Perfectionism or ‘the pressure to perform’ begins in childhood with a desire to be loved. It is reinforced in our adult lives by our drive to attain self-definition through a performance that aims to please others and be accepted. I remember my critical father saying to me ” If you can’t do a job well, don’t do it at all” But somewhere in my scrambled psyche I replaced the word ‘well’ with ‘perfect’. Isn’t it better to be perfect then no one can criticise you? This turns into an ‘all or nothing’ scenario. I cannot do it perfectly so I won’t do it at all.
Perfectionists aim for the unattainable , which is what perfection is, and when they fail to meet its demands they are left feeling like failures and no- hopers, they become stuck and cannot move forward because they are paralysed in their failure to be perfect.
A friend of mine said to me recently ‘But why wouldn’t you want to do a job perfectly?’ She thought that doing something perfectly was a positive trait. She had very high expectations of herself and she was quite scathing and critical of her family members who did not meet her high expectations. As a consequence most of her family avoided her which led to her feeling angry and resentful and no doubt hurting, although she would never admit to this as she hid behind her perfectionist facade.
But there is a difference between doing something well, to the best of our ability, and perfectly. The emotional toll caused in the pursuit of perfection and the failure to achieve it can lead to serious psychological difficulties such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, relationship problems and personality disorders. Children who have critical, perfectionist parents often have low self-esteem and go through life believing that they can never be good enough.
9 Warning Signs of Perfectionism to look out for:
1. You are very self- critical, anxious and frustrated.
2. You are constantly focused on doing and achieving instead of being.
3. You are a serious person who thinks quite deeply but fails to know how to lighten up.
4. You find it hard to make decisions because you are afraid of making the wrong one.
5. You find it hard to delegate work to others because you do not trust that they can do the work as well as you.
6. You find yourself constantly interfering in and controlling the activities of your near and dear because you do not believe that they are capable of handling their own lives.
7. You are an all or nothing person.
8. You are constantly wondering what other people think of you.
9. You are very rigid in your thinking and managing your affairs.
Do some of these experiences ring true for you? If the answer if yes then the question to ask yourself is do I want to free myself from the pain of perfectionism? And do I have the will power to break with old patterns of thinking, old ideas and habits? If you want to give it a shot, be patient with yourself for progress may be slow and frustrating. But do not throw in the towel when things get too hard because you cannot suddenly learn how to be imperfect overnight.
16 Baby Steps to help you cope with the pain of perfectionism
1. Self Acceptance: Try to accept yourself as you are, foibles and all, be humble, have compassion for yourself. Do not strive to achieve, try to enjoy your humanity.
2. Learn to Laugh: Lighten up, you will be a long time dead so start to enjoy life a little.
3. Shut down the negative voices in your head with positive voices: Self talk with ‘Why do I have to be perfect’? ‘Do I really have to be perfect to get what I want in life’? ‘People must accept me for who I am and not for how perfectly I behave’. ‘To be imperfect is to be normal’.
4. Look for grey areas, life is not only about black and white, good or bad, right or wrong. Self talk with ‘Life is many shades of grey, I am a little of both’.
5. Ask others for help in your quest to be less perfect. Ask them to tell you when you are being too rigid in your behaviour.
6. Be less judgemental of others.
7. Share with others the good things in your life and positively affirm others achievements.
8. Walk daily in a calm tranquil environment, such as along a river bank or in a large park away from the hustle and bustle. Quietly reflect away from the stress of daily living.
9. Sign up for a meditation class.
10. Accept that your way is not ‘the way’.
11. Be less responsible. The world won’t stop if you do.
12. When others do something nice for you accept it with thanks without doing something in return.
13. Try to be more self-aware, step back and recognise when you are moving into old ways of perfectionism.
14. Criticise yourself less and pat yourself on the back for jobs well done even if imperfectly!
15. Focus more on yourself and less on the needs and wishes of others.
16. Make an appointment to see a professional if all else fails.
Taking these baby steps will help you feel like a huge weight has been lifted from your shoulders. But freeing yourself from the pain of perfectionism is not a quick or easy process. As children we needed the love and approval of our parents and friends but as adults we really only need the love and approval of ourselves. As we learn to love ourselves more, and let our rigid notions of perfection drop away, it is only then that we can attain the richer, fuller life that we deserve.
Let me know your thoughts on this post and your own personal struggles with perfectionism.