword has, on one side, a sense of responsibility and self-awareness that gives us the ability to learn from our mistakes. This form of “learning from” comes without anxiety or distress. But the other side of the sword of “personal responsibility” reveals the ugliness of blame and self-criticism that tears apart and shames.
Striving for perfection and wallowing in comparison may lead to the creation of a powerful internal critical voice. The negative judgment directed towards the self-carries shame and criticism. The perfectionist has such high standards for the self that any deviation from perfect means failure and failure loathes the self. The self-critic cuts open the core of the individual with words of condemnation. Your inner critic may say things like, “You don’t deserve anything good,” “No matter what, you are still a loser,” “You are never going to succeed like everyone else.”
So how do we learn to accept that we are good enough?
Avoid comparisons. Set reasonable expectations. Be kind to yourself.
It takes discipline to be kind, avoid comparison and set reasonable expectations of yourself.
Self-discipline involves challenging your thoughts when tempted to compare your job, your kids, any area of your life to someone else. This may mean taking social media breaks or changing whose news you view. It may mean changing your social circles or re-evaluating your workplace. It may mean reframing who you are in your world and ask yourself: Am I enough? And if you find at the end of the question, you are still doubtful, go and find someone to connect with about this fragile sense of self. Surround yourself with individuals who will help you set reasonable goals and challenge you when you appear to be walking the narrow road of perfectionism or self-doubt.
Being free from self-criticism means knowing you are worthy, knowing you are good enough and finding an inner you that can shut up the inner critic.
Studies have found that children who show high levels of perfectionistic strivings (personal standards, self-oriented perfectionism) tend to have parents who also show high levels of perfectionistic strivings.
If you have come from a family whose personal standards for achievement were unreasonably high, or failure was never an option, it may be beneficial to seek out counselling support. When your perfectionism causes significant distress keeping you from enjoying your relationships fully, or you find your self-critical voice is the loudest song in your head, it may be time to practice self-care. Working with a counsellor can help you to seek the source of some of your perfectionist tendencies and soften the critical voice that keeps you in such a vulnerable place.
Tracey Dahl, MA, RCC
Stoeber, Joachim, and Otto, Kathleen (2006) Positive conceptions of perfectionism: Approaches, evidence, challenges. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10 (4). pp. 295-319. ISSN 1088-8683.