Perfectionism...enemy of the self
When you hear the word perfectionism, what does it bring to mind? Someone who is a high achiever or someone for whom nothing is ever good enough? So, which is it? Well, the truth is that it’s a bit more complicated than that…
Perfectionism is often thought of as being a strength which encourages people to pay attention to detail and helps motivate them to achieve success, produce the highest quality work and be the best version of themselves. Indeed, there are certainly some situations where precision is key and getting it right is essential, for example if you were going into hospital for brain surgery it could be disastrous if the surgeon made a mistake during the operation. However, not all situations are life and death and being perfect isn't always necessary. In fact, the pursuit of perfectionism can easily spiral out of control and become obsessive, leading to self-defeating thoughts and behaviours and an array of mental health issues. When a person believes that only perfection and flawlessness is acceptable, that anything less is failure, they may be setting themselves up to fail as perfection is often unachievable. In the long term this can be harmful to them as well as those around them. Finding a way to recognise when perfect isn’t essential and ‘good enough’ is really good enough is a much healthier mind set to adopt, and vital in overcoming perfectionism. Let’s take a closer look at perfectionism…
What are the signs that you might be a perfectionist?
Perfectionism can affect one or more aspects of a person’s life e.g. some perfectionists strive to look perfect or keep a perfect home, while others strive to be the perfect student, the perfect employee or the perfect friend, partner or parent. Here are some of the most common symptoms which could indicate that you are a perfectionist:
· Having unrealistically high standards
· Setting unachievable goals for yourself
· Putting yourself under a lot of pressure to meet these standards/reach goals
· Having extreme reactions when you think you haven’t met these standards/reached your goals
· Being quick to find fault with yourself
· Being excessively self-critical
· Being unable to accept compliments
· Looking to others for approval and validation
· Taking an excessive amount of time to complete a task when compared to others
What is the impact of being a perfectionist?
The impact of perfectionism varies from person to person, but in general perfectionism is not a healthy way of being. Here are some common side effects of continuously striving to be perfect:
· Procrastination and reduced productivity
· Feeling that you are not good enough
· Comparing yourself unfavourably to others
· Low self-esteem, feelings of unworthiness
· Stress, anxiety, depression and other mental health issues
· Decreased energy
· Extreme fear of failure
· Avoidance or giving up on a task if you think you can’t be the best
· Rigid thinking (all or nothing)
· Relationship problems
· Reduced creativity as you don’t want to take risks or push yourself out of your comfort zone
Where does it come from? What are the causes?
The underlying cause of perfectionism is likely to be a complex interaction of internal and external factors. Perfectionism is driven by the desire to avoid failure or negative judgement. Some of the factors which increase perfection seeking behaviour are:
· Critical parents who push and pressure you to ‘be the best’ achieve the highest grades and scold you when you make mistakes or don’t quite make the cut
· Being bulled: this can leave people feeling inadequate and with a desire to prove themselves by always getting things right or succeeding in all they do
· Adverse childhood experiences
· Pressure from other important figures e.g. teachers, bosses
· Academic or professional competition: finding yourself in a situation where everyone around you is highly capable and successful can fuel the desire to keep up with others or stand out, which can lead to perfectionism
· Social comparisons e.g. via social media: in comparing ourselves to others we often don’t see the bigger picture, or what it has taken for that person to achieve what they have
· Having a history of high achievement: sometimes this can lead to an overwhelming pressure to live up to past achievements.
How can you overcome perfectionism?
Breaking out from the trap of perfectionism isn’t easy. It can be a powerful and well ingrained habit, but it is possible to develop a healthier way of being, to become a person who seeks excellence rather than perfection, has an optimistic approach to their work and wants to keep improving and developing their skills. Here are some tips on how you can get started:
· Learn how to set more realistic and attainable goals for yourself: this will reduce the pressure on you to achieve the unachievable
· Build your self esteem by recognising and acknowledging your achievements rather than dismissing or minimising them
· Focus on the positives rather then the negatives e.g. what you have achieved so far rather than what you haven’t. What are the benefits of what you have don, even if it’s not ‘perfect’? What have you learned along the way?
· Practice mindfulness meditation to help you focus on the present rather than reflecting on past ‘mistakes’
· Learn how to show yourself greater compassion, talk to yourself the way that you would a loved one…would you be so critical and judgemental of them as you are of yourself?
· Challenge your self-critical thoughts and excessive high standards. Do you really deserve this criticism? Does it really have to be perfect?
A good therapist can help you to understand the underlying causes of perfectionism as well as to find ways to change your perfectionist thinking and accept yourself more fully.