Highly Sensitive Refuge
A woman dealing with her unhealthy perfectionism, lying down on a yellow floor.

The Cause Of My Suffering Was My Desire To Be Perfect

“Gosh, you’re needy,” I mumbled to myself as I clicked the door shut to a private room in my workplace.

In her book, Year of Yes, Shonda Rhimes wrote, “If I’m winning at one thing, I’m failing at another.” I’d felt so validated when I first read that quote. It was like a permission slip to be imperfect — a reminder that no one can ever be fully balanced in every part of their life, that no one is good at everything. 

But here I was, getting ready to meditate in the middle of my workday because I was trying to do everything perfectly again. My stomach had been on fire all morning and I had a bleeding scab on my arm from anxiously itching again. You’re so ridiculous, Alissa. Who does this? I thought to myself. Okay, no, I stopped myself. Be nice. It’s okay.

I sat down and breathed in deeply before I pressed play on a four-minute guided meditation that promised a feeling of calm centeredness. I needed anything I could get. “I am breathing in. I am breathing out,” the instructor repeated.

After three minutes and 44 seconds, I felt better. My stomach still hurt, but I wasn’t feeling so wild anymore. As I drank a cup of chamomile tea, I pondered why I always found myself in this high-strung, perfectionist state when I knew it was so bad for me.

Perfectionism Can Manifest Into Physical Issues

I’m a highly sensitive person, which means I feel things more deeply and can become more overwhelmed in certain social or stressful situations. There’s a reason why highly sensitive people tend to be perfectionists, but I’ve learned that my perfectionist tendencies can manifest into serious health issues if I’m not careful. 

Because HSPs are so deeply affected by everything, we feel everything more intensely. That means when we’re in a state of overwhelming stress for too long — when our stress response system is constantly taxed — comes out physically, including as “anxiety, depression, digestive problems, heart disease, sleep problems, weight gain, memory and concentration impairment,” according to Mayo Clinic

While working my first corporate job, I put my health on the line in a dangerous way. I was so obsessed with climbing the ladder and being the best employee that I completely burned out. I began losing hair, losing sleep at night, and developing severe digestive issues.

Under Severe Stress, My Body Started Talking

Frankly, my body was unable to handle the amount of pressure I put on it. When I got sick, I realized my body was speaking to me and begging for rest. I got the message and have worked to understand, firsthand, the gentle care my highly sensitive self needs.

Because I’m highly sensitive, I’ve learned that it takes more work for me to feel good. I’ve learned that when I find myself wound up, I need to go take a break and meditate, or I need to practice deep breathing, or stretch my body. I’ve also learned to limit my consumption of caffeine, sugar, and alcohol because these substances exacerbate my anxiety.

While I take the necessary steps to take good care of myself, I still find myself face-to-face with my perfectionism more often than I’d like to admit. It’s hard for me to just “care less” and not put my very best into whatever I’m doing. I’m highly sensitive, you know? I care. A lot.

Perfectionism Often Looks Like Trying to Do It All

A perfect example of my perfectionism comes down to self-improvement. I’ve binged on so many self-help books and podcasts that I can practically recite the steps to being an “optimal” human being much like I can recite the alphabet.

In a nutshell, I get obsessed with trying to be my best self, but it gets to an unhealthy place when I don’t give myself breaks to recharge. If I’m always challenging myself to be a great fiance, star employee, successful writer, all while eating healthy, working out four days a week, and getting eight hours of sleep per night. No one can keep all of those plates spinning. “If I’m winning at one thing, I’m failing at another.” Remember?

We may be coming from a good place, but for HSPs, we’ve got to prioritize taking good care of ourselves and let the idea of perfectionism go. When we’re giving ourselves panic attacks, skin rashes, and stomach ulcers over things we care about, something’s gotta give. I’ve realized that underneath these perfectionist tendencies often lies pain.

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There’s Always a ‘Good Reason’ We Think We Need to Be Perfect

Back to that day in the office: Post-meditation, as I was drinking my chamomile tea, I tried so hard to stay zen before I had to present in a meeting that afternoon. As I looked down at the scabs on my arms, I felt a tinge of sadness. Why do I always push myself so hard? Why do I always do this to myself? I wondered.

The answer popped into my head quickly because deep down, I already knew: Worthiness. I know that I try to be perfect because I only feel good enough and worth people’s time if I’m at my “best.” It’s not a conscious thought I have, but I know it’s what drives this behavior.

For example, I want to be successful in my career because having that success makes me feel more valuable. This stems from wanting to make my parents proud. Growing up, I always compared myself to my younger brother, who often seemed smarter. My parents treated us equally, but I always wished I was more like him.

As a result, I have this desire to prove my own worthiness. Since my dad has always been successful in his career, I think that showing him I can do the same has become a big driver for me. If I’m really successful in my career, I’ll be as good as my brother, right?

I share this because I hope it’ll spark you to take a look at your own perfectionist tendencies, too. There’s always a reason and I find that it often comes down to worthiness:

  • Are you obsessed with being in shape because you feel more valuable if you’re thin? 
  • Do you bend over backward for your partner because you’re afraid he won’t think you’re good enough if you don’t? 
  • Are you always overworking yourself because deep down you think you need to prove you’re smart enough?

Some of these reasons may feel ridiculous at first. What? No, I don’t feel that way. Do I? we may be thinking. But the root cause of our perfectionism stems from subconscious beliefs we formed at a very young age. In a logical sense, we know they’re totally unreasonable, but we hold onto them just the same.

It’s Time to Question Your Perfectionism

My suggestion? Don’t take your perfectionism at face value, especially if it’s causing pain in your life. Self-inquiry is a powerful tool. Ask yourself what might be causing your perfectionism. Take your journal out and write about it. 

As you begin to understand what’s going on below the surface to drive your behavior, you’ll be able to take more ownership over your actions. It’ll become less of “This is just the way I am,” and more of, “This doesn’t feel good and I want to take better care of myself.”

Slowly but surely, I’m becoming more clear about what subconscious beliefs are driving my perfectionist tendencies. Having this clarity helps me actually stop and notice when I’m getting out of control. Lately I’ve been repeating to myself, I am worthy with or without my achievements. It actually helps.

As with anything, the more we repeat it, the more we believe it. Let’s take our foot off the gas. Let’s take better care of ourselves. When we show ourselves more compassion, we’re able to share more compassion with others. And what the world needs right now is more highly sensitive people sharing their beautiful gifts.

If this article helped you, join Alissa at Life by Alissa or sign up for her weekly self-reflection prompts designed for spiritual growth.

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