Why highly sensitive people struggle with perfectionism

highly sensitive person

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If I want to test the unconditional love of any friend, family member, or future spouse, I have one epic assignment for them: Go on vacation with me. And if we both make it back alive and still sort-of liking each other, then we’re made to last.

Last summer, Kristen and I flew to Europe for my 30th birthday. We spent half the time in Austria, with my brother and his wife, and the other half in Scotland with my mom. My brother and his wife only have one spare room, so Kristen and I had to share a bed. By the second night, Kristen was on the couch (and would stay there every night until we left).

I am, uh, not pleasant to travel with, to say the least.

What can I say? It brings out the worst of my tendencies. I’m highly sensitive — not just emotionally, but in a lot of physical ways, too: I can’t sleep unless the conditions are just right (so forget sleeping on a plane, ever), my digestive system doesn’t enjoy being tested with new foods, and all the over-stimulation of people and noises and sights is often too much.

To compensate for how overwhelming traveling is, I get super perfectionist and controlling. If I can predict and manage everything that’s going to happen, then maybe I can actually relax. So, you know, forget about anything super spontaneous. And I laugh in the face of any plans that happen after 9pm.

I know. I’m so fun!

But most of the time I’m actually not that controlling and not that much of a perfectionist anymore (well, this might be because my life is very simple and I have total control over my schedule … so maybe I’m playing myself).

The point is, I used to be a lot worse! And the more I reflect on my own experiences, the more I realize there is a HUGE correlation between perfectionism and being a highly sensitive person.

PERFECTIONISM IS A TWENTY-TON SHIELD

The way I see it, perfectionism is a form of control. It’s the belief that if you do everything just right, then you can control the way the world responds to you.

If you’re a people-pleaser, then perfectionism shows up as: “If I do everything in my power for you, then I can control how much love and acceptance you dole out to me.”

If you’re really shy or find socializing difficult, then perfectionism can look like: “If I’m perfect, then no one can find fault with me, which means they won’t single me out. They can gloss right over me and not look at me at all.”

If you’re scared of confrontation, then perfectionism could be: “If I do all of these tasks to perfection, then I can avoid the extreme discomfort of someone being angry or disappointed with me.”

And if you’re a highly sensitive person, perfectionism can sound like: “If I can predict how everything is going to work out, then I will feel less crazy and maybe be able to relax.”

Brene Brown has the best definition of perfectionism (because of course she does):

“Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving for excellence. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is a defensive move. It’s the belief that if we do things perfectly and look perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment and shame. Perfectionism is a 20-ton shield we lug around, thinking it will protect us, when in fact it’s the thing that’s preventing us from being seen.”

HIGHLY SENSITIVE PEOPLE CRAVE PROTECTION

The reason that 20-ton shield feels worth dragging around is because it makes us feel safe.

When you’re a highly sensitive person, you experience almost everything to a heightened degree. Not only are you very emotional, but you can have such heightened empathy that you can feel the feelings of everyone around you, too.

It’s also safe to say that, like me, you’re physically sensitive: You struggle to sleep, you’re touchy about light and sound, crowds give you anxiety, and you have a delicate digestive system, just to name a few.

Don’t mistake me, being highly sensitive is a gift.

Being able to experience the world in a heightened way is wonderful. You have a true appreciation for anything — beauty, music, art, nature, other humans — that make life more joyous and interesting.

You also have an incredible intuition — an ability to pick up on subtleties that other people miss and to ask questions that don’t even occur to other people to ask.

Andthat gift can very quickly become overwhelming.

Feeling other people’s feelings, especially if you don’t realize what’s happening, can literally drive you crazy.

Being sensitive to food, sleep, light, sound, and crowds can make it difficult to just function a lot of the time.

The world can feel crazy and out of control as it is; add being a highly sensitive person to that, and it can feel like a constant onslaught of noise and information and feelings that make you want to shut down or run away screaming.

So of course we become perfectionists. It’s a crutch — a way to mitigate how overwhelming life feels!

BUT PERFECTIONISM ISN’T DOING ITS JOB, IS IT?

We perfect our behavior in order to manage what other people think of us, so we don’t have to feel the chest-clenching anxiety of their disappointment or anger.

We insist that there has to be a right and a wrong answer to everything, because we can’t deal with the crippling fear of the unknown. We’ll be safe as long as we can figure out the “right” way to do everything.

We stay uptight and avoid spontaneity because, again, we can’t predict what will happen. And being able to predict what will happen next makes us feel grounded.

We hide behind walls of perfect work and perfect behavior, because then no one has to really look at us. And being truly seen would be like being pushed outside of those perfectly constructed walls. Oh, and you’re naked.

But Brene Brown is right. The more we hide behind the wall of perfectionism the more we try to manipulate and manage our own behavior to get the results we want from the outside world the more we’re actually harming ourselves.

