Perfectionism was something I always felt was used as a humble brag. In school, when they advised us for job interview techniques and that we’d likely be asked our negative traits, I was always told to turn that into a positive by saying ‘the only bad thing about me really is that I’m a perfectionist‘ and that the interviewer would be tricked into thinking that you’re so great, your only downside is that maybe sometimes you’re a little too great! Well, that doesn’t sound so bad does it? You’re hired! My first proper job was working in a five star hotel where I guess this kind of attitude and attention to detail did help and I think, much like my beliefs in worry ‘showing I care‘ or ‘preparing me‘, my beliefs around perfectionism were falsely positive ones. The pursuit of excellence after all is nothing but ambition, passion and drive to challenge ones self, I told myself…
But, oddly, perfectionism isn’t really even about being ‘perfect’ – because what’s perfect? Can we ever be perfect? No. It actually involves a lot of quite negative thought processes and behaviours such as relentlessly striving for high standards with everything. This is not only very personally demanding but we often also transfer these ideals onto others and want everything to be ‘better’ – not just ourselves. You probably then continue with judging your self-worth by these same standards and the ability to achieve them, which you very often won’t as they are likely pretty unreasonable. If this sounds recognisable to you, then you have likely experienced many negative consequences of having such high expectations for yourself (and potentially others, too!) usually at very high cost to you. Whether that be financially, mentally or just by spending too much of your time in areas of your life that don’t call for it.
These negative behaviours and outcomes create a paradox where you might actually find that your perfectionist traits aren’t meeting your perfectionist standards but, actually, they often impair your abilities, resulting in feelings of self-defeat and ultimately just feeling pretty rubbish about yourself and your achievements – or apparent lack of. For a lot of us, the pressure we put on ourselves is crushing, leaving you constantly on edge, tense and worried about the future. This probably becomes anxiety around the idea of failing and being or becoming a failure and we quickly start to panic about what others must think of us…can everyone else see what a failure I am? It must be so embarrassingly obvious that I’m a fraud, nothing but a disappointment. This persistent sense of failure over what can be just the smallest of things drills your self-worth into the ground.
How can you tell if you’re a perfectionist? You might recognise some of these traits:
- Indecisiveness. If you’re struggling to make decisions in a timely manner and your stress levels may be building up even over the smallest things, like what to wear to work today. Indecisiveness is something I’ve always struggled with. One example I always use is buying birthday cards, they are just never ‘right’ and I have spent hours going shop to shop but this is something I’ve really had to combat with my driving lessons this year as you just can’t be like that on the road, it’s dangerous.
- Seeking reassurance. You’re constantly checking with others to make sure your work is acceptable, your email reads how you want it to etc.
- Excessive list-making. Repeatedly writing and rewriting to-do lists isn’t getting anything done and actually just mounts up anxiety around these tasks, once you’ve made your list, stick to it. One list is useful but multiples are unnecessary.
- Procrastinating. I used to (and sometimes still do) use list making as a procrastination exercise, wasting time writing about the productive things I could and should be doing but not actually doing them, check back to my recent blogs for tips surrounding this topic specifically but, ultimately, the fear of starting something because the outcome won’t be ‘good enough’ really holds us back, shortening the time we have to do the task and probably impairing our ability to do it well until it becomes a self-fulfilled prophecy due to the time limit and rushed work.
- Giving up easily. Thankfully, this is not something I struggle with so much but whilst I am able to keep going, I often berate myself that I’m not doing well enough even if it’s something I’m completely new at, ie, why can’t I drive as confidently as my instructor, my friend, my Dad etc….well, duh. I’m a learner…Cut yourself some slack!
- Avoidance. You don’t even get to the giving up stage because you never start things in the first place, such as not applying for jobs through fear you might not get them. Much like tolerating uncertainty, being able to tolerate failure is something we really need to grow our abilities in because there is not a person on earth who has never failed at anything, ever. Failure happens and that’s okay.
- Not knowing when to stop. This is something that when I was first told I found totally personally offensive because it is SO ME, arguing a point over and over until everyone else has lost interest through fear that you’ve not explained yourself correctly, eloquently enough or that they must have misunderstood you because you’ve failed at getting your point across in a way that was convincing enough. Sometimes people just disagree with you for a multitude of reasons, you cannot always change their mind no matter how long you ramble on for.
- Over-checking. Checking things is fine – for example, double checking important safety precautions are met is totally fine but if you’re anything like me you are probably checking things to a detrimental point. For example, when driving, if I’m feeling particularly anxious, I will constantly check I’m in gear and when that’s not enough, I will come out of gear and back in again just to be sure and whilst this isn’t the end of the world, it’s something that could distract me from an emergency and, if nothing else, simply piles more unnecessary tasks onto me that don’t need to be done.
- Hoarding. Personally, I am the complete opposite of this and find solace in having as few things as possible but keeping twenty years of bank statements incase you might need them one day (you probably won’t) is just unnecessary and if you’re doing this in multiple aspects of your life, you’re likely to find the spaces around you pretty claustrophobic. Tidy house, tidy mind and all that! There’s a million and one Marie Kondo quotes along the lines of asking yourself if the things around you bring you joy. If the answer is no, get rid – that goes for toxic relationships, too! I know it’s pretty over-simplified but I’m sure you get the gist – do some googling about Marie Kondo if you want to ‘tidy up’ and organise your life.
Most importantly, as with most wellbeing tips, take time for yourself to relax – I’ve linked to some of my past blogs with tips to avoid procrastinating as well as tolerating uncertainty (the pursuit of perfection being one!) and general wellbeing tips. Check in with yourself if you think any of these traits are creeping into your life, even if it’s only one area. I see loads of people describing themselves as workaholics which is probably because they have unrelenting standards in that area of their life but it doesn’t necessarily mean they will feel the same towards housework, grooming, relationships, sport and even diet. You could be a perfectionist in one area and not others, or maybe many, but you are only holding yourself back.
Sometimes it’s just so bloody difficult to let yourself settle with the idea that good is good enough, and you are more than good enough.