What does perfectionism mean to you? Do you see it as a good thing or a bad thing?
Whenever I think about this word I can’t help but be reminded of how this used to be a clever (but boringly typical) response to the job interview question ‘what are your weaknesses?’ to reply ‘I’m a perfectionist’ would be a way of implying that actually you don’t really have any weaknesses, you strive for perfection so you’d be an excellent employee(!)
But perfectionism, when looked at in the cold light of day is actually not a good way to live. To some, perfectionism is like an inner tyrannical slave driver that sets impossibly high standards and anything short of the mark is failure deserving of punishment (and that punishment is self-criticism, causing a lowering of self-worth). Perfection tends to focus in on the flaws and mistakes rather than giving credit for the effort and achievements, and it can cause stress, anxiety and depression.
If you’re wondering if you’ve become a perfectionist you might want to take a look at some of these questions:
- Are the standards you set realistic and achievable?
- Do you give yourself credit for your efforts, even if you don’t achieve your goal?
- Do you focus on what you’ve achieved or what you haven’t?
- Do you always prioritise getting tasks done before indulging in pleasurable activities?
- Are you often double-checking everything you do to filter out errors?
- Do you take a lot longer than most to finish a task?
- How do you react to criticism?
- Are you prone to self-criticism?
An interesting quote by Michael Law states: “At its root, perfectionism isn’t really about a deep love of being meticulous. It’s about fear. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of disappointing others. Fear of failure. Fear of success.”
To add to this Brené Brown, a writer and research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, explains that perfectionism is used by many people as a shield to protect against the pain of blame, judgment, or shame.
So the big questions that naturally follow from this is: where does the fear come from?, Where has the expectation of blame, judgment or shame stemmed from? Well, the truth is the answer may be slightly different for everyone. For some it may be overly critical family members or teachers creating shame if mistakes are made, or only being given attention if you achieved something. For others it may be self-consciousness of a learning disability such as Dyslexia, for others it may be bullying they’ve received from peers, or perhaps it’s the result of low self-esteem and therefore the drive to prove oneself capable. The bottom line is about acceptance, have you been accepted for who you are (warts and all) or were you only accepted if you performed to a high standard?
These are just some possibilities of what can cause people to strive towards perfection, but there are many other causes and, perhaps you have some insight into what these might be, but don’t know how to overcome them, and this is where counselling can be a good next step. It’s a place to allow yourself time to think and reflect and be supported by someone who is trained to listen and, gently and non-judgmentally, help you peel back the layers so that you can see what’s going on underneath. From the insight gained in this process you are more likely to find the self-understanding needed to establish a more self-compassionate way of approaching life and anything where you’re expected to perform. Perhaps moving from ‘everything has to be perfect’ to ‘good enough’ or even ‘it’ll do’. Knowing that your identity isn’t all wrapped up in performance, that you’re allowed to make mistakes (it’s all part of the learning journey anyway), that you can be liked and loved regardless of whether you pass that exam/get the promotion/have an immaculate show-home/cook like a Michelin-star chef etc. Knowing that nobody’s perfect (and never will be) and so it’s OK to stop striving for it.
So if you’d like to free yourself from that inner slave driver that pushes you to work harder than you need to, doubts your abilities and makes you fearful of putting a foot wrong, then please get in touch, it would be an honour to help you.