The Pressure to Be Perfect (Part 4): The Surprising Ways that Perfectionism Can Impact our Self-Esteem

Get ready for my final post in this series on perfectionism in women – an issue that I see cropping up again and again in my practice. So far in this series, I have focused on the cultural messaging that feeds women’s tendency towards perfectionism and the different types of perfectionism that tend to plague us. In this post, I will speak to the surprising ways that perfectionism can impact our self-esteem and offer some practical strategies that we can employ to help preserve our sense of self-worth.

How Does Perfectionism Impact Our Self-Esteem?

So how exactly does the highly curated world of social media and other insidious cultural messaging impact our notion of our own self worth? Perfectionism can have an adverse effect on our self-esteem; that is, our own subjective measure of our own self-worth. People who exhibit this brand of perfectionism tend to see their self-worth as inextricably bound to their productivity or accolades; they fear they can never meet their own impossible standards or satisfy the excessive demands of society. Self-perceived failures in meeting expectations can easily lead to a downward shame spiral. It can feel hard to protect our sense of self-worth and authenticity amidst all the noise.

Preserving Our Self-worth

Aside from minimizing our time on social media outlets (which I wholeheartedly endorse) what can we do, as women, to maintain the sanctity of our self worth? According to humanist psychologist Carl Rogers, self-worth is preserved by narrowing the gap between our self-image and our ideal-self. According to his 1959 book entitled, Theory of Therapy, Personality, and Interpersonal Relationships, Rogers explains that we want to feel, experience and behave in ways which are consistent with our self-image and which reflect what we aspire to be, our ideal-self. To be clear, when Rogers refers to the “ideal-self” he is not referring to the airbrushed Instagram ready version of ourselves; rather he is referring to the self that comprises the part of a person’s self-concept that contains their authentic desires, hopes, and wishes. The ideal self houses qualities you are working to possess.

We can think of it this way: the narrower the gap between our self-image and ideal-self, the more congruent we are and the higher our sense of self-worth. Conversely, when the gap between our perceived actual self and our ideal self widens our self-esteem tanks. If you were ever forced to sit through a statistics class in high school or college, you might recall that this is otherwise known as an “inverse relationship” – when one variable increases the other decreases (and vice versa).

One way that I find that therapy can be effective is by helping individuals to identify ways to live that are consistent with their own personal values, that is to more closely adhere to the values that inform their ideal self (the Rogerian ideal self – not the airbrushed, Instagram version). Simply put, our self regard improves when we heed our better judgment, keep our priorities front and center, and adhere to our own moral compass. This statement might seem like a self-evident one that need not bear repeating, but as any skilled therapist can attest to, there is a world of difference between intellectual and emotional insight. The latter can result in real, tangible change while the other is simply an idle, intellectual exercise.

We don’t have to wait until the New Year to set resolutions. It can be helpful for us at any point during the year to take stock of our values and set our intentions. Taking stock of our values can in turn help us to set realistic and achievable goals that will allow us to take steps towards living in greater accordance with the values we hold dear – in other words, to approach our Rogerian ideal self. These goals might assume the form of trying to be a more present parent, a more loving spouse, a more forgiving friend but it is important to also operationalize these goals.

For instance, instead of setting a vague goal like “be a more present parent” I might instead aim to establish “15 minutes daily of uninterrupted time with my child.” Instead of simply vowing that I will be a more loving spouse, I can instead decide to carve out a couple of minutes every day to send my spouse an romantic text or perform a small, thoughtful gesture. And so on. But it is not simply enough to just set these goals for ourselves. We also need to hold ourselves accountable. We can set weekly or monthly reminders for ourselves to see how well we are doing living in accordance with our core values. Has the gap between our self-image and our Rogerian ideal self widened or narrowed? If we are in a therapeutic relationship, we can make use of our therapy sessions to reflect on what is most important to us and how we can live in a way that staves off later regrets. Living in this conscious way, with our core values infusing our daily life and actions, not only leads to a more fulfilling life but also enhances our feeling of self-worth.

And when we slip up, which is of course inevitable, we can model showing compassion towards ourselves while simultaneously striving to do better the next day. The key is to focus on changing behaviors that create suffering while simultaneously accepting yourself just as you are. It is this continual tension between change and acceptance that is often at the crux of the therapeutic endeavor. And so, instead of simply setting goals and focusing on what needs to change, we also need to resolve to do a better job of accepting ourselves in all of our imperfect glory.

Carl Rogers perhaps put it best in his 1961 book On Becoming a Person, when he boldly asserted, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I change. I believe that I have learned this from my clients as well as within my own experience—that we cannot change, we cannot move away from what we are, until we thoroughly accept what we are. Then change seems to come about almost unnoticed.” Yes, indeed.

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My services focus on the challenges women face in the demanding culture. If you resonate with the pressure to be perfect I’d love to work with you to help lighten the burden.


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