This blog has taken me over 3 months to write and post. A blog about perfectionism – oh the irony. And yet, I’m posting it today because as a recovering perfectionist, I recognise it's good enough, and taking action helps me to continue to progress.
“One of the basic rules of the universe is that nothing is perfect. Perfection simply doesn't exist....” - Professor Stephen Hawking
It’s simply not attainable. Sometimes that angers me, even though I know it’s true. I’m even railing against it now – "Why can’t it be? If I work hard enough and long enough surely it is?"
So what is perfectionism and how can it affect us?
“It’s a self destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought; If I look perfect, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid the painful feelings of shame, judgement and blame." - Brene Brown
An all or nothing approach, discerning in absolutes, a way of thinking that affects how we see ourselves and the world.
There is a HUGE myth around perfectionism – so many people believe that their unrealistic high standards are key to their success so far, and therefore letting go of these would cause their performance to slip. This is not about letting go of audacious goals, but about not being defined by the results we achieve. It’s about separating your self-worth from what you attain, a subtlety that we can sometimes lose focus of. Not meeting these standards is not a failure, and it might be worth challenging your expectations. Are they realistic or are you setting yourself up to fail from the start?
There are many perceived social rewards for perfectionism – praise for working hard and having high standards. This way of thinking can give us a false sense of control and help us avoid uncomfortable situations. It’s also incredibly corrosive, highly linked with eating disorders, depression, anxiety and OCD. If you are a parent, it can often be something that your children pick up and copy, continuing the behaviour down the generations.
Challenging perfectionism is all about healthy striving – striving for excellence, motivated by passion rather than fear of failure, or of what others may think.
I used to believe that perfectionism was something that only people with an eye for detail had, but I’ve found in my work as a coach it’s far more widespread than we might think. Many people either instantly identify with the concept, or think it doesn't apply to them, and yet there are many different behaviours and ways of thinking that can identify perfectionist tendencies;
• Having unrealistic and unattainable expectations
• Judging your self-worth by what you accomplish
• Compulsive and excessive checking, rumination or repeating tasks to cover every angle
• Beating yourself up for not being “perfect enough”
• Feeling like no achievement is ever “enough”
• Chronic procrastination - so afraid of failing that you don’t even start, and living by the motto “If I can’t do something right, why bother doing it at all?”
• Using the word “should” fairly often, e.g. "I should always be able to predict problems before they occur"
• Thinking in absolutes, e.g. "Anything less than perfection is a failure. If I need help from others I am weak."
Procrastination is often a red flag for me (case in point – this blog). If I’m procrastinating its usually because I’m worried about what others may think, that I don’t know everything, (who does?) and therefore it won’t be perfect, and more often than not I’m so afraid of failing that I don’t even start. Perfectionism can literally be paralysing for me at times.
Perfectionism can also show up for me in excessive cleaning before people come round (my husband once found me dusting the skirting boards when paradoxically, I don’t even like cleaning!), failing to eat healthily for the rest of day because I’ve had one piece of cake, and then finishing the rest because I’ve already failed so I might as well go the whole hog. Its judging people where I feel most vulnerable, and where I feel not good enough in some way.
“If you look for perfection, you'll never be content.” Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
How can you tell if its healthy striving or perfectionism?
For me, its two-fold;
When I spend a disproportionate amount of time thinking about or doing a task, compared to the actual amount of time needed to do it, I know there are other things at play than just doing a good piece of work.
“Who am I doing this for?” When I am the answer, I'm in a place of healthy striving. When the answer is grounded in what others will think, then this is my perfectionism at work.
Strategies for Change
- Recognise if and where you have perfectionist tendencies.
Awareness can build the motivation for change. Don’t use it as another thing to beat yourself up with, but the start of trying something new.
- Do some experiments up to test the difference between putting in 100% and 150%
Test how actions like the ones below impact your life...
- cleaning for an hour a week rather than a day
- spending 15 mins on an email rather than 2 hours
- or setting the timer for a power hour to get started on that proposal rather than doing nothing
What happens? How do you feel? What benefits do you notice?
- Be conscious of your self-talk, speak to yourself as you would a friend
If we spoke to others as we so often talk to our perfectionist selves, we'd be considered rude, mean, impatient and insensitive. In fact, we'd never get away with it! By practicing self compassion, we can speak to ourselves in a way that’s kind, rather than punitive. Write down your self-talk and try re-framing it – how we speak to ourselves really does matter. We can change our behaviour through building new neural pathways that reinforce the way we want to feel.
Instead of “I’m so stupid – how could I have made that mistake? I’m such a failure.” A re-frame could be "Anyone could have made that mistake, I'm human, I'll learn from it for next time."
- Assess your standards. How can you change an unrealistic expectation to a more reasonable level?
Sometimes our way of thinking can become so entrenched that we need to find a new perspective. Check in with someone you trust about what an appropriate standard could be, and try tweaking your expectations to see the affect it has on you, and those around you.
As a recovering perfectionist, I’m learning that progression not perfection, is how I want to live my life. I don’t want to be stuck not doing things that I’d love to try, I know I’m imperfect, and I will fail at times, but I’m also enough. Letting go of perfection is about getting out there – taking smart risks and doing the things I want to, no matter how scary. And for me, that's good enough!
“The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.” Anna Quindlen
Bethan is the co-founder of The Bravest Path, a coaching and development organisation helping individuals, teams and organisations develop greater courage, compassion and connection. www.thebravestpath.com