For years we have learned to help perfectionists overcome their struggle to make everything perfect by telling them to just relax, that they look great, that what they are doing is amazing.
But the three years research for my new book on overcoming perfectionism, has shown that is all wrong. That is in fact similar to telling someone who is suffering from depression to just ‘cheer up’. Perfectionists are the most misunderstood people and it’s why we now have millions of people who feel they have to constantly prove themselves worthy.
Never-ending pressures from social media, advertising and schooling exacerbating millions of children’s anxieties that nothing they do is good enough and adult’s obsession with proving themselves worthy.
So why do us perfectionists not believe you when you tell us we are good enough, that we are important to you? Why can’t we just ‘get on with it’?
Because we weren’t just born this way, we aren’t ‘just like this’. We are just like you, except for one vital aspect. At some point in our childhood, one or several things occurred that made us feel that we are not good enough, not as good as you, or anybody in fact and we now believe the only way to prove we are is by making tasks that we do absolutely perfect.
Maybe then, we believe, will we feel good enough, we will escape the feeling of failure looming over us. You telling us, isn’t the answer though, we need to genuinely feel it. But achieving perfection is impossible, there is always a tiny bit more than can be done to anything, always. So we dedicate our lives to obsessing about achieving the impossible.
And we are doing so much more towards trying to achieve that than you even begin to imagine….
Take Christmas, it’s here and it’s making us feel anxious; the pressure to deliver the perfect day for everyone; gift the perfect presents, have our home look just right and serve up a dinner that looks like it’s arrived from a top restaurant.
And we need to take on this pressure alone, working and thinking about it all hours, unable to delegate because we can’t trust anyone else to do it as well as we need it done. our lists everywhere, crossing things off at the last minute, as we change our mind and decide we can’t do something as brilliantly as it needs to be.
Meanwhile, we see less of our children, hidden away from our high demands and the world in their bedroom, more concerned that their school project isn’t perfect, anxious about what they look like, that they haven’t been invited to a classmates party and that their friends will be getting more expensive presents than them.
Get some help from our partner? Ha, they wouldn’t be any help anyway, always coming home from work annoyed and distracted by whatever they have going on but not quite enough to stop them questioning our perfectly thought-through Christmas plan and giving us some of their unfiltered honest opinion about how we should really have done it.
Perfectionism isn’t just affecting us anymore but millions; our partners at work, our child in the classroom, our friend in the coffee shop and our family who will be turning up on our doorsteps on Christmas morning.
It’s meant to be the perfect Christmas but everyone’s puffed up like a peacock and the only thing that’s brewing is the perfect Christmas storm
It’s so prevalent that we now have a recognized, but little known, mental health epidemic called OCPD, which is all the controlling traits above that we need to make something perfect to prove once and for all that we are good enough.
Our perfectionism could have stemmed from parents separation and in some way we mistakenly blamed ourselves, it could have simply been a raised eyebrow when we got a B instead of an A in school tests, it could have been when we tried our best at something and realized it wasn’t good enough. But now we have an obsession that makes us appear uncaring and we often struggle to relate to others as we drive on, but underneath we are a maelstrom of emotions and could even be suffering anxiety and depression.
We have enough understanding now to stop it though. To overcome it.
Take five. Brew a cup of tea and read on.
Perfectionism is built on a myth, humans were never born to be perfect. But we now have a society that demands it, as a base level. Thirty-five hours in a classroom demanding grade A’s, hours in front of a screen devouring perfectly branded advertising and perfectly curated lives.
To start to overcome the pressure to live up to this impossibility, try to think through where the thought you are not good enough stemmed from, was there a particular moment or person? Understanding what is behind your pursuit of perfection will enable you to start overcoming it. It’s a longer process to fully overcome, as detailed in my book, but for the time being, just read a little more about OCPD that will enable you to park it over this festive break – understand the cause; often, trying to impress parents or prove people wrong is unlikely to be anyone’s fault but the fault of a world that now demands perfection from them as much as you. And it was as impossible for them as it is for you.
‘Many of us believe perfectionism is a positive but researchers are finding that it is nothing short of dangerous, leading to a long list of health problems – and that it’s on the rise” BBC
So, don’t try to have an impossible Christmas. Host the one that is now possible, one where you can relax!… (and, even better, allow those around you to relax); put relationships first; see others’ points of view; compromise; sometimes – very occasionally! – admit you could be wrong; let others do their things their way; understand that happiness comes from what’s already inside your head and around you and not from a perfect Christmas dinner that you haven’t yet cooked to perfection.
If you can believe you don’t need to prove anything to anybody you will be able to enjoy the Christmas and the year ahead that’s already right in front of you – beautifully imperfectly happy, just waiting for your presence.
By Chris Ward
Parents of four. Chris and his wife twice split up but have now been happily married to each other for 25 years because they both understood where their demand to achieve perfection and prove themselves worthy, came from.
Chris was previously a leading global charity campaigner (Creative Director of Comic Relief etc). He has written the first book ‘Less Perfect More Happy’ that uncovers the truth behind the most misunderstood people in society – perfectionists. It uses his real-life experiences and stories from well-known people who’ve struggled with their pursuit of perfection including Bradley Wiggins, Davina McCall, Steve Jobs, Brené Brown and Brian Wilson.
“The almost perfect book about the impossibility of perfection.” Richard Curtis CBE filmmaker of Love Actually and Yesterday.
‘Less Perfect More Happy’ is available on Amazon and in all good book shops https://friendfulness.com/