What is Perfectionism all about?
Perfectionism refers to a set of self-defeating thoughts and behaviours aimed at reaching excessively high unrealistic goals. It can be a confusing one because perfectionism is often mistakenly seen in our society as desirable or even necessary for success. However we believe perfectionist’s attitudes actually sabotage their success and their happiness.
Author Julia Cameron, in the Artists way writes: “Perfectionism is a refusal to let yourself move ahead. It is a loop — an obsessive, debilitating closed system that causes you to get stuck in the details of what you are writing or painting or making and to lose sight of the whole.”
But you don’t have to be an artist to experience this. It can also sabotage your efforts at work and in your relationships, because no one and no thing is perfect in this imperfect world of ours.
So what causes perfectionism?
Perhaps when you were little you learned that other people valued you because of how much you accomplished or achieved. So you may have learned to value yourself only on the basis of other people’s approval. Your self-esteem may have come to be based primarily on external standards. This can leave you pretty vulnerable and sensitive to the opinions and criticism of others. In attempting to protect yourself from such criticism, which is inevitable, as not everyone in the world will approve of you or like you, you may decide that being perfect is your defence.
What can we do about this?
The first step in resolving this pattern is actually spotting when you’re doing it.
- Fear of failure and making mistakes. Failing or making a mistake is the worst thing ever for a perfectionist as they immediately link not meeting goals with a lack of self worth. In order to avoid these perfectionists will orientate their lives around avoiding mistakes, which often lead them to procrastinate and miss opportunities to learn and grow. And this leads to them to be less accepting of flaws in others.
- Fear of disapproval from others. If they let others see their flaws, perfectionists often fear that they will no longer be accepted. Trying to be perfect is a way of trying to protect themselves from criticism, rejection, and disapproval. Trouble is this way of thinking affects this person’s ability to have a healthy relationship. They are often reluctant to be vulnerable in a relationship not realizing that self-disclosure allows others to perceive them as more human and so more likable. So perfectionists often find it difficult to have close relationships with others.
- Black and white thinking or all or nothing thinking. Perfectionists frequently believe that they are worthless if their accomplishments are not perfect. Perfectionists have difficulty seeing situations in perspective, they just see black or white and don’t see the whole rainbow of colours in between. For example, a straight “A” student who receives a “B” might believe, “I am a total failure.”
- Perfectionists ‘should’ all over themselves! There lives are often structured by an endless list of “shoulds” that work as rigid rules for how their lives must be led. This means that perfectionist do not tend to follow their own wants and desires.
- Negative or distorted comparisons. Perfectionists tend to believe that others are easily successful. Meaning that they achieve success with a minimum of effort, hardly any mistakes or emotional stress, and they do this with bags of self-confidence. And so in comparison the perfectionist often feels inadequate.
Surely striving to be my best is okay?
Striving for something in a healthy way means setting goals based on your own wants and desires rather than in response to external expectations. Your goals are usually just one step beyond what you have already accomplished. This means, your goals are realistic, based on what you want, and attainable. You would also enjoy the process of pursuing the task at hand rather than focusing only on the end result. When or if you experience disapproval or failure, your reactions are generally limited to specific situations rather than generalized to your entire self-worth. See the difference?
Okay that makes sense. So what are the solutions?
- Start to get comfortable with showing your perceived weaknesses. I’ve made mistakes during presentations to clients before and actually had positive feedback because of these mistakes – humans warm to and love other humans not ‘perfect’ robots. It’s ok to show weakness or vulnerability at times. Check out Leonard Cohen wise words in his song, “Anthem:”
“Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.”
- Start seeing things with more perspective and balance. Not everything has to be in black in white. Add some colour. So instead of concluding: “That didn’t work at all!” We could think: “That didn’t work yet,” or, “Some of that worked, and some of that didn’t, what’s my next step?” Start using the phrase, ‘good enough.’
- Be yourself. This is essential, start asking yourself what you want to do, or what you need right now instead of what you should do or what you should want.
- Focus on the journey not just the destination.
Perfectionism really is just sabotaging your happiness, start practicing these new ways of doing life and let me know how you get on. Remember being an imperfect human is a huge gift, start authentically living and experiencing the ‘aliveness’ and joy that you deserve!