The pain of perfectionism
Setting goals for ourselves is a normal, healthy part of life. However, it’s also important to remember that we’re not always going to succeed, and that when we fail, we are still OK. If you suffer with perfectionism however, you may have high levels of anxiety about failure, as if all will be lost if the current task doesn’t work out well. Perfectionism pushes you to set unrealistic goals for yourself, much higher than anything you might ask from someone else.
Perfectionism can lead to forgetting successes quickly, as when the current task is completed, the next goal soon moves into view. Success is considered standard, the minimum requirement and not something to be savoured. There is little respite from the task of ‘doing things’ as you don’t let yourself stop and enjoy and the benefits of your hard work.
Another impact of perfectionism is that emotions can be cut off as they feel inefficient, slowing you down from achieving your goal. However, this cuts away part of what makes you whole, as all emotions are important, even the ones you may consider unhelpful or difficult to accept. Constantly being alert for potential flaws in the plan also causes stress, anxiety and affects your ability to live in the moment, to focus on what is happening now at the cost of thinking about the future.
Many perfectionists struggle with having nothing to do, as achieving something has become the way in which they prove themselves, a solid and reliable indicator that they’re OK. Sometimes having nothing to do can be as stressful as having too much to do.
Often the pattern of perfectionism is set up earlier in life. During an unsafe or difficult childhood, being perfect may have meant keeping out of trouble, being safe, or trying to please a critical parent. It may be used in response to a powerful internal voice that tells you nothing you do is good enough. This negative voice is never satisfied and keeps demanding you prove yourself, a situation that can lead to you becoming tired, anxious and burnt-out.
How can counselling help?
A counsellor can help you explore the negative messages you’ve taken on about yourself that may push you towards perfectionism, and will help you to be aware of positive messages that have previously been ignored.
You will be able to work through issues from your childhood and find out more about the negative voice, whether it’s helping you now and to actively choose how you want to respond to it. A counsellor will provide a safe environment where you can uncover your patterns and reality check the true consequences of failure. In counselling you are accepted as you are, not for what you do, and it’s a place where for the first time you may be able to risk not being perfect.
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About Chris Mounsher
Chris Mounsher is a BACP registered humanistic counsellor working in private practice in Brighton. He offers both long term and short term counselling and has particular experience working with anxiety, addiction, depression, low self-esteem and relationship difficulties.