Unwinding the Damage of Perfectionism

Antonio Marin Segovia Isadora Duncan perfectionism flickr

Perfectionism can take over your life—don’t let it! Read on and be empowered to unwind your perfectionism with a first-hand story of a woman finding balance in life by overcoming hers.

A journey to finding balance through unwinding perfectionism.

What does perfectionism look like? Having high standards, being highly motivated, or setting high expectations? While these traits are important in hitting targets or striving for that job/lifestyle, the main difference in being a perfectionist is that we listen to the inner child voice that is full of criticism and self-uncertainty.

I have a highly critical side: striving to be a perfectionist and always overreaching. It took a while for me to understand the difference between unhealthy and healthy traits and my habits used for coping. I am excellent at rationalising a situation and have a very practical solution-focused approach. Gestalt and EMDR therapy showed me how to embrace self-compassion and empathy for myself plus recognise when my inner child voice is saying ‘you’re not good enough’.

The damage from being a perfectionist is the high energy output, and the need to unwind from it is vital for balance.

Understanding our scars and the coping mechanisms we put in place as children are the beginning. Simply acknowledging them can work wonders for moving forward from that childlike state. Looking at our behaviours can make them more positive or even make us feel more at peace with them—because not everything needs fixing; some things just need acknowledgment, understanding, and nurturing. 

I went to a vocational school, where dance took up half of my day and academia the other, rehearsals came after homework. One developed a critical eye early on—perfectionism was the goal—with constant questions of the self: Can I do this? Am I good enough? Am I fat? That’s perfectionism. This was also highlighted in my letters home; the language is paralleled: ‘I failed,’ ‘forgive me’, ‘thick’, ‘stupid’, ‘ashamed’, ‘I get everything wrong’, ‘so sorry to ask…’, ‘sorry, but please…’, ‘sorry, I can’t remember…’. It’s all so deprecative in tone and message.

My stress levels were always high, and I have seen displays from athletes like John McEnroe show this through anger and rants. High emotional releases are common when striving for perfection and, speaking personally, very intense. In the past, I sabotaged my own success through these emotional outbursts and frustration with situations. Has this happened to you? Or have you avoided things before even trying in case they are going to fail? Both are emotionally charged. Learning from the process of doing a task, say in fitness or cooking, is enlightening.

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The origin of our perfectionism comes from somewhere—and with a personal cost.

Whether from a teacher, parent, or friends, the origin of perfectionism comes from somewhere. The constantly pecking comments, which they might think funny. Or, in my case, reinforcement in my academic report cards, with fairly typical comments being ‘difficult to read’ and ‘silly mistakes’. When I was 8, a music performance had finished, and the Head Mistress demanded we stop the applause and said, ‘We expect this high standard here’.

At night I used to look at the ceiling and workout dance choreography or routines that were taught, so I could maybe get a ‘good girl’ or move to forward to front of barre. I often focused so much on detail that I would miss the enjoyment of seeing how the whole routine felt. Or how it sometimes flowed together, allowing the process to teach me. I left school heading to the Royal Ballet with high-stress peaks, which led to IBS, change-in-mood swings, and a mild eating disorder. And while I achieved my professional goal, it was at a personal cost.

I have unpicked some of the damage of perfectionism to be more balanced, and it remains an ongoing journey. Here is what helped me most:

Feel, Stop & Think.

Perfectionism can be dangerous, leading to more mental health issues such as depression and lack of self-esteem. A useful exercise tool is to actually sit with what I am feeling and realise I do have a choice. Looking at things in a more relaxed manner and giving encouragement to oneself out loud has been invaluable. It’s a ‘feel, stop & think’ moment!

Relaxing the Need for Control.

Everyone is different in their traits of perfectionism, as seen in films like ‘Black Swan’. A strong coping mechanism in organisation and planning is my safe space. Having control in a situation so not exposing myself too much by getting something wrong is very important.

Another key to relaxing this control is allowing friends to help you. One friend said she wanted to be more involved when I was preparing a home event. I found this difficult to start with, as I was only used to showing the end product. Keeping the survival switch on the whole time is tiring, but by sharing my thinking and trusting, the adult voice fostered more creativity and spontaneity.

There has been a case when I did open up to a person and was told, ‘for somebody who is so highly skilled and appears so confident, I find it staggering you have so much insecurity’. Using the tool ‘feel stop & think’ helped me accept feedback from their perspective, and I had only allowed this perfect output to be seen.

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It’s like seeing any art form—you don’t see the rehearsals, just the polished masterpiece. This comment did make me think, ‘what friends do I have in my life who support and motivate me? Are they letting me try new things or making me feel silly for trying?’ So questioning is a good tool for unwinding as whether you went to a performing arts school, a standard boarding school, a grammar school, an academy, or you’re local, there’s no escaping the fact that our school days scar us all, in one way or another. And we carry those big or small scars with us as we progress through life.

To unwind our perfectionism, we need a robust tool kit and self-love.

Today, social and media groups also judge us. Online questionnaires or questions on ‘what you do?’, ‘where you live?’, ‘where do you stay on holiday?’, ‘where do you shop?’ This pushes our healthy standards into the pursuit of perfection. It also makes us question, ‘is it good enough?’, ‘what are they judging on?’, ‘do I fit in?’ There are high levels of expectations and demands put on us today to have it all. Using the correct tools to balance us is so important for us, for children, and our loved ones.

Meditation has also played an important part in my life in connecting to a bigger perspective. Today society is fast-paced, and any form of mindfulness be it mediation or the art of stillness, is something I strive to do at least 5 minutes a day. There is something to be said about being in the moment, really looking, seeing, and feeling it.

I am still a perfectionist, and while positive thinking and tools have helped me in situations, it’s an ongoing creative process that is the rhythm of life!

A few questions to ponder?

  • What did you internalise in your youth to fit in?
  • Are your coping mechanisms having a positive or negative effect on your life and wellbeing?
  • What would your adult voice say to your child voice now?
  • How do you view the timeline of your life—your achievements and your missed opportunities?
  • What have you achieved since your school days?
  • How do you ask for what you need, and do you know?

Words by GIGI
Feature Image: Photo of Isadora Duncan by Antonio Marín Segovia via Flickr

How do you unwind your perfectionism? We’d love to hear if you want to share in the comments below!