I loved what Kristin Neff, PhD, psychologist and compassion researcher, had to say about perfectionism. She really nailed it regarding this complex concept that I've been mulling over for years:
"Perfectionism is defined as the compulsive need to achieve and accomplish one's goals, with no allowance for falling short of one's ideals. Perfectionists experience enormous stress and anxiety about getting things exactly right, and they feel devastated when they don't. The unrealistically high expectations of perfectionists mean that they will inevitably be disappointed. By seeing things in black-and-white terms--either I'm perfect or I'm worthless--perfectionists are continually dissatisfied with themselves."
This simple explanation illuminates for me why I have been unhappy for such large chunks of my life. Now that I'm in my 30's, I'm beginning to understand that so many things in life are out of my control. And these factors ultimately determine "success" or "failure" just as much as my personal effort or talents.
Changing thought patterns or habits is hard. It takes time, practice, and conscientiousness. It's like carving a new route for water to flow down when it has been meandering down the same canyon path for the last thousand years. When something goes wrong, the same barrage of negative thoughts flood my mind, but now I can choose to slowly step away from perfectionism and closer toward self compassion. I can look at a difficult situation and place my hands on my own shoulders and say, "That was really hard. Honey, you did the best that you could in that moment."