‘If I waited for perfection…I would never write a word.”Margaret Atwood, writer.
“Name your worst trait?” The interviewee had this one already prepped. They cleared their throat and announced, “I’m a perfectionist. Definitely my worst trait. I just can’t leave something alone until I’ve got it just right”. The interviewee grins to themselves. Nailed it! Or have they? Is perfectionism such a positive thing to boast about?
First let’s get one thing clear. Perfection itself doesn’t exist. You heard me. It is an abstraction, which is impossible in reality.
Are you a perfectionist? Do some of these traits ring true for you?
- Thinking in all-or- nothing terms and acting in the extremes. So say the sofa cushion gets a tiny biro mark, a perfectionist would be inclined to chuck the cushion in preference to living with the small stain.
- Perfectionists demand a lot from themselves (and often others), holding themselves to unrealistic standards.
- They experience difficultly in trusting others. This we see a lot in work situations, the perfectionist rarely delegates work to others and even when they do, will often micro-manage the situation.
- They struggle with completing projects, as there is also something more the perfectionist could tinker with to improve it.
- The word “should” is a constant in their narrative. I should be doing more. I should be working harder etc. They obsess over their mistakes.
- They avoid situations/projects etc. where they feel they might not excel in (our old “friend” procrastination can be useful as part of this strategy).
As you may have gathered from the list above, being a perfectionist can really hold you back from your potential. Plus its been linked with a fair few mental health issues including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-harm and hoarding.
The main culprit in helping form our perfectionist tendencies is fear. We are ultimately scared that our realistic efforts won’t match our dreams or fantasies. So we become a perfectionist to avoid all that anticipated disappointment.
The wonderful Dr Brene Brown (if you haven’t seen her TED talks then I urge you to do so) explains that to be perfect is to avoid painful feelings of shame, blame and judgment. If we are perfect, we may never have to sit with failure or feeling inadequate.
Perfectionism happens when we couple our identity with what we can achieve. Our self-confidence becomes dependent on what we can accomplish. If we make mistakes or fail then our sense of self is affected.
Our society isn’t helpful in this respect. Have you noticed that often the first question strangers ask of us is “what do you do (for a living)?” As if what we do (as opposed to who we are (there is a difference!)) is the most important thing to know. Plus our upbringing might also contribute. If, as children, we received praise only when we achieved something, and likewise were made to feel guilt or shame when we made a mistake, we are more likely to become perfectionists.
We can rid ourselves of our perfectionist tendencies (take it from someone who knows and been there). But as with most things, it takes time and a bit of effort. Starting with the small stuff can prove pretty effective.
For example, if punctuality is your forte, deliberately turn up to an appointment late, or if a tidy house is your thing, leave a visible area of your house a little messy. If you are a smart dresser, head outside without your Sunday best on (even if its just to grab a coffee or post a letter).
When facing a task, look at the standards you set yourself, and absolutely take them down a notch to something more realistic.
Think about what you might tell a close friend facing some perfectionist anxiety; you might suggest them to consider the bigger picture to help them gain a bit of perspective. Try to be kind to yourself, give yourself a break. Replace that ticker-tape critical inner voice with some self-compassion. We need to forgive ourselves for being who we are, flaws and all. It would such a dull world if we were all perfect all the time. Creativity would die in such an airless vacuum.
We are so much more than what we can achieve. We should accept ourselves for who we are, not what we can do. Of course this is easier said than done, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. So let’s embrace the messy first drafts of ourselves, we are enough.
Photo by Philip Veater on Unsplash