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 that is an unfortunate misunderstanding. Perfectionism 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 unconscious belief on some level that if we can be the best or look the best, we can avoid difficult or painful feelings. This might be criticism or blame. We try to insulate ourselves by gaining praise or status instead. Hoping it will reinforce our confidence and esteem and make us happier as a result.
Essentially perfectionism is outwardly driven by 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 sometime we can develop a more pronounced tendency towards pleasing others or chasing status.
If for example you were pushed to be a high achiever when you were younger and received a lot of praise. You may have learned to seek approval through accomplishments and this becomes the way you see yourself, I am what I achieve.
Running on the hamster wheel of life
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 we all have some elements of perfectionism.
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. Unfortunately our culture of work can play into this because working long exhausting hours is often associated with 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 you’ve 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.
If you struggle with feeling not good enough, it’s easy to end up feeling stuck where you are too afraid to make changes. 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. You 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. We then stay where we are and continue this vicious cycle.
In reality if you have a tendency for perfectionism, you are more likely to procrastinate than to do things ‘perfectly’. If your standards are so high they are unachievable, it can be so overwhelming that you never get started. Which again is another reason for more scathing self criticism.
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 practicing self-compassion, allowing ourselves to be imperfect we can lessen the impact of these beliefs upon our lives.
If we can practice behaviours or develop habits which enable you to feel less vulnerable and fearful, we might reduce the urge to satisfy these tendencies. 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?
‘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?’
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. 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.
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.
If your actions are driven by an internal desire or curiosity to try something new and you are open to the experience and learning, you are practicing self-compassion and allowing yourself to be imperfect.
This is not something that we can just accept over-night, it’s a habit which needs developing and practicing. For most of us its many years work.
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. Life is a process of learning and it’s important to realise that we only ever learn anything by practice and resilience. Part of self compassion is understanding that we need to make mistakes in order to learn and grow.
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