I’ve mentioned before that I have a history of perfectionism. I like to think of myself as some version ‘reformed’ perfectionist.
But it’s not easy. Perfectionism haunts me with its lure of gold stars and relentless standards. Despite a whole host of reasonable management strategies at my disposal, these tendencies still rear their head at opportune times and I can very easily fall into the trap of playing the paradoxical and rigged game of perfectionism.
Over the next few weeks, I’m going to attempt a case study upon myself and my experience of perfectionism. We’ll start with what exactly it is and how I have experienced it to be. We’ll look at how we think it develops and the things that the science says keeps it going. And finally we’ll browse through some of the things that can help to overcome it and what I’ve found particularly helpful. What an adventure!
Firstly, perfectionism is definitely not about being ‘perfect’. It’s about putting pressure on ourselves to meet unrelenting high standards which then powerfully influences the way we think about ourselves. And lastly, we experience negative consequences of setting such demanding standards, yet continue to strive for them despite the cost on us.
We’d all probably agree that having high standards is generally an alright idea. Goals help us to achieve good things in life. But when these goals are either unachievable or only achievable at great cost, it can make it very difficult to feel any good about ourselves. Furthermore, if we attach our attainment of these pie in the sky goals to our sense of self-worth, then things are probably going to feel even more shit.
I’ve labelled – and been labelled – a perfectionist for a really, really long time. Nearly as long as I can remember. And for a long time, I thought of perfectionism as something positive. And I like to think that – mostly, maybe? – when others label me as this, they are referring to some of the positive qualities that people might attribute to perfectionists. Often it’s the high achievers (tick), the people who have high standards (tick), those who put in a lot of effort (tick), the organised (tick), the people who won’t go to bed until all the tasks are done (tick – even if this involves making the bed, before getting in to it).
So yeah, overall I could probably say that I am pretty efficient, organised and when you’re out and about with me I’ve probably come prepared for anything and it can be found in my handbag.
However, here is where the perfectionism game is rigged. These high standard might help us achieve some things in life, but when it gets to a particular point these standards can really suck the joy out of life and impair our performance.
“Perfectionism is self-destructive simply because there is no such thing as perfect. Perfection is an unattainable goal. Additionally, perfectionism is more about perception – we want to be perceived as perfect. Again, this is unattainable – there is no way to control perception, regardless of how much time and energy we spend trying” – Dr Brene Brown
The excessive drive to achieve ever-higher levels of performance is pretty self-defeating. Not only is perfection unattainable but all this pressure leaves you little time for fun or feeling good about yourself. Perfectionism can also make your self worth particularly vulnerable as not reaching (the probably) unattainable standards you set for yourself may result in you feeling like a failure. Doing this repeatedly can be hell.
And eventually the whole thing can collapse.
It has in my world. And more than once. During my last episode of major depressive disorder my perfectionist traits were in overdrive. Despite feeling awful, I was determined to remain in control and keep everything appearing as if it was “perfect”. I was attempting to hold down two jobs, which equated to more than one full time position. I felt unskilled in an aspect of one of the jobs but terrified to ask for help in the fear that they would find out I was useless. Despite this, I was putting off working on aspects of the project because I was worried it wasn’t going to be done well enough. The things I did do, I was repeatedly asking others to check to ensure that it was acceptable. I wouldn’t speak in meetings because I was certain I’d say the wrong things. At home, I was very frequently the house and not letting anyone else do it, because I was pretty sure they wouldn’t be able to do it properly. I would make sure that we had regular dinner parties where there would always be twice the amount of food required because heaven forbid someone go home without a take-away container of leftovers to last them a week. I would brush off any and every compliment I received because there was no way that could be correct. And any little setback or criticism I took very personally.
And these overcompensating, procrastinating, reassurance seeking, excessive organising and avoidance behaviours went on and on, until it all blew up.
Perfectionism itself is not a clinical disorder, but it is correlated with a host of psychiatric conditions including depression, anxiety and eating disorders. In one 2007 study, researchers conducted interviews with the friends and family members of people who had recently killed themselves. Without prompting, more than half of the deceased were described as “perfectionists” by their loved ones. Similarly, in a British study of students who committed suicide, 11 out of the 20 students who’d died were described by those who knew them as being afraid of failure. In another study, published last year, more than 70 percent of 33 boys and young men who had killed themselves were said by their parents to have placed “exceedingly high” demands and expectations on themselves — traits associated with perfectionism.
It doesn’t take much imagination to explain what might drive a perfectionist to self-harm. The all-or-nothing, impossibly high standards perfectionists set for themselves often mean that they’re not happy even when they’ve achieved success.
During my periods of significant perfectionism – and as an aside, I see perfectionism as a bit of a continuum. We all have tendencies and at times these can become more pronounced, or they can be more pronounced in one area of our life than another – I have very rarely experienced joy as a result of success. I never once felt perfect, but I always felt inadequate. It was like I was forever waiting for everything to “be perfect”. But I was always imperfect. And in my head there was the constant streams of “not enough” – not thin enough, not working hard enough, not busy enough, not calling my friends enough, not exercising enough, not reading enough, not smart enough.
Striving to meet the demands of the not enough talk is exhausting. And debilitating. And dangerous. Because the truth is I am – and always will be – imperfect. But I am enough.
Stay tuned for the next Perfectionism blog post where we learn about the origins of perfectionism.