You are fed up. You feel like you are always the one putting in the effort and you still feel like it’s just not good enough. You stay back at work at least an hour every day to stay on top of things, and to make sure everything is completed without error. But your colleagues seem to leave on time (or early) every day, with a huge amount of unfinished work and their office left in a mess. How do they do that? Aren’t they concerned they will make a mistake or forget to do something?
Perhaps at home you try so hard to keep a beautiful living space. Cushions in their place, floors clean, shoes on the shoe rack, all of the spices lined up in alphabetical order. It makes you feel better about yourself to know that you are doing a good job running the household. But the maintenance of the house feels endless ….and God forbid you get sick and drop the ball…… If you slowed down it would take you so long to catch up so you just keep going instead of resting.
That assignment you need to get done by Monday…. You couldn’t bare to get a bad grade (or even an average one). That would feel terrible…. You have to do your best all of the time. So perhaps you’ve been working on it for weeks, slaving away at the computer each night until midnight trying to make it just right….. Or maybe you want to get it SO perfect that you decide to put it off until you know you are in the right headspace to write a brilliant masterpiece…. Unfortunately you do this for too long and then it’s a mad panic the night before it’s due trying to get it in on time. Meanwhile your best friend seems to spend just a few hours on it, hands hers in on time following a good night sleep, only to get the same grade as you. How is this even fair?
You try so darn hard to live a healthy life too. You don’t overeat, you make sure your calorie intake matches your level of exercise, you drink enough water and take your vitamins, you keep an eye on the scales to make sure they don’t creep up too much…..But you seem to be forever beating yourself up for not reaching or maintaining your goal weight, and dammit that brownie you ate yesterday…. How could you have been so stupid???
Where is the logic in all of this madness? Why do you spend so much time trying to do things right and you still don’t feel good enough? In fact, maybe you now even feel resentful. You’re resentful towards your work colleagues. You’re resentful towards your husband. You’re resentful towards your best friend. But most of all you’re resentful towards yourself for not doing a good enough job.
This is the perfectionism poison. The assumption that “maybe if I just do it better this time, then I’ll feel worthy” that so many people live by.
Lots of my clients seem confused when I say that they are perfectionistic. “But I’m not a perfectionist,” they say… “Because I’m not doing things perfectly at all”. But the term perfectionism doesn’t actually mean we always do things perfectly. In fact, it isn’t possible for any of us to be perfect all of the time, or even most of the time for that matter.
Perfectionism, in psychology, actually refers to a tendency to strive for extremely high standards, and then basing your self worth on whether or not you meet those standards. The efforts that you go to to meet the unrelenting standards cause distress and negative consequences, but the perfectionistic person ignores this fact and continues to strive for those standards anyway.
Now of course it isn’t bad to set high standards and goals for yourself- in fact this can be highly motivating and useful. But when these standards are, for the most part, unrealistic and they compromise your happiness- this is when it becomes problematic.
If you have difficulties with perfectionism you may relate to some of or all of the following:
difficulties starting tasks due to a fear of not being able to do them well enough; feelings of self-blame when self-imposed standards aren’t met; feeling as though nothing you do is ever quite good enough; excessive anxiety when completing tasks and spending too much time on tasks; feeling that you have to do more to be accepted by other people; difficulties asking for help or delegating; difficulties giving yourself credit for successes because they often aren’t seen to be good enough; frustration towards others when they don’t meet the same standards you have set for yourself; difficulties with decision making in case the wrong decision is made; excessive reassurance seeking; excessive list making; excessive checking; and reduced efficiency in completing tasks.
Unfortunately, most perfectionists are reluctant to change their standards because they tie so much of their self worth to achieving these standards. If all of a sudden they reduce their standards, this compromises their sense of worth as a person. So the very mention of “striving for less” causes great anxiety.
So what then, is the antidote to the perfectionism poison? Fortunately, we do know, that with an understanding and acceptance that something has to change and some hard work, positive change is possible. Psychologists can help people with perfectionism difficulties to understand the underlying faulty beliefs, assumptions and rules that they live by, and which cause them distress. Once this understanding is achieved, various evidenced-based therapeutic strategies can be used to assist people to shift, change and let go of these beliefs, in order to increase flexibility with the standards they set for themselves.
If you think that you have difficulties in some areas of your life with perfectionism, chat to your GP who can recommend a psychologist.
There are plenty of great online resources which can also be of help like the perfectionism modules at http://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/docs/1%20What%20is%20%20Perfectionism.pdf