Why trying to make others happy doesn't work

Usually perfectionism is portrayed as an intense desire to do everything to the T, to have every detail be lined up just right. But there’s a little bit more to perfectionism than that which relates directly to taking risks and getting what we need.



Perfectionism is closely linked to vulnerability. This is a Brené Brown lesson that has changed my life. Brené Brown, who has done years of research on vulnerability, shame, and perfection, defines perfectionism as a deeply held belief that if you were to do everything “perfectly” (whatever that means to you) you would be able to avoid any negative feelings or outcomes in your life.


This implies that we somehow have the power to control these ups and downs, essentially to control others and to control every circumstance of our life. Often, perfectionists grew up being praised for high-quality work and good behavior and think that those always need to be in play in order for good things to happen and bad things not to happen. (Any oldest children in the house?)


Even in the word “perfect” is an implication that there is one right way that will only produce “good” outcomes and that every other way is bad and will produce “bad” outcomes. Which is just not possible to predict.


Let’s say your boss asks you to make a presentation for her. You get caught up doing everything "perfectly". The details suck up your time and paralyze you from moving forward efficiently. You are trying to control what your boss’s reaction will be and what the outcome will be. But...it could be that your boss loves you work, goes to present it to the board, and for reasons completely outside of your control, the board doesn’t like it. And maybe your boss will be annoyed about that. That is not up to you. All you can do is produce what you know to be good work.


Those of us who tend to give to others more than we give to ourselves think that if we never ask for anything and we always do what people ask of us - if we are a “perfect” person - then everyone will like us. Next week, I'll go a little deeper into this dynamic and suggest some strategies to shift away from perfectionism and toward being good enough.


In the meantime, where do you see perfectionism showing up in your life? Having read this, can you attribute any of that perfectionism to being worried about what people will think about you and trying to control the reactions of others?

Read part II here.