The other day, my boyfriend Dan asked me to go for a run with him. I used to be an avid runner; the high point of my running career was running my first and only half marathon in August, 2012. After the half-marathon, I was completely burnt out on running, so I quit.
Even though I hadn’t done any serious running in nearly 2 years, I agreed to go for a jog with Dan. As I was lacing up my shoes, I was nervous. In the back of my mind I was thinking, “this is going to be a disaster” over and over again. I knew I would be slow, and I was ashamed of my poor running ability.
Despite the whirlwind of negative thoughts in my mind, we started jogging down my road. After about a block, Dan picked up the pace and told me to run faster. I stopped running, and stared at him for 10 seconds before yelling, “I suck at running. If you want to run fast, run by yourself!” Then, I turned around and walked home. Dan chased after me and apologized. He explained that he thought I would want him to push me to run faster, and he insisted that we try again. We ended up doing a 2.5 mile run with some interspersed walking. I was slow, yes, but the run was far from the disaster I anticipated. It felt freeing, and it was a fun way to spend time together.
I didn’t realize until after the run how irrationally upset I was at picking up the pace. I was so insecure about my running ability that I felt personally attacked by his urging me to run faster. If I hadn’t been emotionally tied up in my running abilities, or lack thereof, I could have just said that I needed to slow things down. Instead, I felt diminished, and I lashed out because of it.
My emotional reaction to being urged to run faster got me thinking about my tendency towards perfectionism. It’s a trait that has helped me get to medical school, and it is a good quality to have in a future doctor. However, because of my perfectionism, I don’t feel the sense of accomplishment or pride in my abilities that I should. Instead of taking pride in the fact that I was challenging myself to a 2.5 mile run, I was just focusing on the fact that right now in this moment I am not “good” at running.
Perfectionism has been described as “the tyranny of shoulds” . Researchers who study perfectionism suggest that perfectionism leads to a chronic sense of failure, indecisiveness, procrastination, and shame [2, 3]. Research also suggests that perfectionism can be divided into categories of “positive” and “negative” . People with positive perfectionism set high standards, and feel satisfied when the standards have been achieved. However, negative perfectionism is neurotic, self-defeating, and dysfunctional. Furthermore, negative perfectionism can be associated with eating disorders, depression, anxiety, and a variety of other mental disorders .
Because of the negative impact perfectionism can have in our lives, I am challenging you and myself to become more self-aware of how our perfectionism affects us. Do you feel like you need to have the perfect house before you can invite friends over? Have you passed on challenging work opportunities because you’re afraid of failing? If you think you have perfectionistic tendencies, journal about your self-imposed standards and critical thoughts, then analyze your journal entries as an outside observer. Notice how perfectionism is negatively impacting your life, without criticism, and brainstorm how you can make positive changes. Go out without makeup on. Go for a jog even if your pace is extremely slow. Leave dishes in the sink. Maybe instead of focusing on being great at things, we should just focus on having fun with whatever we’re doing. Being great might just happen without us even realizing it.
If you believe perfectionism is significantly impacting your life, please contact a healthcare professional. For more information on perfectionism and how you can challenge your perfectionism, check out “Too Perfect: When Being in Control Gets Out of Control.”
1. Horney, K. (1950). Neurosis and human growth: The struggle toward self-realization. New York: Norton.
2. Burns, D. D. (1980, November). The perfectionist’s script for self-defeat.Psychology Today, pp. 34–51.
3. Pacht, A. R. (1984). Reflections on perfection.American Psychologist, 39, 386–390.
4. Slade, P. D., & Owens, R. G. (1998). A dual process model of perfectionism based on reinforcement theory. Behavior modification, 22(3), 372-390.
5. Shafran, Roz, and Warren Mansell. “Perfectionism and psychopathology: A review of research and treatment.” Clinical Psychology Review 21.6 (2001): 879-906.
**Note: I originally published this article on The Healthy Hoot.