What is emotional perfectionism? – The Washington Post

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The term toxic positivity has gained popularity in recent years, referring to times when people have responded to others’ struggles with superficial reassurances and clichéd phrases such as “Everything happens for a reason” or “Have you tried yoga? ?”

But there is a similar, albeit less well-known, concept that is more internal: emotional perfectionism.

While we generally think of a perfectionist as someone who holds themselves to a high standard in appearance, behavior, or work, emotional perfectionists hold themselves to a similar standard when it comes to how they feel. Rather than encouraging others to look on the bright side (toxic positivity), they expect to always be optimistic.

“It’s really when you have an emotion about the emotion and you suppress what you’ve called the wrong emotion,” said Annie Hickox, a psychologist who also has a doctorate in clinical neuroscience. “Emotional perfectionism often follows a script of, ‘We shouldn’t be doing this,’ ‘I shouldn’t be mad at that,’ ‘I shouldn’t be mad,'” Hickox added, who coined the term in 2016.

Hickox thinks emotional perfectionism could be an unrecognized source of anxiety, based on experience with his patients. “They’ll say, oh no, I’m not a perfectionist. But you can find thoughts where they hold themselves to a very high standard,” she said.

Both toxic positivity and emotional perfectionism have the same underlying cause: discomfort with the negative emotions of others. Vrinda Kalia, a psychology professor at the University of Miami who studies perfectionism and emotional expression, said expecting life — yours or others’ — to be “great all the time” is extremely debilitating because it ignores reality. “That’s not how life is.”

There are several reasons why people develop perfectionist traits. Some are simply born with higher expectations of themselves and the world around them, while others become so through a mix of upbringing and cultural influences.

Nevertheless, perfectionism, including emotional perfectionism, can prevent us from building and maintaining satisfying relationships. For example, “In a married couple, where one person is more gloomy and pessimistic and the other is constantly supportive, that could turn into toxic positivity,” Hickox said. “Because one person doesn’t feel heard or listened to because they just have this positive personality, and the underlying message to the other person is, ‘You shouldn’t feel that’.”

Hickox says emotional perfectionism can also stem from positive reflexes such as protection, where people want to make sure their friends and loved ones don’t have to suffer the discomfort of unpleasant emotions, such as anger or sadness. This too tends to backfire on you. “It doesn’t protect others, because it’s not real life to always be positive. In the short term, it can help us feel better, because we adopt this personality, but in the long term, it can be quite damaging and self-destructive,” she said.

“Emotional perfectionism is more likely to occur in women because they’ve been socialized not to fully express themselves,” said Catherine McKinley, an associate professor at Tulane University School of Social Work who has studied the differences between genders in emotional expression. She said that while women were allowed to exhibit a wider range of emotions than men, they also felt more pressure to self-regulate.

Several studies have shown that women have more perfectionist tendencies than men and had higher levels of stress. They also report having lived more self-critical thoughts and have higher expectations of themselves.

But no matter your gender, if you realize you might be an emotional perfectionist, these tips can help you combat that tendency.

Remember that there are no good and bad emotions. “There are no good and bad emotions, just like there is no good and bad food. We can have problems with them, but it’s not the food itself that is the problem is how we deal with it,” Hickox said. One approach is to learn how to develop what she calls “emotional tolerance,” or the strength to deal with all kinds of emotions, including unpleasant emotions.

We all have an “ugly” side, but that’s what makes us human, Kalia said. “Expressing all parts of yourself allows you to be your whole person. The best situation would be to accept that and say, ‘Okay, I got angry. That’s the angry part of me. And that’s okay, I have a soft, tender side too, and I can show it to you next,” she said.

Be aware. According to Hickox, mindfulness is a great way to develop emotional tolerance because it keeps us in the present moment. “Feel the emotion,” she said. “What does it tell you and what is the story behind it?” For example, you can ask yourself, “How do I feel when I lock myself in? How did I feel before locking myself up? said Hickox.

Being mindful of the present moment also allows us to catch ourselves or others slipping into emotional perfectionism or toxic positivity.

Be open about your needs and feelings. McKinley said it’s important to be clear about what kind of support you expect from others, but also to give people the opportunity to grow. “We all learn together,” she says. “Everyone becomes a full human being.”

This openness can be crucial for women whose needs have been overlooked. But it’s also important for men who feel like they’re not allowed to express their emotions except anger. “If you feel like you can’t express your emotions, it feels like you’re suffocating over time,” she said.

Be emotionally flexible. Just as we must exercise our body to maintain our physical flexibility, we must exercise our feelings to maintain our emotional flexibility. We need to move beyond a ‘rigid construct of emotional expression’ that labels some emotions as good and others as bad,” Kalia said. “Inflexibility is the problem.”

Give up control. Understanding that nothing is guaranteed can help reduce perfectionist tendencies because “one of the things a perfectionist wants is control. They want to be able to control the situation. And the truth is, we have so little of control,” Kalia said.

Learn from negative emotions: While emotional perfectionists don’t want to experience negative emotions, Kalia said, they serve a very important function. For example, “If you have a negative interaction with someone, don’t ignore that feeling,” she said. “It’s a very important signal from your body and your brain that something is wrong.”

Ask for help. Deciding that you need to change can be extremely isolating, especially for emotional perfectionists, who tend to push people away in order to protect themselves from vulnerability. But in the long run, it can hurt them. “We cannot live alone. It’s not good for us. We all need support and other people around us,” Kalia said.

However, it is unrealistic to expect one person – be it a spouse or a friend – to meet all of our needs. “It would probably be healthier if everyone had their own support networks they could rely on beyond their immediate partners and family,” McKinley said.

Olga Mecking is a writer living in the Netherlands and the author of “Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing”.

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