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The Pain of Being A Perfectionist

by Janette Ward

By Janette Ward

There is a preoccupation in our society to be perfect. The perfect look, the perfect home, the perfect relationship, being the perfect parent, etc. If you watch television adverts, read glossy magazines or take part in social media, you will be bombarded with these messages. What being a perfectionist feels like is powerfully described by writer Nick Wignall: ‘Picture the nastiest, cruellest person you know. Now imagine that their full-time job is to follow you around, close as your shadow, constantly criticizing or judging everything you do. All the while holding out the tantalizing promise that all your fears and insecurities will disappear if only you do things just right’.

It has various causes including having critical, shaming or abusive parents who have very high expectations or believing our self-worth is determined by our achievements. The need for perfection can dominate our lives, especially when we project our perfectionism onto other people and demand perfectionism from them too.

It has a negative effect on our behaviour. Author Anne Wilson Schaef writes: ‘Perfectionism is self-abuse of the highest order.’ Fr example, we could overcompensate because we fear that we cannot meet a particular standard or performance. I used to be a chronic perfectionist and it manifested itself in my work life, where I overcompensated, not feeling that my best was good enough, so I would over work, become stressed and exhausted, need time off work, beat myself up for being weak, get well again and go back to work and do it all over again – a destructive, painful cycle.

And even when I did things well and achieved and accomplished things, the success didn’t feel quite good enough. Another unhelpful behaviour is excessive checking, continually checking that a task has been done. For some people this can become obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). A third behaviour is ‘procrastinating’ because there is a belief that whatever it is, has to be done perfectly, but putting it off for fear of making mistakes or the fear of failure. This behaviour can be crippling because it can stop someone from even attempting to do something, possibly leaving them with feelings of failure and frustration. Perfectionism can also result in difficulties making decisions for fear of making the wrong decision. You may have like me had a manager who was a perfectionist and they exhibit this by being unable to delegate because they do not trust others to get the job done ‘properly’, so they have a tendency to micro-manage and this rarely brings the best out of employees.

Being a perfectionist can affect our mental health as self-worth is tied up with the need to be perfect. It can manifest itself as depression if a person internalises suppressed anger, frustration or guilt for not ‘achieving’ or for things not being exactly as they perceive they should be. Author Julia Cameron says: ’Perfectionism is not a quest for the best. It is the pursuit of the worst in ourselves, the part that tells us that nothing we will do will ever be good enough – that we should try harder’.

I recently read some fascinating information about Silicon Valle in California USA, where there are thousands of tech companies and entrepreneurs that strongly encourage failure. A common mantra is ‘Fail fast, fail often’ and they even have an annual conference called FailCon to encourage people to embrace failure. That’s because they recognize that failure is the path to success and by failing quickly, it is the surest way to learn what works and doesn’t work, so that they can grow, develop and be successful.

There are some things that we can do to overcome perfectionism and a fundamental one is to accept and value ourselves. For example, to believe that every human being – including you, is amazing, unique and has value, just being here on the planet, not because of what you do but because of who you are. It is good to have high standards but not at the expense of everything, including our peace of mind. It can also help at the end of the day before going to sleep to count at least 5 things that you have done well that day, it could be anything, driving, making a coffee, being kind to someone, showing yourself respect etc. Research Professor and Inspirational Speaker Brene Brown says: ‘Those who have a strong sense of love and belonging have the courage to be imperfect’.

From the book One Minute for Yourself by Spencer Johnson, there is an exercise that I often share in groups. It is five easy, yet powerful steps:

1) Catch yourself doing something well or right

2) Tell yourself specifically what you did

3) Slow down for a few seconds of silence to let yourself smile and actually feel how good you feel

4) Remind yourself that you are a worthwhile person and that you like yourself and then let yourself feel it

5) Finally tell yourself to do this often because when you feel better and enjoy life more. Regularly doing this exercise will increase your self-esteem and support you to let go of perfectionism.

My experience of being a perfectionist meant that I got caught up in the detail, which often meant that I felt paralysed to take action because the detail had to be perfect first before I could move forward. What helped me let go of this was to spend time in nature asking myself some questions that slowly and gently helped me to let go of my painful perfectionism. I began to ask myself ‘What is the worst thing that could happen’ and ‘Will this matter next week, next month, next year’.

Answering these calmed me and then I was able to change the negative thoughts to positive. For example, instead of telling myself ‘I am useless’ I would tell myself ‘I am doing my best and my best is more than good enough’. These simple practices whilst walking in nature were literally life changing for me and I would highly recommend them.

Finally, I would suggest that you dare to share your real self with others, your imperfect self. It can be really freeing and a way of practising accepting yourself – a recipe for happiness and peace of mind.

I wish you every success in life being your fabulous, joyous, imperfect self.

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