Today, in a world where perfection has become the new trend, I observe daily the consequences it has on many individuals as a therapist. While perfection is often perceived positively, as it implies achieving the highest possible standards, the concept of perfectionism tells a different tale, which I will now elaborate upon.
Perfectionism is the relentless pursuit of flawlessness in various aspects of our lives, such as our careers, parenting, relationships, appearance, and more. Perfectionists frequently hold the belief that attaining perfection is attainable. Consequently, they set themselves unrelenting and unrealistic standards they must meet on a daily basis. The issue arises from the fact that perfection itself is an elusive concept. What constitutes perfection for one person may differ from another’s perspective. Moreover, the quest for perfection prevents individuals from fully embracing their human existence. Human beings experience fatigue, illness, a range of emotions, hormonal fluctuations, and life challenges. These factors can hinder us from consistently presenting our best selves. However, perfectionists struggle to accept these inevitable “off” days and persist in pursuing unattainable standards at great personal cost.
Perfectionism is an anxiety-related issue, as perfectionist behaviours serve as coping mechanisms to ward off negative emotions. However, many perfectionists may not recognize or identify themselves as anxious, even though they exhibit perfectionist tendencies because these behaviours can temporarily alleviate anxiety, until they fail to maintain them.
For example, a common perfectionistic behaviour is striving to excel in everything they do, resulting in excessive time spent on a single task. When they complete the task and feel they have given it their all, it temporarily eases their fears. However, if they fail to complete the task or feel it’s not good enough, anxiety sets in as they fear the consequences.
Another example involves a perfectionist’s desire for a perpetually immaculate home. When their home is tidy, it helps alleviate their anxieties, but if the home is untidy, especially when someone is coming to visit, it triggers anxiety. In both cases, these behaviours serve as protective measures against negative feelings.
Nevertheless, the problem lies in these very behaviours, which can gradually accumulate stress, worry, and exhaustion.
Signs of perfectionism to watch for include the relentless high standards you set for yourself. They often manifest as thoughts like ‘I should’ or ‘I must.’ Examples include: ‘I should excel at this,’ ‘I must please everyone all the time,’ ‘I must always look my best,’ ‘I must always be productive,’ and ‘I should never be late.’ These demands create high, unrelenting expectations with no room for embracing your humanity. Below, you’ll find some consequences of perfectionist behaviours to be aware of:
- Procrastination: Delaying tasks out of fear of not being able to execute them perfectly.
- Excessive Planning and Preparation: Engaging in over-planning and over-preparation to ensure tasks are done flawlessly.
- All-or-Nothing Thinking: Adopting a mindset where everything is seen in black and white, as either good or bad, success or failure, with no middle ground.
- Fear of Failure: Experiencing a genuine fear of making mistakes or committing errors.
- Inability to Delegate: Trusting only yourself to complete tasks well but taking on too much as a result.
- Excessive Checking: Repeatedly checking completed tasks to ensure they meet perfectionist standards.
- Difficulty Saying No or Overcommitting: Reluctance to decline requests or commitments, often stemming from the fear of being perceived as incapable.
- Avoidance of Criticism: Avoiding criticism, which can lead to people-pleasing behaviour and neglecting one’s own needs.
- Inability to Celebrate Success: The inability to acknowledge and celebrate personal achievements. I will delve further into this topic below.
These are all signs to be attentive to.
A metaphor for you to consider:
Imagine you’re in a 100-meter race, and you can clearly see the finish line. You start running towards it, and just as you reach it, it moves another 100 meters away. So, you keep running, reach it again, and it moves another 100 meters away. This cycle continues throughout your entire life. You’re endlessly chasing an illusion, believing that perfection exists when it doesn’t. Consequently, you’ll never feel good enough, struggle to celebrate your successes, and perpetually feel like a failure. Perfectionism is a serious issue that demands our attention.
Perfectionism is closely tied to our perception of our true worth as individuals. When we don’t believe we are inherently worthy, good enough, likable, or valuable, we tend to seek external validation by attempting to prove our worth through our actions and how others perceive us. This often stems from past experiences where we were made to feel inadequate. It is crucial that we address this issue because it is a natural human instinct to desire acceptance from others. Therefore, if we cannot accept ourselves, we will persistently seek validation from external sources.
Therapy for perfectionism can be life-changing. Perfectionism is a symptom of an underlying cause; it isn’t the main problem. Like any other issue, if we don’t address the root cause, we won’t be free from the symptoms. Therapy can assist you in identifying the root of the problem and, as a result, liberate you from perfectionism. It can help you rebuild your relationship with yourself, enabling you to learn self-validation and reducing the need to prove your worth by striving for perfection. Therapy supports you in embracing your imperfections, establishing realistic goals aligned with your own desires and needs, and helps you to build your self-worth while challenging your inner critic.
Perfectionism can rob you of the genuine joy life has to offer, leaving you with a constant sense of failure, even when you’re giving your absolute best to everything and everyone. You may find it impossible to celebrate your achievements or feel truly content with yourself. Most days, you’ll experience high levels of stress, anxiety, worry, and exhaustion. However, this isn’t how life should be. At Mind Your Future, we aim to help individuals understand themselves and rebuild their relationship with themselves. I speak from personal experience because I’ve been a perfectionist myself in the past. Liberating myself from it has allowed me to truly relish life, accept myself for who I am, and embrace both my successes and failures. I’m now living life on my own terms and have never been happier. If you’d like to explore the various forms of support we offer, please visit our website at www.mindyourfuture.co.uk.