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Perfectionism – The Impossible Goal

I used to pride myself on being a perfectionist, until I realised it was holding me back.

Perfectionism. A trait I used to pride myself on in my corporate career. Doing everything to the highest possible standard, making sure everything was the best it could be. Perfectly constructed reports, perfectly designed PowerPoint presentations, perfectly planned and organized workshops. I was a model employee, hard worker, high achiever. It’s not that I thought I was perfect, far from it. I was striving to be seen as the one who could do anything. The one who didn’t need any help. The one who could figure it out for herself…

Surely a good thing? Well as it turns out, not really.

Wikipedia defines perfectionism as:

“a personality trait characterized by a person’s striving for flawlessness and setting high performance standards, accompanied by critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others’ evaluations”

Psychologists agree that there are positive and negative aspects however when taken to the extreme, perfectionism can actually be bad for our mental health and our performance at work.

Why? Because the constant striving to get things just right means we procrastinate and spend longer on tasks than needed. We worry about what people will think and our inner critic causes us to constantly doubt ourselves. We stay longer hours at work because of the constant checking, tweaking and re-writes. The same high standards play out at home, adding to the burden. We’re anxious, tired, overwhelmed and unproductive. It can even contribute to stress and burnout. If you read my blog “I went from breakdown to breakthrough” you’ll know that’s exactly where I ended up.

This is what I learned about perfectionism.

Perfectionism is just another way of feeling not enough. As its heart is a fear of failure, a fear of being judged, a fear of making a mistake and getting something wrong.

We set ourselves a high standard. But we don’t tell ourselves what that standard is, so we’ve no idea whether we’re meeting it or not. We beat ourselves up for not meeting this unclear, impossible standard.

At work this is compounded as we’re told it’s good but not quite good enough. Maybe good-and-a-half. Everything will be OK if we just “raise the bar”.

We fear failure, so we try to cover all bases, please everyone, try to get it right. We don’t want to make an unnecessary mistake; we don’t want someone to give us negative feedback so we pour our heart and soul into being the absolute best and then wait for the dreaded verdict.

And if we can’t be perfect, it’s best not to try. So, in comes self-sabotage and procrastination to save us from the embarrassment of being seen to be doing a sub-standard job.

I know many perfectionists. I used to think I was in good company with my fellow perfect seekers. All of them are the most conscientious, committed, passionate, hard-working individuals I know. However, they’re also among the most self-critical, fearful, stressed, overwhelmed people I know too.

Despite all my knowledge and experience and reading a lot of very educational brain books I realised recently that these tendencies were still showing up and holding me back.  Fueled in part by constantly working outside my comfort zone developing my business and comparing myself to other “more successful” people. I noticed I was spending too much time faffing and my productivity had dipped.

As a coach and therapist, I know that perfectionism like every other annoying habit secretly plotting our downfall is a learned behavior hiding out in our subconscious and rooted in childhood experience. So, I took myself off to a therapy session (Rapid Transformational Therapy of course) to get to the bottom of it.

The memories seemed random at first. I’m 5, I’m writing in my brand-new exercise book and the pen goes through the page because there’s a puffy sticker on the other side, so I couldn’t finish my writing. I’m hiding in the toilets crying, scared I’ll get found out. At 12 I’m struggling through maths homework and feeling stuck and unsupported, at 19 I’m being abandoned….

What emerged was a theme of the need to know if something will work before trying, a deep fear of failure, a sense that I had to look after myself, a need to constantly raise the bar and achieve the highest standard, and perhaps the saddest, a belief that whatever I do, there will be a loss.

No wonder adult me was struggling so much with perfection!

After the session I felt more at peace and empowered, and promptly published a social media post with a spelling mistake in it. Improvement or just carelessness? Time will tell….

Research suggests perfectionistic tendencies are on the rise particularly among the younger generation. A study by Andrew Hill, Head of Taught Postgraduate Programmes at York St John University and Thomas Curran at the University of Bath analysed data from 40,000 American, Canadian and British university students from 1989 to 2017. This showed substantially higher rates of perfectionism than previous generations at the same period of life. The findings were worrying, in particular the 33% increase in young people believing their environment to be excessively demanding, that they must display perfection to get approval, and that they would be harshly judged by others.

I’m not surprised. The media bombards us with images and videos of perfect people with perfect lives. We too could be happy if we were, well, more perfect. Even the most together person may start to question whether they should be doing something different with their life.

Lockdown has created an interesting alternative reality – we see celebs in their own homes wearing no make-up, creating low tech entertainment, becoming unlikely agony aunts, sharing their “insecurities” with the world which makes them seem more relatable and accessible. Ordinary people are sharing videos of amazing virtual family get togethers, enjoying online quizzes, raising money for charity, volunteering, generally becoming heroes.

Whilst for many this has been a source of comfort and inspiration, for some people it can trigger deeply held insecurities and sadness because their lockdown life doesn’t seem as eventful, fulfilling or fun as everyone else’s. I certainly experienced this when I discovered the first thing my Dad did when he was allowed out was to go out and buy some compost rather than come and visit me!!

So, do you define yourself as a perfectionist?

Well don’t do that for starters. As soon as we give something a name, we add it to our identity and that makes change harder.  

You have tendency towards perfectionist behaviors, which means it’s not a fixed part of who you are and can be changed.

“I’m a recovering perfectionist and an aspiring “good enough-ist”

Brenee Brown

Here’s 3 things I used to overcome my own perfectionist tendencies:

Get aware

The first easy step. The key to changing anything in our own minds is to become aware of what we’re doing. Just do some noticing, like a detective. No pressure. When are you trying to be perfect? What’s driving you in that moment? How often are you doing it? How much time do you waste on simple tasks? When you’re trying to attain a standard, do you know what it is? Who is it for? Write it down if you can, it’s easier to see patterns.

Just ship it

I can’t remember where I got this phrase, but it really resonated with me. I found it particularly effective when working on my own doing presentations and reports. As soon as I started faffing around with the font or color or second guessing whether the recipient would like it, I’d say, “just ship it” and send it out. I promise you no-one will notice if the font size on slide 37 is 0.5 points smaller than slide 22. And if they do, take comfort in the fact you’ve got more in common than you thought!

Practice on a safe task. See if anyone notices. Send someone a draft for review instead of a finished version. Maybe leave something a little less tidy than usual. You’ll notice your own triggers from doing the exercise above. The more you practice, the easier it will be to make little changes. And remember, “done is better than perfect”!

Feel the feelings

Perfectionism is a way of avoiding feelings of not enough and anxiety. Acknowledging and feeling them freely will help. Name them, sit with them and let them pass. Again, I advocate writing them down, as negative thoughts and feelings tend to lose their power when they’re out of your head an in the real world.

You’ll start to see a pattern in your fears and judgements about yourself which gives you more awareness and ultimately more choices in how to act.

These tips will help you understand and better manage your perfectionist tendencies, but as with any behaviour triggered from our subconscious the only way to deal with it is to properly is to find the root and pull it out.

Get in touch if you want to find out more about how Rapid Transformational Therapy and how you can work with me.

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