Perfectionism can lead us to achieve great things. A certain level can be healthy and can be motivating. But at its worst, it can be a contributor to anxiety, depression, eating disorders, relationship break-downs, obsessive compulsive disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome. It can mean we are caught in a cycle of self-blame and criticism if our ambitions are not met. We feel worthless because we are failing to reach (often unattainable) goals. So how can we deal with the perfectionist self? Awareness of our perfectionism and accompanying self-criticism is the first step.
WHAT DO WE MEAN BY PERFECTIONISM?
Perfectionism has been defined in psychology (Stoeber & Childs 2010) as “a personality disposition characterised by an individual striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high performance standards, accompanied by overly critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others’ evaluations.”
THE INFECTIOUSNESS OF PERFECTIONISM
Perfectionism may be present in many areas of your life: relationships, fitness and diet, hobbies and interests. Even personal development can turn into a self-flagellation exercise with a focus on attaining perfection or indeed ‘enlightenment’.
Being a perfectionist may have served you very well as a lawyer. Accuracy, a keen attention to detail, doing a ‘good job’, or simply striving for excellence, are all attributes which spring to mind. You may find that your clients are happy, as your work is of a high standard. Friends and acquaintances may well admire you for your perceived success. But how do you feel on the inside?
BEWARE THE UPHILL BATTLE
Perfectionism can feel like running on a treadmill. And it can come in any of the following guises:
- You generally think you could do better. Extreme perfectionism comes from a source of feeling deeply flawed; not being good enough.
- You often compare yourself to others.
- You believe you will feel happier or better about yourself when you’ve reached the bar you’ve set for yourself.
- You categorise things in a black or white fashion: good or bad, success or failure, right or wrong. There is no in-between.
- When things don’t go as you had hoped, you blame yourself. It’s your fault. You’re a failure.
- If you do achieve what you set out to achieve, you assume you got lucky; people felt sorry for you; the bar was too low.
- You focus on results, and dismiss effort and intention as irrelevant.
- Hobbies are less about enjoyment but more about achieving or reaching perfection.
- You focus on self-improvement. You rarely acknowledge your achievements. Any feelings of satisfaction at achieving certain things are only temporary.
- You take criticism as negative and personal.
- You spend a long time on tasks, pouring over details. Ultimately making you less efficient.
- You avoid certain situations for fear of not being good enough in front of people. The irony with being a perfectionist is that it can sometimes stop us from achieving what we are trying to do well!
HOW TO BE A HAPPY PERFECTIONIST
- Be conscious of your perfectionist traits and the impact they may be having on your daily life.
- Notice any thoughts you have of self-judgment. Recognise them for what they are – thoughts. See if you can catch your thoughts before you become embroiled in a destructive cycle of self-criticism.
- Be mindful of high bars you’re setting for yourself. See if you can accept a lower, more attainable bar. Perhaps you could aim for 80% instead of 100%? A perfectionist’s ‘80%’ often equates to someone else’s 100%…
- Accept your mistakes! OK, I know it’s easy for me to write that – none of us want to make mistakes. But mistakes in life are inevitable. It’s how we react to them that’s important. We can actively choose to learn from mistakes and move on from them.
- Don’t define yourself by a list of achievements or external factors. Acknowledge your positive traits and qualities.
- Treat yourself with the same loving kindness you would treat someone dear to you. You deserve it, even when you do make a mistake…
And remember, what we perceive as a ‘mistake’ may well turn out to be the best thing that could have happened to us.