Perfectionism: A doctrine holding that perfection is attainable, especially the theory that human moral or spiritual perfection should be or has been attained.
I have a bad habit of setting myself impossible standards and goals to try and become some sort of unattainable ‘perfect’ version of myself. And them I’m shocked and disappointed when I inevitably can’t live up to the hype I created for myself.
I have been like this ever since I was a little kid, one of my earliest memories is making a ‘book’ (you know the kind I’m talking about) for my mums birthday and being devastated that it didn’t look like the ones in the store, and throwing it in the bin. Perfectionism comes with a feeling of deep frustration, and shame and it can really stick to people, especially me. But I know I’m not the only one and its a common problem, because Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill created a meta-analysis of rates of perfectionism from 1989 to 2016 and it turns out there has been a significant increase across generations. It can lead to feelings of inadequacy and stunt progress because you’re afraid of making a mistake.
In balance, perfectionism can be a wonderful thing, because it always pushes you to do better, but when it takes over, it doesn’t mean you’re getting more accomplished, it means getting sicker, sadder and undermining your own potential. Don’t get me wrong, I think goals and aspiration are so important, but I have so many that I get overwhelmed and then don’t do any of it and I feel like a lot of people feel like they have to be one extreme or the other. So I relax and be a little sloth person with Netflix and junk food, or I write an impossible to-do list that I definitely can’t finish, so then I end up disappointed in myself and thinking that I’m a failure.
Perfectionism means never having to say ‘I’m doing Good’
Last night, when I was going to sleep thinking ‘tomorrow I will achieve everything I want too’ I realised….
I say that every night.
As one of my friends said, the line between self care and self destruction is thin, and I walk it like a tightrope. I will get up at 5am for a workout, and then eat junk food for dinner, I will write 20k words of my novel, and then neglect my blog for a month. I will practice a language every day in a week, but then I won’t read anything beyond a facebook post. I really walk that line between proficient adult and complete mess every damn day, and it’s not just me. I’m not saying I’m a total mess, I just have mess-like tendencies, like I will work out, but it won’t be as consistent as I would like. Or I will eat a salad for lunch every day and then eat badly for dinner. I always want to live up to this perfectionist ideal, but I can’t ever seem to find the energy.
Theres always a voice in my head saying ‘You CAN do it all’ but would doing it all be actually humanly possible? And would it just make me more exhausted than ever? And even if I did do them- would I actually be able to be happy with it in my crazy perfectionist brain?
I had actually planned to do a challenge for this blog post where I did everything that I would classify as a ‘perfectionist’ thing for an entire week. The list was really long and had about 16 things on it, and I could never achieve it.
And the reason that is not the blog post you’re reading is because I could never settle on a list of things that was ‘good enough’ which is really the heart of the problem. Even as I wrote the ‘perfectionism list’ I was critiquing it… I should include speaking to my family everyday, or turning up to work early, or going for a run. I was even not happy with the list of things that would make me a perfectionist! If this proves anything, is that perfectionism is ultimately unattainable, because even if you do achieve what you want to do, you will decide that it’s not enough.
And perfectionism can be applied to almost every part of your life, from career, appearance and relationships and in each aspect it can have a benefit in moderation. But when there is no moderation, it can cause more harm than good.
Moving Past Perfectionism:
Perfectionism is often weirdly classified as admirable, and people have praised me about it in the past and I was encouraged to talk about it in job interviews and other professional spaces, but unrealistic expectations and the crushing fear of failure is not a great way to go through your life and work. The impossible perfectionist standards are not only impossible to live under but they are creatively stifling, you can’t create beautiful things or take risks if you’re too petrified of failure to make a move. Exposing your vulnerabilities is how we grow and change, and the constant drive towards perfection stops you from taking that important risk. Its an ineffective, self defeating and ultimately ironic process and impossible standards and critical self evaluations make it possible to move.
Letting go of the idea of being ‘perfect’ is the only way you can move forward and ultimately get better at what you’re doing.
I have to be honest, I have been trying to complete this challenge FOR MONTHS, literally months. I have never been able to complete the whole, thing and I have been totally ashamed of myself. Either life would get in the way, or something would happen, or I would get sick, or I would sleep in and decide to throw the whole idea in the bin. Which is a terrible way to live. Because perfectionism is not a realistic way to live and it stops you from really growing and teaches you to think in binaries- either you’re doing the ‘right thing’ which is totally unattainable, or you’re a failure, which is really just living your life.
It’s also irrational, no one but myself noticed this arbitrary things, and no one cared but me and it caused me so much inordinate stress. It’s a focus on the results and not the process of growth and change, and in my experience perfectionism is an easy way our instead of taking risks and reaching our full potential.
On the same vein, my perfectionism is not fun for the people around me, it could be my colleagues, my friends and loved ones and my family members and it will impact how you interact with them. Its hard to be fully present when you’re so focused on tiny impossible details.
I consider myself a recovering perfectionist, and recovering from perfectionism starts with small things, including being openly vulnerable and allowing yourself to be human. Sometimes being good enough at something is enough to move forward and the standard can be adjusted enough. Just complete something to an acceptable standard and then move forward from there. I have been trying to reprogram my brain from this perfectionist mindset, and there have been some ways that have really helped me…
The most challenging is decoupling your performance from your self value. Punishing yourself for not achieving your brutally high standards is counterproductive and leads to low self esteem and being a bummer in general. One of the best ways to combat this is to create fake deadlines is a great way to combat this, give yourself an hour to complete something, and then you HAVE to get it done. I nearly didn’t start this blog because I couldn’t get it ‘right’ but I’m so glad I did, because even if there are things wrong with it at least I did it and I’m learning and growing everything I work on it.
Perfectionism, all in all, is an ultimately self-defeating way to move through the world, its built on the idea that making and admitting mistakes is a vital way of growing, learning and being human. Which is important to make you better at your career and relationships and life in general. By avoiding mistakes at any cost, a perfectionist makes it almost impossible to achieve your own goals.
If there are other recovering perfectionists out there, I would love to hear your advice in the comments, and I hope this very rambley post made you feel better.