Updated: May 15
Written by Stephanie Trueblood, LPC-Intern
Ok, so maybe perfectionism, procrastination, and people-pleasing aren’t actually deadly, but they can certainly wear on one’s soul. I’ve recognized a theme with many of my clients, friends, and in my own life that if one of these “P’s” is present, the other 2 are likely to be there as well.
The origin of the “P’s” within people’s lives is as different as the people themselves, but the link between them is astounding.
First, let’s explore perfectionism for a moment. Typically, when a person possesses a perfectionistic view of themselves (spellcheck is telling me that perfectionistic isn’t a word…. but the part of me that rebels against my perfectionistic mind is going to allow this potentially incorrect word to be in this blog), they often have extremely high expectations of what they should achieve – whether it be all A’s in school, have the perfect body, or be the best at whatever he or she tries to do.
Expecting excellence from oneself does not seem entirely maladaptive, however, when we grip too tightly to these expectations, and it feels like the world might fall apart with one mistake, criticism, or “off day,” it begins to wear us out.
A perfectionist may fear that the next paper she writes will be the one that proves how incredibly imperfect and inept she is, and thus the task of beginning to write the paper becomes a daunting feat that could lead to her ultimate demise.
Her mind fuels the fear until the anxiety is so great that she will clean her house, mow the yard, or binge on Netflix to numb out the discomfort of having to start the task. This brings me to the link to procrastination!
That inner voice that fuels the perfectionist’s self-doubt often leads to procrastination. It seems that many high achievers have a difficult time getting started on whatever next endeavor is assigned to them, perhaps due to the fear that it will not be perfect, and so they could potentially fail.
It feels safer to not even begin on that journey or assignment because if they don’t do it at all, it won’t be imperfect. However, the perfectionist part of the mind will not allow her to simply not do an assignment or give up on a task all-together, so she will gnaw at her in the back of her mind, like a nagging mother, to get started already!
The tug-of-war in the mind ultimately causes anxiety in the gut which fuels the fear of what could happen if she does actually do the assignment and it’s terrible, or if she never does the assignment and she really fails by omission. By this point, it’s usually crunch-time in which it’s the final hours to complete the task, and so there is no more choice in the matter – she must sit down and start working on it!
The perfectionistic mind may still be shaming her about why she wasted so much time worrying about it, even as she is working on the assignment, but the procrastinator part simply retorts “I work better under pressure.” It’s the pressure of do or die that sometimes drives the perfectionistic procrastinator to do their best work because there is no more time to anxiously mull it over and avoid the task.
They may claim to think more clearly and be more present because of the tightened deadline, and thus fulfills her expectation to do excellent work – or it’s a great excuse for why the work isn’t her best…. “well, I really didn’t give myself enough time to do my absolute best, so no wonder I got a B this time….”
Perfectionists are also typically driven by positive feedback outside of themselves including the need to please others and get their undying approval, which leads me to the 3rd and final P.
People-pleasing is frequently at the root of perfectionism because without feedback from others about how smart, pretty, organized, and practically perfect in every way they are, then who are they?
Perfectionists often look to their grades, peers, bosses, and parents to validate their identity through approval that they are in fact good enough…and maybe even better than Joe Shmoe over there!
This outward validation feels good for a while but it is ultimately unfulfilling and risky. Since the validation does not come from within, the perfectionistic people-pleaser does not truly know deep down that she is ok. Without approval from others, her self-worth wavers until she gets that next kernel of validation.
There is so much hanging in the positive feedback from outside herself that she ends up bending over backwards to please others to receive the soothing comfort of confirmation that she is worthwhile. Now that paper assignment is not just a paper….it’s a clear judgment of her worth as a human being.
Yikes! No wonder she puts it off until the last possible minute. If only there were a way for her to be reassured of her awesomeness without the need for perfection and external validation….
Through self-compassion, we can let go of the incessant need for perfection and approval, because we learn to validate ourselves. It’s the process of learning how to love oneself, not just in spite of one’s imperfection, but because of it. A shift takes place from looking outside to looking inside for comfort and reassurance of self-worth and awesomeness.
If this sounds like an impossible task, but you’re willing to explore taking that leap toward freedom from the 3 deadly P’s, one of the talented counselors here at Austin Mindfulness Center would be honored to gently guide you through that journey.