The Perfection Complex

24 May 2024, Friday

Perfection is defined as – the need to be or appear perfect or even to believe that it’s possible to achieve perfection. It’s not the same as striving to be your best, or about healthy achievement and growth.

It’s seen by some as a positive trait that can increase your chances of success, but it can also lead to excessive and harsh self-criticism that causes self-defeating thoughts and behaviours.

Some of the research into perfectionism correlates it with depression, anxiety, eating disorders and other mental health problems.

Perfectionism exists on a continuum – many of us have some perfectionist tendencies, although these may be specific to certain areas of our lives or may only emerge if we’re feeling particularly vulnerable. But for some people, perfectionism can be compulsive, chronic, and debilitating.

Take a moment to think about the following questions:

What do you think the payoffs of perfection could be?    And what are the costs?

Here are some potential payoffs (“advantages”) of perfection:

  • Doing something to the best of your ability
  • Feeling a sense of satisfaction with your effort and the result
  • Creating something of Beauty eg Marie Kondo creating beautiful homes and spaces, famous chefs, clothing designers, musicians… a Japanese garden
  • Challenging ourselves to strive for excellence
  • Giving of our best
  • Raising the bar
  • Improving something and making it even better

Here are some possible costs (“disadvantages”):

  • Procrastination
  • Never hitting the mark / never feeling something is good enough
  • Never feeling that you are good enough
  • Feeling a failure, no matter how hard you try
  • Feeling demotivated
  • It’s exhausting.
  • Never feeling satisfied, general discontent with life and constantly trying to improve yourself or your life
  • Mental health problems (anxiety/ depression/ anorexia)

Some signs that you might be a perfectionist:

  • Not being able to do something unless you know you can do it perfectly
  • Focusing so much on the end goal or product that you lose out on the learning inherent in the process
  • Never finishing something (or taking excessively long to complete a task) because of unrealistically high standards
  • Procrastinating – not wanting to start a task unless you know you can do it perfectly

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you have unrealistically high expectations?
  • Do you expect perfection from yourself and/or others and /or your environment?
  • Are you frequently disappointed that things don’t go as planned?
  • Are you exceptionally hard on yourself? Beat yourself up? Have a harsh inner critic?
  • Do you feel like no matter what you do, it’s never good enough?

What is the difference between being a perfectionist or just wanting to achieve success, work hard and do your best?

A perfectionist doesn’t believe that what they do is worthwhile unless it is perfect – instead of being proud of their progress, or acknowledging how hard they’ve worked, or how much they’ve learnt / are learning through the process, they are likely to compare themselves constantly with others or to obsess about achieving a flawless result or constantly doing better, improving themselves, others, or their environment.

They may be dissatisfied even if they reach their goals, judging themselves for having had to work so hard to get there, possibly thinking that if they were truly good enough (perfect enough) they wouldn’t have had to make such an effort. In other words, for a true perfectionist, nothing is ever good enough.

Having high standards, persevering in the face of difficulties, being conscientious, and organised, and goal driven, doesn’t make you a perfectionist. It may be that you are someone who strives to do your best, and who likes to meet (or even exceed expectations) … but you don’t get upset if you can’t always meet your goals, and you are not defined by this.

If, however, you are preoccupied with past mistakes, constantly fear making new mistakes and always doubting yourself and whether you’re doing the right thing; as well as being overly concerned about what others expect from you, you may be a perfectionist. Perfectionists don’t allow any room for being human, errors are unforgiveable, and they will beat themselves up for the tiniest little mistake or flaw or lack, which can rob them of any joy or satisfaction from the things that they do well.

Perfectionists are often afraid that if they stop aiming for perfection, they will become lazy, not achieve anything, and end up poor or destitute, or that it somehow makes them “bad” people.

Here are some examples of perfectionist behaviours:

  • Spending 30 minutes writing and rewriting a two-sentence email
  • Believing that missing two marks on a test is a sign of failure
  • Difficulty being happy for others who are successful
  • Holding yourself to the standards of others’ accomplishments or comparing yourself unfavourably and unrealistically to if learning the piano, must be as good as Mozart
  • Not doing something because it is pointless to try unless perfection can be achieved. Even missing a class, a meeting or avoiding a task
  • Focusing on the end-product rather than the process of learning
  • Avoiding playing a game or trying a new activity with friends for fear of being shown up as less than perfect

Perfectionism can impact different areas of our lives, for example:

School or work – if you’re a perfectionist in this area of your life you may find that you take longer than others to complete tasks, or avoid starting something you don’t feel confident about and you need to complete every task perfectly.

