The Problem with Perfection

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Perfectionism can lead to destructive levels of stress, anxiety and depression. It’s a common pattern which we can easily fall into without realising it and it’s important to understand we can all suffer through it at times.

So what is perfectionism?

Often the natural assumption is that being a perfectionist is about being brilliant at most things and driven to succeed, but it is not the same as wanting to achieve a goal or to better ourselves. In one way or another we are all trying to live a good life, whatever we feel that may be. The problems may start when our goals are consistently directed  by what others might think of us or the need to be accepted for our accomplishments.

Perfectionism is the belief on some level that if we can be the best or look the best we will avoid difficult or painful experiences such as criticism or blame and gain praise or status instead; which will reinforce our confidence and esteem and make us happier as a result.

notperfectEssentially perfectionism is outwardly driven by how we want to be seen by others and a sense of not being ‘good enough’. Healthier self-development is directed more from the inside, by your values and passions.

We are all influenced by those around us, but some people develop a more pronounced tendency towards pleasing others or chasing status.

If for example you were a high achiever when you were younger and received a lot of praise, you may have learned to seek praise through accomplishments and feel that without them you do not feel good enough. This can lead to the hamster wheel mentality where no matter how hard you work or how many things you achieve, you must work harder chasing the ever elusive feeling of being good enough.

Being a perfectionist does not mean there is anything wrong with you, it’s not about labelling you. It is natural to want to do or be your best. In fact, as social creatures I would say we all have some elements of perfectionism (I realise the irony in having rewrote this a few times!)

However, for some people it becomes an addictive belief  as you strive harder and harder, wearing yourself out physically and emotionally in the process until a crisis looms. Being a perfectionist is often associated with success.

The suggestion seems be that constant desire for perfection pushes some to be more successful. But this is a misconception and as we’ll see it can prevent rather than precede success.

It’s also common to experience burn out through the constant pursuit of status or material wealth only to realise at a later date that you have neglected the things you genuinely love (such as family time). A desire to do the best you can is not perfectionism, it is a healthy pursuit providing it is in balance with the rest of your life.

Perfectionism is when your life is dominated by the need to do better, you are constantly critical of your own efforts or you hold others up to impossible standards. This can ruin both your relationship with yourself and with others. There is a  further effect of being a perfectionist which displays how it disables rather than enables success.

Feeling stuck…

If you struggle with vulnerability and feeling not good enough, it’s very easy to end up feeling stuck in a rut where you are too afraid to make big changes in case they don’t work out as you hope. The fear of taking a risk which might not work out can outweigh the desire for change. You might stay where you are, waiting for the perfect opportunity, at the perfect time and then chastise yourself for not acting sooner when it doesn’t materialise.

Over time this self criticism can wear down the confidence and self belief you might have left. With our reserves of confidence or self belief already depleted we are less likely to feel able to face the risk of change and so we might stay where we are and continue this vicious cycle.

Practicing self compassion..

By knowing you might have these tendencies you are more likely to spot them in action and can then challenge them. By actively practicing self-compassion, awareness and allowing ourselves to be imperfect we can lessen the impact of these beliefs upon our lives. It is not simply a case of being able to flick a switch in our minds and no longer worry, (let’s face it short cuts are always appealing but rarely work) these worries are only human.

It is more a case of practicing behaviours or developing habits which enable you to feel less vulnerable and fearful, thereby reducing the urge to satisfy these tendencies. Or by discovering the things that are genuinely meaningful to you and engaging with them rather than chasing status through others.

If you find yourself using self-talk such as ‘I must…’ or ‘I should’, stop for a moment and reflect on the reasons why. If the reasons are predominantly negative rather than positive what are the driving forces behind this?

Examples :

Negative :

‘I should have a better job by now, im getting older and my friends are moving on and im still stuck here doing this, I can’t even decide what I want to do, what is wrong with me?’

Positive :

I’m bored and unfulfilled, I’m going to start looking for new opportunities that interest or excite me and change my routine, I’ll give something a try to see where the experience takes me’

In this negative example the perfectionist in you is likely to cause you to feel paralysed with indecision with such negative feelings swimming around within you. Unless a job lands in our laps (is that likely?) you are unlikely to go out and try something for fear it may not work out. So you might stay exactly where you are and become more frustrated, which reinforces your lack of self-belief and may over time lead to deeper problems.

mistakesWhereas, if your actions are driven by an internal desire or curiosity to try something new and accept that things may not work out perfectly, but you are open to the experience and learning, you are practicing self-compassion and allowing yourself to be imperfect.

This is not something that most of us can just accept over-night, it’s a habit which needs developing and practicing. Some people find it easier to explore this in a supportive relationship such as counselling where they are not being judged on achievements or accomplishments.

Try to give yourself a break and consider that if you are avoiding failure at all costs, there are reasons for this and you are only human like everyone else. Life is one long process of learning and it’s important to realise that we only ever learn anything by practice and the willingness to be vulnerable, try and try again. Part of self compassion is understanding that we need to make mistakes in order to learn and grow.

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