Ironically, we become controlling and perfectionistic to save us from the onslaught of crazy that’s coming at us from the outside. But the more we box ourselves in, the more uptight and rigid we become, the more we need everything to be just right … the more we realize the hardest truth: The crazy is coming from inside the box.

SO HOW DO WE BE OURSELVES WITHOUT WANTING TO SHUT DOWN?

I promise that it is possible, at least most of the time, to be a highly sensitive person who doesn’t cling to perfectionism. How?

Well, here’s a list of suggestions paired with past episodes that will help you understand and put each suggestion into practice.

To start with, I want you to check out the in-depth conversation Kristen and I had about highly sensitive people on the podcast last year (We are not the crazy ones! (How to tell if you’re a highly sensitive person) from April, 2018). We talk about how to recognize your sensitivity and the basics of how to be sensitive without going crazy.

Then, I want to you to take these suggestions to heart:

  1. Know that it’s safe to feel your feelings. A lot of HSPs shut down their capacity to feel because it’s so overwhelming. The only way they can feel control is to just shut it all off and tamp it down. Except over time, that control breaks down because the feelings have to come out. So you end up feeling less in control because you’re ruled by rage, frustration, explosive outbursts, anxiety, depression, etc. Learning how to slowly and safely feel your feelings can actually make you feel more relaxed and in charge. (Go listen to Emotional Constipation with Joanna Platt from April, 2018.)
  2. Respect your basic needs. HSPs think they “should” be able to push through, power on, and ignore their physical needs. After all, other people seem to be able to do it easily. But the more you ignore your sensitivity, the more out of balance you get, which means you end up knee-jerking to control and perfectionism as a way to restore order. If you acknowledge and care for your basic needs from the beginning, things can’t spiral nearly as easily and you won’t be constantly on the brink of collapse. (Go listen to How to make your own rules for sane living from August, 2018.)
  3. Trust in something bigger than yourself. This has been the single best thing for helping me let go of my control issues. Acknowledging that I’m not the one personally turning the crank on the Universe, keeping the planets spinning and my own personal orbit intact, was a huge True relaxation happens when you can trust that the Universe has your back; that things are working out for you, and that you can rely on something grander and more infinitely intelligent than yourself. There’s no need to control everything when you believe that life is working out for you, that you’ll be taken care of, and that you can’t get it “wrong.” (Go listen to Bonus Book Club! Outrageous Openness by Tosha Silver from November, 2018.)

The world might be scary, but it’s a lot freer of a place than the tiny, cramped box of control and perfectionism that you’ve been hiding in. It’s safe to let go.

How does this resonate with you? Are you an HSP who’s been trying to stay sane with the armor of perfectionism? Come share with the in the comments!

Much Love,

Rachel (& Kristen)


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EPISODES I MENTIONED IN THIS BLOG

We are not the crazy ones (how to tell if you’re a highly sensitive person) (April 2018)

Emotional constipation with Joanna Platt (April 2018)

How to create your own rules for sane living (August 2018)

Bonus Book Club! Outrageous Openness by Tosha Silver (November 2018)

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6 Comments // ADD COMMENT

6 comments

  • Grace

    Coincidentally, I was writing/thinking about perfectionism in my morning pages today! Even as I wrote out how trying to be perfect makes me feel safer, my logical brain came through with, “But…does it actually protect you?” So the 20-ton shield metaphor just drove that point home. Admittedly, sometimes I do recognize that I’m missing out on something because I’d rather not do it at all if I can’t do it perfectly, but it still feels like it’s “better” somehow because at least it’s my choice not to do the thing, rather than being rejected for not being good enough at the thing. Which just means I’m still missing out on the thing, and now I get to blame myself for making myself miss out. Which is not actually a win!

    • Rachel East

      Love the synchronicity of that! And yes, it sounds like you’re not actually sparing yourself any angst, if what ends up happening is that you beat yourself up for missing out. It’s like, if you’re going to beat yourself up anyway, might as well be for trying and being vulnerable, right?? 😉

  • Samantha

    I feel another amazing short course you could put together would be a course for perfectionists! As a perfectionist myself, a lot of this blog post did resonate with me. A lot of the time we use the word ‘perfectionist’ in our culture as if it’s a compliment or gift. In some ways it is, but in other ways it is a real burden and something us perfectionists need to learn to manage 🙂

    • Rachel East

      I’ve thought the same thing, Samantha! And actually, we’re planning to integrate quite a lot about perfectionism into the upcoming people pleasing course. Stay tuned! 😉

  • Sarah

    This definitely resonated with me!! Someone asked me recently but my biggest fear was and without thinking I said “disappointing people” – what a heavy weight to live with!

    • Rachel East

      Such a heavy weight! And also understandable, since we’re biologically hardwired to need belonging. It’s hard work to remind our monkey minds that disappointing people no longer means being shunned from the tribe and literally starving to death! But that’s not a possibility anymore, which means we can (and must, really!) breathe through the discomfort of letting people down.