In certain professions where attention to detail, precision, and ethics are important, for example, doctors, lawyers, accountants, may have a higher “need” to do things perfectly.

Certain sports may encourage or exacerbate perfectionism (this can be common in individual sports such as gymnastics, athletics cycling and swimming, ballet where athletes compete against themselves)

In industries like fashion, there can be unrealistic expectations of how we should look, and this can further exacerbate perfectionist tendencies.

In intimate relationships or friendships – we can place unrealistic standards on loved ones, causing extra stress and pressure in the relationship.

In our environment / surroundings/ home, we may be excessively focused on cleanliness, order, tidying, sorting, and could spend large amounts of time, energy and/ or money to keep everything tidy and up to aesthetic standards.

In the area of hygiene and health, perfectionism can cause obsession with diet, exercise, being rigid and hard on yourself can lead to eating disorders.

With regards to physical appearance, a perfectionist may worry excessively about personal grooming, style, spend hours choosing what to wear, hair style, make up, and this can also lead to eating disorders and exercise addiction.

Causes of perfectionism can include:

  • Fear of disapproval from others,
  • Shame and feelings of insecurity/ inadequacy / unworthiness
  • Parental influence – parents’ expectation of their child and / or their own perfectionistic tendencies

How to manage perfectionism:

  1. Allow yourself to do things incompletely and imperfectly.
  2. Be willing to let go of some of the minor details (don’t sweat the small stuff) eg does it really matter if the hangers in your cupboard are not the same colour or facing the same way?, etc)
  3. Celebrate your progress – every small step counts even if it’s not finished or perfect
  4. Learn to delegate and let go (accept other’s definitions of good / good enough)
  5. Set realistic expectations for yourself and others
  6. Don’t compare yourself to others, know your own worth
  7. Try letting go of some of the things you “have” to do to meet your own high standards eg if you think you have to check every email 3 x before you send it, try sending emails without proof-reading / re-checking them for a week, and see what happens. You may be surprised by how much more efficient you are, and that most people either don’t notice or don’t care if you make a typo (ie allow yourself to do some things imperfectly)
  8. Identify your Inner Critic (the internal voice that scolds and chastises you every time you don’t live up to its high standards) – you could draw the inner critic, give it a name, make it into a cartoon
  9. Recognise that the Inner Critic is only trying to help or to protect you – identify your fears and then when you find yourself slipping into perfectionism, you can remind your Inner Critic that you’re okay, you’ve got this and nothing bad is going to happen.
  10. Acknowledge that your imperfections are part of what make you human, and don’t feel ashamed of being human
  11. Don’t judge yourself and others – realise that “we’re all doing the best we can”
  12. Treat yourself with compassion (the work of Dr Kristin Neff on self-compassion is helpful in this regard – she names 3 components of self-compassion – being kind to ourselves (treat yourself as you would a friend), recognise our common humanity (others have similar struggles/ experiences) and mindfulness – which means turning towards ourselves and our experience with non-judgement and acceptance)
  13. Seek help if necessary – get a coach, find a good therapist, chat to a trusted friend or family member.

Julia Cameron in her book The Artists Way, says that – “…instead of creating freely and allowing errors to reveal themselves later as insights, we get mired in getting the details right. We correct our originality into a uniformity that lacks passion and spontaneity. … instead of enjoying the process, the perfectionist is constantly grading the results.”

I love her line “Progress not perfection is what we’re after.” She describes how perfection can sabotage the achievement of goals, and how it kills creativity and innovation.

Brene Brown, in her book, aptly named The Gifts of Imperfection, says that “When we’re striving for perfection, we miss out on many opportunities because we’re too afraid to put anything out in the world that could be imperfect. Or we don’t follow our dreams because of our deep fears of failing, making mistakes and disappointing others.”

She goes on to say that, “Feeling shamed, judged, and blamed (and the fear of these feelings) are realities of the human experience. Perfectionism actually increases the odds that we’ll experience these painful emotions and often leads to self-blame: It’s my fault. I’m feeling this way because “I’m not good enough.”

To overcome perfectionism, we need to be able to acknowledge our vulnerabilities to the universal [human] experiences of shame, judgment, and blame; develop shame resilience; and practice self-compassion.

When we become more loving and compassionate with ourselves and we begin to practice shame resilience, we can embrace our imperfections. It is in the process of embracing our imperfections that we find our truest gifts: courage, compassion, and connection.”

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