The paradox of perfectionism
“At its root, perfectionism isn't really about a deep love of being meticulous. It’s about fear. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of disappointing others. Fear of failure. Fear of success”. - Michael Law (musical artist)
Most perfectionists believe that being a perfectionist is a good thing. They see it as a strength, a positive trait or quality. They believe the high relentless standards and expectations they place on themselves are motivators to their success. The driving force behind achieving their goals and ambitions. Yet in reality, perfectionism is a toxic force that often leads to increased levels of stress, anxiety and low self-worth.
If you’re a perfectionist and you’re reading this, rest assured, “I get you”. For I was once a perfectionist too. I was once locked in the desire to achieve unrealistic expectations, standards and goals and avoid failure at all costs. For me there was no middle ground, it was all or nothing and my whole self-worth was reliant on consistently achieving the all.
I would sit for hours re-writing the same paragraph of an assignment or presentation, waiting for it to sound perfect. I’d tell myself I wasn't very bright and therefore had to push myself harder and harder to achieve that bit more. In my head I knew exactly how it should sound, but no amount of time or energy would allow it to surface. It was like walking round and round a maze, never sure if I was actually any closer to the exit.
And it didn’t just stop there. As a means to achieve the perfect body, to be desirable and loved, I battled anorexia and bulimia nervosa for many years. The extremes I went to just to achieve close to perfect, nearly cost me my life and many years of unhappiness.
The truth of the matter is, the unrealistic standards I was placing on myself were the ingrained unrealistic expectations my father had placed on me as a child. I know my father didn't mean it in a harmful way, he probably thought it would feed my motivation and desire to succeed. But in reality, it became a paradox, it became a destructive force that not only constantly made me feel like I wasn't good enough, but took the enjoyment out of many aspects of my life.
When I started studying psychology, I began to realise that my rigid rules (generally known as the shoulds, the oughts and the musts of my life), were deep rooted in my fear of failure. I honestly believed that if I loosened my rules everything would fall apart. That I would instantly stop trying, stop caring and fail. I also terribly feared the judgement of others, the echoes of my father’s disappointment when I fell short.
Loosening my rules didn't come easy. It took me a while to realise and to trust that I would be okay. That I would still try, do well and succeed in life. I learnt that there was a huge difference between being a high achiever and being a perfectionist. Being a high achiever meant being able to accept it didn't have to be perfect to be good enough. It didn't have to be perfect for me to feel proud and accomplished.
Being a high achiever meant accepting that my best was good enough. I learnt to accept that my shortcomings and my mistakes weren’t an opportunity for me to criticise or punish myself, but an opportunity for me to be self-reflective and resilient. Allowing myself to be fallible and to be truly vulnerable, allows me the opportunity for continuous development and growth.
So, how to overcome perfectionism:
1. Become aware or your perfectionist behaviours and beliefs
One of the most important first steps to overcoming perfectionism is to begin to become aware of your perfectionist behaviours and beliefs.
Ask yourself, which areas of your life do your perfectionist traits manifest? Whether it’s academically, professionally, within your relationships, with the way you look, or all of these and more, ask yourself why? What purpose does perfectionism serve for you? Why do you feel the need to push yourself to such an extreme?
For me it was a fear of failure, a fear I wouldn't do very well, a fear I would be judged by others and myself. For me my perfectionism felt like a safety net. It was my benchmark to success. Yet, the reality was that it actually prevented me from facing my fears and subsequently kept me locked in them.
What can often help in this situation is to invite the fears into your thoughts. Ask yourself what are you scared of? What's the worst that can happen? What’s the worst case scenario? How likely is it to happen? And if it does happen, what can you do about it? What do you have within your capacity to cope with the situation?
One thing I often notice in my clients is that when they actually allow themselves to explore their worst case scenario and how they could actually cope with it if it occurred, they gain a sense of control back and their fear loses some of its power. It’s by no means an easy process, but it’s a good starting point.
2. Watch the negative self-talk
The endless self-criticism. The things you wouldn't dream of saying to another, yet you relentlessly say them to yourself. The perpetual inner bully who loves to keep you down. Constantly reminding you of your flaws, your weaknesses, your shortcomings and the goals you will probably fail.
Try to keep a journal of the negative self-talk and log what feelings come up for you when you critique yourself in this way.
"If it's not perfect that means I'm a failure."
“I must work on this until it’s perfect.”
“No one will like me if I’m not thin and beautiful.”
“If I get it wrong, everyone will judge me and think I'm stupid.”
“I should stay up all night and work on my presentation to ensure it’s one hundred percent perfect.”
One thing we know in the field of psychology is that negative self-talk feeds negative feelings. Ask yourself, are these thoughts helping the situation? Are you reacting to an emotion, rather than a fact? What evidence do you have that the thoughts are true? And more importantly… how can you reframe the thoughts so that they’re more helpful and less destructive?
3. Be aware of rigid rules
We all need rules in order to function and cope with day-to-day life. However, there's a huge difference between the helpful rules most people abide by and the rigid rules of a perfectionist. Helpful rules are realistic, flexible and adaptable. Such as setting yourself the goal of staying fit and healthy, but allowing yourself days when you skip the gym and eat pizza instead. Whereas, the rigid rules held by perfectionists tend to be based on ‘all or nothing’ ways of thinking.
Perfectionists have fixed rules and believe that in order to attain perfection they must stick to their rigid rules at all times. Such as expecting yourself to go to the gym every day and only eating healthy foods. When perfectionists maintain their rigid rules, they feel good about themselves, they feel happy and in control. Yet, the minute they don’t meet their expectations, such as missing a day at the gym or eating something deemed unhealthy, they feel a failure and their self-esteem takes a blow.
Becoming aware of these unhelpful rules and the negative impact they’re having on your self-worth and happiness is an important first step in learning to loosen the rules. Think of small ways you can adjust your rules so that they allow for some flexibility. Such as, aiming to go to the gym five days a week instead of seven days a week and aiming for an overall healthy diet, which allows less healthy treats.
Remember, change is difficult, therefore you may find it easier to focus on one small change at a time and as you adjust and see that nothing bad has happened as a result, you can loosen the rules even more.
4. Learn to accept that mistakes are a part of life
This can seem impossible for a perfectionist, because their whole goal is to constantly achieve perfectionism. Perfectionists hate making mistakes and avoid them at all costs because they see them as evidence that they’ve failed. Yet, trying to avoid making mistakes in order to feel good enough, really is venturing into dangerous ground. It can really help to try to view mistakes from another perspective.
Rather than seeing mistakes as a negative thing, allow yourself to view your mistakes and challenges as an opportunity to learn and grow. Try to accept your mistakes and shortcomings as a part of life rather than an excuse to beat yourself up. And take comfort in the fact that regardless of who you are, we all make them.
“The greatest mistake a man can ever make is to be afraid of making one” - Elbert Hubbard (Writer)