Do you need everything to be perfect before you can relax? Do you discount your achievements, already thinking about the next goal by the time the last one is achieved? Compare yourself to experts in a range of fields, and feel you have to be at least as good as every one of them? I’ve got news for you: you’re a perfectionist.
Being a perfectionist sounds like a good idea on the surface – who wouldn’t want things to go as well as they could, all of the time? But lurking underneath these good intentions are a few deadly traps that makes perfectionism as much of a health hazard to your mental health as smoking is to your physical health.
The trouble with perfectionism
Perfect doesn’t exist
We’re humans, and humans make mistakes. When I studied forensic psychology, I was always struck by this one fact: no matter how accurate the science is, or how practiced we are, human error in some form occurs about 1% of the time we engage in a task. It doesn’t always invalidate a test or ruin a finding, but the error occurs – it’s inevitable!
If you need things to be perfect before you can allow yourself to be happy, you’ll never be happy. Even leaving aside human error, so many aspects of life are a matter of personal preference or taste, that in keeping one group of people happy, another group will inevitably become less happy.
Allowing other things and people to decide your self-worth is careless
You wouldn’t entrust your physical health to another person unless you really had to, right? Would you let another person decide what goes in your mouth, when you see a doctor, how much sleep you’re allowed to have? Even toddlers want control over these areas of their lives. Being a perfectionist means you’re hinging your personal happiness on what the external world thinks about your efforts, rather than allowing yourself to be the ultimate arbiter of when enough is enough. Perfectionists let criticisms of their work become criticisms of themselves. It’s how the energy and drive to complete tasks to such a high standard is generated. But putting your self-worth in the hands of other people or physical outcomes means that when things fail to go perfectly (as they do, see the previous paragraph), your confidence goes down. You feel bad. And you enter a vicious cycle – thinking the way to avoid this bad feeling is to do even better next time.
It steals time needed for self-care
Perfectionism is a vicious cycle. We don’t feel good enough, so we spend too much time trying to please others. This then cuts into the time we have to spend on taking care of, and pleasing, ourselves. We send the message to ourselves that we aren’t worth much, which leads to further feelings that we have to please other people in order to feel like we are an okay person – and soon our self-worth is all tied up in our actions, rather than in our knowledge of our essential okayness. We send this message to other people too – if you continually look after others and do things to a high standard, then if you do try to do less, other people often get grumpy. This then serves to scare us further, making us think that it really was our deeds that were the only thing that made others like us.
If you know you’re a perfectionist and you’ve had enough of the toll it’s taking on you, what can you do to change? Below are a few suggestions for starting to break the perfection habit.
For every detail of a situation you are analysing, ask yourself: What is the worst that can happen? Could I survive that? This helps keep little details in perspective.
Start to experiment with not doing things perfectly. Set a time limit for a task, and after that time, stop re-reading, or re-balancing the sauce, or checking for streak marks. Spend the extra time doing something nice for you. See if other people even notice that you’ve put in less effort. Even if they do, notice if you feel better for having spent time doing something for you, rather than spending that time on perfecting a task that was already completed to a high standard.
Make sure you compare your efforts with just one role model. It’s no good expecting to keep up with the crafting activities of a stay at home parent, and be as good at your job as your boss, and plan romantic getaways for your partner like someone trying to save their marriage, and keep your house as neat as someone’s who has a cleaner, and be as fit as someone with a personal trainer. Role models are great, but if you’re a perfectionist, aim for just one in the area you care most about, and understand that standards in other areas have to drop when you prioritise what is most important to you.
Ask the question ‘If I knew I was a good enough person, and everyone around me agreed that I was doing enough just being my natural self, what would I stop doing? Where would I stop pushing so hard?’ Imagining that you already have others’ (and your own) approval allows you to see what really matters to you, and what you’re doing just because you’ll feel guilty/ worth less if you don’t.
If you struggle with perfectionism and would like change, then why not book in for a private session? Contact me on 0421 720 635 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.